Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Movies: Red Clover (2012)

Red Clover: Step aside, Warwick Davis.

Red Clover: Step aside, Warwick Davis.

Red Clover (2012)

Written by: Anthony C. Ferrante
Directed by: Drew Daywalt
Starring: Billy Zane, Courtney Halverson, William Devane
Summary: A tired genre exercise about a town stalked by a murderous leprechaun, occasionally improved by hints of folklore and a daffy performance from Billy Zane.

The SyFy Channel has spent the past half decade sort of being the basic cable equivalent of a drive-in movie theater or direct-to-video exploitation film company, and a lot of what they have produced has been unapologetically low-budget. There is a downside to this, in that a lot of SyFy filmmakers also made no apologies for being terrible, and slapped a veneer of irony or camp onto their films. There are a lot of techniques microbudget filmmakers can use to compensate for a low budget or even make it a necessary element of the film’s aesthetic. I’ve always felt that winking at the audience and nudging them, as though there is pleasure in doing things poorly, was the laziest of these.

However, SyFy’s approach churned through so much material so quickly that it allowed a lot of unexpected ideas to bubble to the surface. Writer/director Anthony C. Ferrante, as an example, went through a period when he successfully pitched a series of films based on folkloric monsters, including a headless horseman in 2007, a banshee in 2010, the story of Hansel and Gretel in 2011, and a leprechaun in 2012.

I will be writing about the leprechaun film, although its only real legacy is that it accidentally contained the seeds of one of SyFy’s legitimate cult successes: The film has a bespectacled journalist/blogger with a taste for outrageous stories, and we discover he once wrote an article on a meteorological event that dumped sharks into local lakes, which he titled “Sharknado.” Ferrante has since gone on to direct two Sharknado films, and, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that the most recent one included a performance by my adoptive mother’s cousin, Judd Hirsch.

The film has a bespectacled journalist/blogger, and we discover he once wrote an article on a meteorological event that dumped sharks into local lakes which he titled “Sharknado.”
Now, there is nothing especially frightening about the traditional leprechaun, even if, in their first-known appearance, they tried to drag the King of Ulster into the sea. Mostly they make and mend shoes, according to Irish folklore, although there is a boozy cousin known as the clurichaun who inhabits your wine cellar, drinks your liquor, strays out at night to drunkenly ride sheep around, and can be a bit of an irritant. But even in these stories, the clurichaun is more of a pest than a spook, having more in common with mice in your basement than monsters in your closer.

So “Red Clover” invents their own leprechaun, a sort of a goat-hoofed root creature that looks, passingly, like the faun in “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Ferrante places this beastie in a Massachusettss hamlet called Irish Channel, filmed in Louisiana and looking like it. The town, we are told, was settled by Irish immigrants, and it does have the feel of, say, O’Neill, Nebraska, a town that makes a lot of its Irish heritage, including painting a giant shamrock on its main thoroughfare. Everything in O’Neill seems to be green, like the entire town still has a grudge against suppression of the Society of United Irishmen in 1798. The film follows one family, the O’Haras, and their house is bedecked with trefoils, as though it’s impossible to have too many clovers.

Old man O’Hara, played by William Devane, is the town drunk and laughingstock, as he has a habit of talking about the fairyfolk when he’s finished his whiskey. His son, played with an unexpected daffiness by Billy Zane, is the town sheriff. And his daughter, played by Courtney Halverson, accidentally releases a leprechaun just before St. Patrick’s Day. The leprechaun is a wordless brute, and sets about its business of murdering people for their gold, while the O’Haras meander around town seeking horseshoes to fashion into a shamrock-shaped weapon, which they can use against the monster.

The film follows the rules of horror plotting slavishly — so much so that a secondary character accurately predicts the rest of the plot about halfway through the film. And the Irish stuff is just malarkey, as Zane puts it; it’s window dressing used as an excuse to execute a series of set pieces that culminate in murder. Few of these are handled with any inventiveness, but for a moment when Billy Zane stops the action to tell a story about losing his wife at a Black Friday sale, which sounds like a pitch for another movie. Zane seems to have been given a free hand to improvise his dialogue, because he quickly drops the monologue to point out that his name badge on his sheriff’s uniform is misspelled. “How do these things happen?” he asks, genuinely perplexed.

There are a lot of little moments like this, many of them courtesy of Zane, and they make the film more fun than it has any right to be. And there is something unexpectedly effective about the fabricated folklore of the film, which includes a series of woodcut images representing how to fashion a shamrock-shaped weapon. It recalls an earlier film, “Warlock,” where a feuding magician and witch hunter chase each other across time. They use magic lifted from ancient grimoires to attack each other, such as sticking nails through a footprint to fasten its maker to the ground. These sort of antiquated superstitions make for a nice touch in contemporary horror films, stripping away the veneer of modernity to suggest ancient forces might still be at work in the universe, playing by rules that were set long ago.

There are little suggestions of this throughout “Red Clover,” such as the fact that old legends are embedded in the names of places, which is something fairly common in Ireland. In this film, there is a “tree of tears” in the woods, everybody seems to know about a disease that causes a blistered clover to appear on the afflicted person’s palm, and, in an obvious nod to Halloween III, the local brewery is called Silver Shamrock. Families pass down mementos in hand-carved wooden boxes, and a box containing a gold tiara will also contain a horseshoe to chase away the leprechaun.

“Red Clover” never commits to its own fantastical premise in the way that Del Toro does with his, and the film suffers for it.
One wishes more had been made of this. “Pan’s Labyrinth” demonstrated just how evocative these old fairy stories can be, and “Hellboy 2” made extensive use of Irish mythology. “Red Clover” never commits to its own fantastical premise in the way that Del Toro does with his, and the film suffers for it, using its premise as a simpleminded method for onscreen violence that often feels poorly justified, and, worse still, blandly presented.

But that’s the curse of SyFy. They have consistently offered up films with really unexpected and entertainingly balmy premises, and then failed to produce films that lived up to their promise. One expects, if you went through their legal department, looking through documents in file cabinets, you would eventually discover an ancient one, written on leather with blood in a forgotten language and signed by the head of SyFy, promising that they can make as many movies as they like, but the films will never be good.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.