There aren’t too many cinematic identity crises like the case of Leprechaun and even fewer where the movie actually works. Exactly thirty years after this film was released on January 6, 1993, Leprechaun stands alone as a movie done in hilariously bad taste, that also, somehow, really holds up.
If you’ve forgotten all about Jennifer Aniston and Warwick Davis in this charmingly strange 1990s film, here’s why it’s still watchable. And for those of us who are still having nightmares, did you forget about all the dad jokes?
At first, Leprechaun was supposed to be a horror movie intended to be direct-to-VHS but instead released in cinemas two weeks after Christmas. Instead of the fairytale and rainbow leprechaun who repped for children’s breakfast cereal, this creature — played by legendary actor Warwick Davis — is a monster who could literally tear your guts out if he wanted to get down to business, but instead scampers around in a bright green three-piece suit and takes time to crack a dad joke about how he'll desecrate your body. His targets — a team of unlikely young adults and a prepubescent, are wholly logical about the entire bizarre situation. The leader of this group is none other than Jennifer Aniston, who, shockingly does not spend the movie making stupid choices, ensuring everyone survives by the end of the film mostly unscathed. Basically, Leprechaun subverts horror tropes at the same time it’s presenting them.
If you ever wondered what it would look like if Disney dipped their toes into making a horror film, it would probably resemble Leprechaun. To be clear, Disney did not make this movie, and yet, it’s never too dark for long in any scene, remaining colorful and reveling in the silliness as much as the scares. From the way it was filmed to its generic inoffensive score, this could have fooled you into thinking it was a kid’s movie. That is until the savage deaths began.
The movie earned an R rating, but with a little editing, it could easily have dropped down to PG. You can count the number of curse words on one hand with plenty of fingers left over, there are hardly any provocative “adult conversations”, and even the gore is tame compared to its contemporaries. It’s still not a good choice for anyone in your home whose age is a single digit, but there are worse things your little ones could dig up on cable TV.
The initial inspiration for this movie was clearly: what if the Lucky Charms Leprechaun, but evil?
Make-up artist Gabe Bartalos took that concept and flipped that cereal mascot into an impish demon with a monstrous grimace that remains iconic with mainstream movie fans. Despite his frightening visage, Air Bud would have been a more serious threat than the fiend we got on-screen. Whereas a traditional slasher film does its best to obscure the baddie until it’s time for the epic reveal, it’s 30 seconds after the film begins when we see this diminutive monster for the first time. Minutes later, we see his face as he has a full-on conversation with his first victim.
You can applaud the film for subverting expectations, as movie monsters are typically hulking figures with inhuman strength. Our villain here is a cold-blooded killer, but he’s also half the size of our protagonists and burdened with magical limits (and a love of puns). The Leprechaun is blissfully cartoonish in his mayhem, which forgoes any moodiness from the movie and opts for how Looney Tunes would look if Bugs and Daffy finally took care of Elmer Fudd once and for all.
One minute, he pogo-sticks an antique dealer’s lungs into corned beef hash, the next he shines every shoe in the house because Leprechaun rules. In another scene, he takes a bite out of someone’s hand, then celebrates by gleefully riding a tricycle. What the Leprechaun lacks in truly creative violence a la Freddy Krueger, he makes up for it in his love of bad jokes. He seems like the kind of guy who would totally be into using alliterations at parties, knowing he is being made fun of behind his back but refusing to stop because it’s something he enjoys. (Does that make me the Leprechaun?)
In spite of his magical powers, this grotesque green geek is far from unstoppable. The first encounter he has with the entire group after he reveals himself results in a humiliating beatdown. Contrary to how lopsided the fight was on-screen, behind the scenes it ended with Warwick Davis’ stunt double, Deep Roy, leaving with a broken hand.
At the time of release, the biggest star in the film would have arguably been Mark Holton, often remembered best as Francis from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. He had already accomplished more on his film and TV resume than anyone else in the cast. After Willow in 1988, Warwick Davis languished in Hollywood, so this marked his triumphant return to the silver screen in the role I think he is remembered more for than his time as an Ewok. Ken and Robert were relative newcomers to Tinsel Town, and Jennifer Aniston was still pre-Friends, doing bit parts wherever she could find them.
The unit of mismatched humans battling the Leprechaun totally works though. Their grouping made zero sense, but they stayed cool in a situation where other movies would have the teens groping each other and getting picked off one by one for going off alone. Everyone has their heroic moments, and you can tell these performers enjoyed their time on that set.
As much as critics panned the tone of the movie and the antics of the monster, it was the humor and slapstick that connected with audience-goers. It checked off a lot of boxes, transforming the average supernatural slasher film into a lighthearted change of pace that retained a solid body count. It’s thanks to those comedic elements that this movie wasn’t dismissed as low-budget schlock, and embraced for putting the fun into the genre.
The VHS release of this came closer to St. Patrick’s Day, undoubtedly improving its sales and cementing it into something special. It spawned a franchise that endured multiple sequels, including the fan-favorite Leprechaun in the Hood, but that’s a story for another day.
Over 20 years later, WWE Studios rebooted the franchise with one of their wrestlers, Dylan Postl AKA Hornswoggle, as the titular character. Years later, another studio picked it up and made a sequel in the vein of the recent Halloween series that negated the previous spin-offs, and instead tied itself directly to the original. The issue here was the filmmakers forgot about the campy charm of the original movie, as grim and gritty was not a winning formula to make a Leprechaun movie.
The original holds up, and I will champion that this film is appreciated not in an ironic sense, but for what it is. Separately, the pieces of the puzzle make no sense and have no right to come together into something good, let alone coherent. On paper, it seems confused, but it ditched horror movie rules and cliches to make something fresh and different, and that’s why it’s remembered today. It won’t keep you up at night afraid of bumps in the dark, but it will scratch the itch for something scary and delightful. 30 years later, there is still a pot of gold at the end of that blood-stained rainbow.