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.
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.
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.
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.