Thursday, March 22, 2012

Leprechaun Week: 'Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood' (2003)

The sixth and final installment in the Leprechaun series (at least for now; Warwick Davis has expressed interest in making a seventh film, and there are a lot of fan-made posters for Leprechaun vs. Chucky floating around online) brings the leprechaun back to the 'hood but takes a much different approach to storytelling than Leprechaun in the Hood did. That movie was mostly comedic and deliberately goofy, culminating not in the defeat of the evil leprechaun but in his performance of a rap song. Writer-director Steven Ayromlooi takes a much more serious approach with his film, and although there are certainly some comedic moments (including a sequence involving the leprechaun getting stoned), this is overall the most straight-up horror movie in the entire series.

After a surprisingly effective animated prologue that presents yet another origin story for the leprechaun, the movie follows a pretty familiar slasher-movie template. It starts with a scene in which the leprechaun is banished to hell (or something) by an inner-city priest, who dies in the effort. Cut to a year later, and Ayromlooi spends a good half hour establishing his human main characters before the leprechaun makes his return, accidentally released from his underground prison when a trio of inner-city youths stumble upon his gold. After focusing on an alien princess and a magic flute (respectively) in the last two installments, the leprechaun is back to chasing his gold, and of course it wouldn't be a leprechaun movie without a random new addition to the mythology. This time, the gold is in a chest (not a pot as usual), and the chest magically fills back up with gold every time it's shut. In which case it seems rather pointless for the leprechaun to be tracking down every last gold piece, since he can apparently always get more, but that's what he does.

After being set free, the leprechaun sets about tracking his gold and killing a bunch of people along the way, and I'm pretty sure this movie has the highest body count of all the leprechaun movies. The character himself has also been slightly redesigned to look more demonic and menacing, and he's dropped the rhyming that seems to come and go depending on who wrote each movie. The problem of course is that the leprechaun isn't menacing at all, and making him into a joke has always been the more successful approach. This movie's feeble attempts at genuine horror all fall pretty flat. Ayromlooi is also valiantly dedicated to depicting some genuine inner-city struggles, so unlike the goofy aspiring rappers of the last movie, the main characters here are hoping to escape poverty and go to college, and one is a drug dealer who has lost his way.

Tangi Miller, whom I remember best as Felicity's best friend on Felicity, actually brings a bit of authenticity to the lead role, and is probably the most convincing protagonist in the entire series. But even her overqualified presence can't bring any real weight to the struggles of the main characters, especially when their gritty inner-city problems keep coming up against an evil leprechaun. This movie was originally conceived as taking place on a tropical island during spring break, then presumably changed thanks to the relative success of Leprechaun in the Hood, but the different setting probably would have worked better for the tone that Ayromlooi is going for, and brought a little variety to the series. Maybe the seventh installment that Davis keeps hoping for can finally make use of that idea.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Leprechaun Week: 'Leprechaun in the Hood' (2000)

The producers of the Leprechaun franchise must have figured they hit on something clever when they sent the leprechaun into space in the previous movie, because the fifth film in the series finds the little Irish psychopath in another incongruous location, the inner city (or the movie version of it, at least). We're back in the present day (or thereabouts), following a silly prologue that seems to take place sometime in the 1970s, with Ice-T as an afro'd pimp who discovers the leprechaun hidden behind a wall in a warehouse. For some reason, the fifth movie is when the producers have decided to pay some real attention to continuity, so we get the return of the magical amulet from Leprechaun 3, which can turn the leprechaun into a stone statue. That's what Ice-T's Mack Daddy does, keeping the leprechaun trapped for the next 20 years or so while Mack Daddy goes from pimp to music mogul.

He does that thanks to the latest random addition to the leprechaun mythos, a magic flute that mesmerizes people when it's played and makes them susceptible to any music they hear. A trio of aspiring rappers accidentally free the leprechaun while ransacking Mack Daddy's office, and they also steal the flute, which helps them make their dreams of music-business stardom start to come true. So both Mack Daddy and the leprechaun are after the would-be hip-hop stars, both wanting to get the flute back (once again the leprechaun's focus has shifted from his gold to a new goal). The other continuity element seems to place this movie as a prequel to Leprechaun 3, since the rappers keep talking about heading to Las Vegas to compete in a rap contest (where they will presumably bring the petrified leprechaun along with them).

