Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Movies: Troll 2 (1990)

George Hardy battles vegetarian goblins in "Troll 2."

George Hardy battles vegetarian goblins in “Troll 2.”

Troll 2 (1990)

Written by: Rossella Drudi
Directed by: Claudio Fragasso
Starring: Michael Stephenson, George Hardy, Margo Prey
Summary: A legendary bad film about vegetarian goblins, the film seems to borrow largely from Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

There is only one hint of Irishness in “Troll 2,” Claudio Fragasso’s notorious cult travesty from 1990: In the rural farmtown of Nilbog, the eccentric local farmfolk are actually disguised goblins, and their only tell is a scar of a shamrock visible somewhere on their body.

The filmmakers were Italian — Fragasso has a long resume of producing genre oddities in his native country, and the script was by his wife Rosella Drudi, who claims she was irritated by friends who had become vegetarian and so wrote the film to satirize them. Her idea of satire is puzzling: The film’s goblins turn people into plants and then eat them. But there is very little in the film that makes sense, and for a lot of audience members, this fact is delightful.

I have no evidence for the following theory, but I’m going to present it anyway: I suspect that many of the basic story elements in “Troll 2” were lifted from “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” which had opened almost a decade earlier to generally unfavorable reviews. Italian cult horror has a long history of stealing from America horror, and here are details the films have in common: Both tell of an insular rural cult of Druidic outsiders who take power from a segment of Stonehenge. Further, both cults are represented by a shamrock.

Even if these plot points are a coincidence, both films are examples of folk horror, which is a typically British genre in which interlopers discover a rural location has been taken over by ancient paganism. Neither films are especially good examples of the genre, but, well, between the shamrocks and the Druids I’m going to go ahead and call them Irish anyway.

I do rather like the implication that old world monsters moved to America and became caught up in its more flamboyant traditions, from fad diets to televangelist-style old-time religion.
“Troll 2” is a pretty well-known cult film, so you may already be aware that it’s an in-name-only sequel to 1986’s “Troll,” but was instead originally named “Goblin.” It’s not really a film about historical Druids, either, although the film’s rubber-masked (and genuinely ghastly) goblins do share the Druids’ fascination with trees. The monsters are some sort of cult, however — we witness a Revival tent-style meeting where a bearded preacher rails against the horrors of meat. And in a film that is generally nonsensical, I do rather like the implication that old world monsters moved to America and became caught up in its more flamboyant traditions, from fad diets to televangelist-style old-time religion.

The film’s problems are legion and well-documented: It was mostly cast with local non-actors, including at least two who suffered genuine mental illness. The filmmakers did not speak English, and so the film’s dialogue sounds like something that would come out of a Google translate prototype. (Sample dialogue, from a horny teenager: “I’m the victim of a nocturnal rapture. I have to release my lowest instincts with a woman.”) The story never comes anywhere near making sense, and, if scenes were meant satirically, the satire is invisible.

However, the results are fascinating. The actors provide line-readings that are so far removed from proper acting that they become strangely marvelous, such as one-young man who cries out in terror when he realizes he is about to be devoured, and whose terrified shout has become iconic:

There was a very good documentary about the making of this film, “Best Worst Movie,” directed by Michael Stephenson, who starred in “Troll 2” when he was a child. The documentary looks at the cult audience that has developed for the film, who show a unique mix of ironic appreciation, genuine fascination, and mild nostalgia for the film, which all seem to me to be valid ways to experience the movie.

The documentary also looks at the experiences of the non-actors who starred in it, especially focusing on the endlessly cheerful Alabama dentist, George Hardy, who played Stephenson’s father in the film.
The documentary also looks at the experiences of the non-actors who starred in it, especially focusing on the endlessly cheerful Alabama dentist, George Hardy, who played Stephenson’s father in the film. Hardy genuinely loves that he was in the movie, and basks in the attention that its growing cult audience provides for him. But as the film progresses and he more aggressively pursues his minor status as a celebrity, he realizes how shallow this pursuit is. There’s a marvelous scene at a horror convention, where he has gone to sign photos and sell merchandize, where he looks around at the row of horror movie has-beens and wonders what’s wrong with them, why they cling to roles they had decades before, and then realizes that he’s also talking about himself.