But we never actually get there, making the half-assed continuity even more pointless. The leprechaun isn't even defeated this time around, and given that Mack Daddy serves as just as important a villain, poor Warwick Davis just disappears for long stretches of the movie. At least the comedic tone is back after the ugly grimness of Leprechaun 4: In Space, and the leprechaun's rhyming is back as well, much more cleverly written than in Leprechaun 3. The plot, of course, makes little sense, and it's mostly just an excuse for dumb jokes combining the leprechaun's Irish mannerisms with street slang. He smokes pot, he enlists an army of hypnotized strippers to do his bidding, and he even delivers a surprisingly catchy and amusing rap song at the end. The threadbare production (many scenes are filmed in a single wide shot, like there wasn't any time or budget for coverage) hampers the overall entertainment value, but Leprechaun in the Hood is still occasionally fun to watch, and certainly a more successful hybrid experiment than sending the leprechaun to space.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Leprechaun Week: 'Leprechaun 4: In Space' (1997)

It seems counterintuitive to take a franchise into outer space just as it's dealing with a shrinking budget and shortened production time. The Leprechaun movies have never been lavish affairs, but Leprechaun 4: In Space is easily the cheapest-looking of the series, primarily because its setting and storyline call for the most ambitious effects of any of the movies so far. Although taking any durable horror character (say, Jason or Pinhead) and sending them into space may seem like an inherently entertaining idea, it tends to highlight the ridiculousness of the premise rather than really add anything. Those other characters usually play things fairly straight, so you'd think the leprechaun would have an advantage as an already comedic character. But Leprechaun 4 is easily the grimmest movie in the series, and its attempts at comedy are the flattest.

So, uh, the leprechaun is in space. Why? How did he get there? Clearly this is not important. He's on some planet and he's being hunted by a bunch of space Marines who are obvious Aliens rip-offs. Although there are no references to any of the other Leprechaun movies, as is customary with this franchise, there are actually some elements here that could contribute to series continuity, if you were insane enough to care about that sort of thing. The leprechaun has kidnapped some sort of space princess that he intends to make his wife. Since this is the future, it could conceivably be a thousand years after the events of Leprechaun 2, and that's how long the leprechaun has to wait before getting another chance to take a wife (there's no mention of the whole sneezing-three-times rule here, though). The Marines corner the leprechaun and blow him to pieces at the beginning of the movie, but that doesn't stop him from completely regenerating and then bursting out of one Marine's, uh, genital area, Alien-style. So maybe that explains how he's survived being completely disintegrated at the end of all the other movies.

Other important elements of the leprechaun's personality are absent this time, including his penchant for rhyming and even his obsession with "me gold," which only becomes relevant toward the end of the movie. Mostly he wants to get his princess back from the Marines, who nab her on behalf of mad scientist Dr. Mittenhand (Guy Siner, giving an enjoyably hammy performance). Warwick Davis is disappointingly subdued, and having the leprechaun engage in gun battles is not exactly the best use of his character (he does still get to use his magic, and even has a green light saber). The endless running around on the movie's cheap-looking spaceship sets gets tedious pretty quickly, and the movie borrows liberally (and lazily) from other sci-fi movies, in particular the Alien series.

The special effects are notably terrible, especially any shots of the ship from outside and a late-film sequence in which the leprechaun gets enlarged to gigantic proportions. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith was also behind Leprechaun 3 (and has a cult following for his early low-budget Australian exploitation movies), but whatever charm he brought to that movie is missing here. The misguided attempts at comedy (including a bizarre scene in which the hard-nosed Marine commander performs in drag) are failures, although Siner is amusing to watch as the German-accented crazed doctor. It's sad to say, but sending the leprechaun into space resulted in easily the series' worst installment so far.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Leprechaun Week: 'Leprechaun 3' (1995)

The Leprechaun franchise headed boldly into straight-to-video land with Leprechaun 3, but really the drop-off in quality from the second movie isn't particularly noticeable. Sure, the special effects are terrible and the acting is wooden, but that's been the case from the start. And although as a Las Vegas resident I'm particularly sensitive to woefully inaccurate portrayals of my hometown in movies, Leprechaun 3 actually features far more authentic Vegas footage than some acclaimed Vegas-set movies. Sure, the main casino where most of the action takes place definitely doesn't look to be local (and its sign is just a printed banner slapped over whatever the building's real sign is), and the interiors are pretty inauthentic-looking. But whenever the characters drive or walk around outside, they're clearly really in town (even if this movie hops capriciously between the Strip and downtown as if they're the same place, which is a common shortcut in Vegas movies).

Anyway, no one expects any kind of authenticity out of a Leprechaun movie, so the Vegas footage is really just a nice bonus. It helps distract from the typically nonsensical story, which, in the tradition of Leprechaun 2, completely ignores what happened in the previous movies and strands the leprechaun in a new place with new powers and a new backstory. This time he's trapped in some sort of statue by a mystical amulet whose powers are never explained. First he was vulnerable to four-leaf clovers, then to wrought iron, and now to this chintzy-looking amulet. The leprechaun is accidentally freed and immediately starts in on his typical mayhem, tracking down "me gold" and punishing those who've taken it (or just maiming and killing them for fun).

Another new bit of mythology this time around has the leprechaun's coins granting one wish each to any person who holds them, while in the second movie anyone who trapped the leprechaun was given three wishes. Also, the wishes come true independently of the leprechaun's magic, so several characters actually get what they want, including the moronic main character Scotty (John Gatins) winning big at the Lucky Shamrock casino, a frumpy roulette dealer becoming (allegedly) young and hot, and the lecherous casino owner getting a hot young magician's assistant to lust after him. Most of these people end up with "ironic" comeuppance from the leprechaun eventually, including a ridiculous scene in which he makes the newly hot woman's breasts, ass and lips expand so much that she explodes.

There's a lot of camp humor like that in this film, which is even more overtly comedic than the previous installments. But that humor is pretty feeble -- the leprechaun does a lot more rhyming, but it's all really lazily constructed (coming up with clever rhymes is not that easy), and most of the snappy one-liners fall flat (I did like the description of the casino's crappy magician as someone who "couldn't pull a rabbit out of a pet store"). The plot goes in some random directions, including making the leprechaun into some sort of werewolf/zombie/vampire-like creature whose bite starts to turn Scotty into another leprechaun (complete with terrible Irish accent by Gatins).

Warwick Davis, as usual, does his best as the leprechaun, and invests some of the ridiculousness with a sense of fun. Like Leprechaun 2, this movie ends abruptly, like the filmmakers just ran out of time and money, as the main male and female characters kiss and walk off smiling as if they didn't just blow up a demented magical leprechaun. No worries, though; chances are no one, including the leprechaun, will remember that any of it happened by the time the next movie rolls around.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Leprechaun Week: 'Leprechaun 2' (1994)

The original Leprechaun was such a surprise success, making $8.5 million on a budget of less than $1 million, that the producers did what any enterprising horror-movie producers would do: They rushed a crappy sequel into production in hopes of kick-starting a franchise and milking fans for every possible dollar. Like Friday the 13th Part 2, Saw II and Paranormal Activity 2, Leprechaun 2 was released just a year after its predecessor, and although it did end up kicking off a franchise, it was the final movie in the series to make it to theaters (it barely grossed more than its $2 million budget).

Also in time-honored horror tradition (for some series, at least), Leprechaun 2 essentially ignores all the events of the first movie and puts the leprechaun in a new situation with new powers, a new goal and a new backstory. None of the forgettable characters from the first movie return (surely Jennifer Aniston was devastated), nor does writer-director Mark Jones (although he's credited as a co-producer), replaced by writers Turi Meyer and Al Septien and director Rodman Flender. The leprechaun is now living in some sort of magical tree house in the middle of Los Angeles after having been shipped over from Ireland (whatever). A prologue establishes that on his thousandth birthday a thousand years ago the leprechaun was thwarted from claiming a bride, and now that a thousand years have passed again, he's ready to once again take a wife.