But, then, what’s the harm? We all get a few moments in our life when we do something surprising and extraordinary, and they’re worth revisiting and celebrating. And there is something genuinely extraordinary about “Troll 2” — here it is, a quarter-century after it was made, and I’m writing an essay about it, puzzling about how it fits in with the genre of folk horror, and the fact that it recalls Irish legend, even if only in the most oblique way. (And, in fairness, that’s the only way to approach the film, as everything in it is oblique.)

If George Hardy ever wants to go back to those conventions and sit among the has-beens, I will happily go to him and shake his hand, and I will proudly get his signature. What other dentist gets to battle vegetarian goblins?

None, that’s who.

Irish-American Crime Films: ‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge (1942)

Huntz Hall and a goon in "Neath Brooklyn Bridge."

Huntz Hall and a goon in “Neath Brooklyn Bridge.”

‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge (1942)

Written by: Harvey Gates
Directed by:
Wallace Fox
Starring:
Leo Gorcey Bobby Jordan Huntz Hall
Summary:
The East Side Kids get caught up in a theft scheme in a Lower East Side that seems entirely populated by sailors.

I can’t help but like Poverty Row movies. For those unfamiliar with the term, “Poverty Row” referred to a collection of independent, low-budget movie production companies that churned out mostly forgettable genre fare from the 20s through the 50s. They are typically not very good, with lethargic direction, inconsistent performance, and are often shot on barely disguised soundstages. The storylines are often hackneyed and the dialogue unmemorable.

But forget conventional wisdom about what makes a good movie. Poverty Row films put their attention elsewhere, often taking a successful formula and toying with endless permutations. Because there was a built-in audience for this, and because they could make these films cheaply, Poverty Row studios became a sort-of primordial swamp, tearing apart elements of other films and recombining them into endless mutations. These weren’t the prestige films of the major studios, they were the Frankenstein monsters, and, as a result, you would often see things in Poverty Row films you could not see elsewhere.

As an example, in “Neath Brooklyn Bridge,” there is a bar owned by a hoodlum named McGaffey, and it is sailor-themed. The walls are decorated with ships’ wheels, while starfish and sailor’s caps hang above the bar. There seem to be sailors everywhere in the bar, dressed in costumes that make them look like extras from a live-action Popeye cartoon.

The Lower East Side was also a sailor hangout — it borders one of the world’s largest ports, and, in its earlier incarnation as Corlear’s Hook, was so famous for brothels catering to sailors that it was likely the source of the word “hooker.”
The film is set in the Two Bridges neighborhood of New York, which, for most of the film career, was Dead Ends Kids territory, and this is a Dead End Kids movie — although produced by Poverty Row’s Monogram Pictures, which had snapped some of the Dead End Kids up when Warner Brothers dropped their contracts and renamed them the East Side Kids. But the Lower East Side was also a sailor hangout — it borders one of the world’s largest ports, and, in its earlier incarnation as Corlear’s Hook, was so famous for brothels catering to sailors that it was likely the source of the word “hooker.” I rarely see films set in New York that show the world of its sailors at all, and this film is brimming with them.

In fact, two of the main supporting characters in the film are sailors. There’s a navy man, played by Noah Beery Jr., who is a grown-up version of the East Side Kids and still hangs out with them every so often — they have a basement clubhouse that seems exclusively devoted to model ships and airplanes. There is also an old man called the Skipper who is paralyzed but communicated by blinking in Morse code. Even the East Side Kids wear striped sailor’s shirts, as though this film were being marketed to the Sea Scouts, to be watched while members learned how to tie knots and and navigate by finding a pole star.

The film has a simple plot, and so I will dispense with it in a few sentences: McGaffey, The gangster who owns the sailor bar needs East Side Kid Leo Gorcey (here named Muggs McGinnis) to help him with a burglary. McGaffey kills a man and convinces Gorcey he is guilty of the crime. The gang bands together and solves the case. Spolier alert: They do this by gathering together a gang of friends and assaulting McGaffey and his lackeys in a silk warehouse, which is an example of the sort of surprisingly plotting that sometimes happened in Poverty Row films.

Leo Gorcey would be the leader of the gang for most of their work as the Bowery Boys, but in the early films he ping ponged back and forth between lead and supporting character, and it;s easy to see why, as he’s a squirrely lead. He has laconic and sometimes hesitant mannerisms coupled with wary eyes, and it feels as though his proper place in life is less to lead men than to cynically comment on their foibles, which he does often in famously mangled malapropisms.