So he ventures forth to abduct vapid teenager Bridget (Shevonne Durkin, whose performance could best be described as "sedated"), a descendant of the woman he tried to wed a thousand years before. One of the silliest elements of leprechaun mythology invented for this movie is that the leprechaun's intended will become his once she sneezes three times without being told "God bless you." Bridget is nearly "God bless you"-ed by her equally vapid boyfriend Cody (Charlie Heath), but the leprechaun gets his hands on her anyway, and whisks her off to his tree house where he locks her up and tells her to prepare for the wedding. Cody and his alcoholic uncle Morty (Sandy Baron, possibly best known as Jack Klompus from Seinfeld) track down the leprechaun, whom they attempt to defeat first in a drinking contest, and then by attacking him with wrought iron, apparently the leprechaun's only weakness (never mind that in the first movie, his only weakness was four-leaf clovers).

Leprechaun 2 is a slight improvement over the first movie, with funnier one-liners and more rhyming from the leprechaun. Maybe Warwick Davis and/or the producers realized that they could have the next Freddy Krueger or Chucky on their hands, so they made the villain the real star of the movie. That's smart, since Davis is a much better actor than the blank teenage leads (although Baron is amusing as the old lech). The plot still essentially makes no sense, and the lack of even the most cursory acknowledgement of series continuity is frustrating, but at least things move along quickly. There are nods to horror-movie conventions with a little gratuitous nudity (from an obvious body double for Durkin) and slightly more gore this time around, but no one would ever mistake this for a real horror movie. Davis seems to know that, and he plays everything for laughs, but the rest of the movie just grimly slogs through the motions.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Leprechaun Week: 'Leprechaun' (1993)

I've used the past two Halloweens to cover horror franchises Halloween and Hellraiser, but St. Patrick's Day seems like a more appropriate holiday to kick off a look at the six movies in the why-does-this-exist Leprechaun horror series. Yes, there are six Leprechaun movies, which find the murderous little imp heading to Las Vegas, "the 'hood" and outer space, although this first installment starts in a much more mundane setting. It's a pretty unassuming beginning for what has become a camp-classic horror franchise, albeit one that most people probably know more by reputation than firsthand experience.

That's probably for the best, since there isn't much here worth seeking out. Writer-director Mark Jones clearly isn't going for straight-up horror, but the comedy is extremely feeble, and the story is pretty incoherent. Aside from the series' notoriety, this movie's biggest claim to fame is featuring a pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston in the lead role, as a spoiled young woman (possibly a teenager or possibly a young adult; it's never quite clear) who moves with her father to a dilapidated farm house in rural South Dakota and accidentally unleashes the leprechaun. Aniston is totally game for the ridiculous material, but that only counts for so much, and her character is pretty inconsistent, moving from fragile girly-girl to tough independent woman and back sometimes several times within the same scene.

The supporting characters are quite cartoonish, and either budgetary concerns or filmmaking ineptitude resulted in a town that appears to be populated by no one except the main characters, one of whom (Aniston's character's dad) basically disappears halfway through the movie. But who cares about characters and plotting -- how's the murderous leprechaun? Warwick Davis plays him with obvious glee, and although he's not at all scary, he isn't really meant to be. The leprechaun's motives are a little muddled; he keeps harping on getting back "me gold," but he also seems happy to kill and maim people who have nothing to do with keeping his gold from him. And his magical powers seem to be able to transport the gold around at will, so it's not like he really needs to chase people around anyway.

Jones went on to make horror movies about Rumpelstiltskin and an evil ventriloquist's dummy (although not any more Leprechaun movies), so he clearly has some affinity for scary imps, but Leprechaun never quite pinpoints what might make leprechauns scary. It uses bits of the creatures' mythology in an awkward way, turning four-leaf clovers into the leprechaun version of crosses for vampires and giving the little guy an obsession with shining shoes. The haphazard movie gets by on the novelty of a jolly evil leprechaun, and Davis makes the most of it -- which he'll continue doing for five sequels.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Thirteen Women' (1932)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Myrna Loy gives a delightfully villainous performance in this silly but entertaining thriller about a bullied young woman who grows up to take extremely elaborate revenge on her schoolmates. Despite the title, Thirteen Women only manages to show seven of the 12 schoolmates whom Loy's Ursula Georgi is after (she herself is the 13th woman), and only one, Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne), ends up being the center of the story. Fifteen minutes were cut from the film following its initial release and remain missing, and some of the secondary characters were excised in favor of giving rising star Dunne more scenes.

It doesn't really matter, since the movie only needs a couple of tragedies to set up the revenge scheme that Ursula has devised. Apparently the women, still friends as adults, are all quite taken with horoscopes, and Ursula somehow gets them all to write to a famed astrologer in New York City. She intercepts their letters and sends back horrific predictions of death and tragedy, which end up coming true because the women believe they will. Yes, Ursula kills these women with the power of suggestion. It's preposterous but actually kind of creepy, especially a scene in which one woman struggles not to shoot herself and ends up succumbing to what she believes is inevitable.

Loy infuses Ursula with a devilish seductiveness and a bit of tragic melancholy, and the scenes in which she uses her hypnotic powers to manipulate people are nicely unsettling. She becomes more of a boringly conventional villain in the movie's second half, using bombs and poison to try to take out Laura and her young son, and the story of the blandly noble Laura and the equally bland detective investigating the case as they try to stop Ursula isn't particularly compelling.

There's also an uncomfortable racist element to Ursula's character; she's meant to be half Indian and half Japanese, although she was raised in Britain (and of course is played by a white actress), and the cops dismissively refer to her as a "half-breed type." But the climactic showdown between Ursula and Laura finds Ursula explaining how hard she tried to be accepted as white, and how Laura and the other schoolgirls constantly tormented her for her racial otherness. It brings an uncommon complexity and sympathy to the villain, so that when she meets her eventual tragic end, it's something of a hollow victory.

Sunday, March 04, 2012


It's been years since I was a regular viewer of Desperate Housewives (which is set to finally be put out of its misery at the end of this season), but I still hold a place in my heart for campy nighttime soaps, which is why I'm still gritting my teeth through Gossip Girl and thoroughly enjoying Revenge. So I was hoping for something fun with GCB, ABC's blatant effort to find a new show to replace Desperate Housewives. Like Housewives, GCB has a provocative title (or at least it used to, before the title of the book the show is based on, Good Christian Bitches, was reduced to an abbreviation that stands for nothing), a cast of pretty women in their late 30s/early 40s, and a campy tone that balances the soapy twists with plenty of cheeky one-liners.

The problem is that GCB is almost entirely made up of cheeky one-liners, and none of them are particularly funny. The show can't seem to decide whether to be a full-on farce satirizing upper-class Texans or a serious family drama dealing with class issues and marital troubles. It ends up failing at both, since while it's trying way too hard to be edgy and clever about suburban Southern values, straining to come up with zingers for its grown-up mean-girl characters, any of the purportedly heartfelt moments become impossible to take seriously. And for an alleged soap opera, the intrigue is decidedly dull. Housewives was built on a series of increasingly absurd mysteries, but at least it felt like something was always at stake. Here the stakes are almost entirely inconsequential, and the comedy isn't strong enough to hold your interest in the absence of any real drama.

The one thing GCB does have going for it is a great cast, including the always appealing Leslie Bibb as the main character, who reluctantly moves back to her Dallas-suburb hometown after 18 years away. Bibb navigated a similar mix of strained wackiness and relationship drama on Ryan Murphy's Popular a decade ago, and she makes for a likable, if sometimes bland, protagonist. Kristin Chenoweth chews lots of scenery as the leader of the devious women who go after Bibb, and both Miriam Shor and Marisol Nichols have been effective in this kind of soapy setting before. Plus Annie Potts, who played a proper Southern lady for seven seasons on Designing Women, is perfectly cast as Bibb's snobby mother.

But they're pretty much all playing to the rafters with only mediocre material to work with, and Chenoweth especially frequently crosses the line into caricature. All of the effort to seem edgy and satirical comes off as desperate, making GCB already seem as tired as the worn-out show it's aiming to replace.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on ABC.