But he’s also quick-witted and a bit of a bully, and you get the sense that he’s the default leader of the gang here. The other kids just defer to him, in part because he’s pretty bright, but in part because if they don’t, they risk a blast of his scolding wit and a sock on the shoulder. Nobody seems happy about this state of affairs — at one point he goes over to a kid making a model airplane and offers a suggestion, and the kid just hands him the model and tells him to finish it himself. Gorcey seems a bit taken aback by this, and doesn’t take to leadership easily; he spends most of the film keeping his own council, sorting things out by himself, and only enlists the rest of the gang’s help when he needs muscle.

Another of the kids, Huntz Hall, seems much more comfortable with the role he would later exclusively play — the gang’s clown. Hall was capable of more, as he showed in “Little Tough Guy,” but he had a talent for screwy goofballs, and the film gives him plenty of opportunity to goof around, including a scene in which he steals soup from ‘Snub’ Pollard, a silent film comedians. These Poverty Row films were full of slumming stars, and it’s fun spotting them in the background.

In fact, there’s one who goes uncredited who I think should be the subject of his own film: Frank Moran, who plays the bartender. Moran, the son of Irish immigrants, was an real sailor, having served in the Navy after having studied dentistry at the University of Pittsburgh. While in the military, he started prizefighting (and was a sparring partner for President Theodore Roosevelt), and he fought under the nickname “The Fighting Dentist.” He quickly went into movies, playing tough guys and criminals, including having been part of Preston Sturges’ stock company. He also played his share of sailor, including in Fred Astaire’s “Follow the Fleet” (he played “Husky Sailor”) and Raoul Walsh’s “Sailor’s Luck” (playing “Bilge Moran”).

Other roles played by Frank Moran: Dimwitted Goon, coarse slave seeking rich widow, Ape Man, Jack the Beefer, Sailor in Oyster Bed Cafe, East Side Pug, Louie the Lug, Sarcastic Townsman.
You just don’t get life stories, or resumes, like his anymore. Let me offer up a few more roles he played. So here we go; other roles played by Frank Moran: Dimwitted Goon, coarse slave seeking rich widow, Ape Man, Jack the Beefer, Sailor in Oyster Bed Cafe, East Side Pug, Louie the Lug, Sarcastic Townsman.

I think this demonstrates that a former sailor in New York could have a pretty interesting life, which “‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge” seemed to appreciate

Irish-American Crime Films: Irish Luck (1939)

Frankie Darro and his Irish mother in "Irish Luck."

Frankie Darro and his Irish mother in “Irish Luck.”

Irish Luck (11939)

Written by: Mary McCarthy (screenplay), Charles M. Brown (story)
Directed by: Howard Bretherton
Starring:  Frankie Darro, Dick Purcell, Mantan Moreland
Summary: Frankie Darro produced a comic turn as a bellhop breaking a bond theft ring; the first film to pair him with African-American comic Mantan Moreland, but far from the last.

As this project progresses, there will probably be more reviews of films that star Frankie Darro, as “Irish Luck” does. The athletic, diminutive actor isn’t well remembered today, but he was a legitimate star in his day, albeit typically of juvenile films and b-movies. He even was responsible for one of the best-loved performances in film, even if it was uncredited and unrecognized at its time: He was the man wearing the Robbie the Robot suit in “Forbidden Planet,” which makes him to a previous generation what Kenny Baker, the man in the R2D2 suit, is to ours.

Darro has already come up a few times in these reviews: He played the young Cagney (sort of) in “The Public Enemy” and played a juvenile delinquent is Cagney’s “Mayor of Hell.” Although I can’t tell whether Darro actually had Irish blood or not (his real name was Johnson), he played an awful lot of Irish youth — here’s a brief list of character he played: Barnie Finn, Tad Dennison, Mickey Grogan, Billy Ryan, and “Orphan” McGuire. He even provided the voice of Lampwick in Disney’s “Pinocchio,” the only redheaded character in the film, and his casting is likely based on his long career of playing Irish delinquents.

But if Darro could often put himself forth with a budding criminal’s swagger, he was also a skilled comic actor, on display in “Irish Luck.” The film is a bit of a nothing, telling of a bellboy named Buzzy O’Brien who can’t help but stumble into mysteries in his hotel. But it’s an entertaining nothing, helped by pairing Darro with African-American actor Mantan Moreland. I’m a fan of Moreland, and even visited his grave when I lived in LA, and his reputation deserves reexamination. He’s notorious for playing bug-eyed, frightened African-Americans, which became something of a noxious cliche in Hollywood. But Moreland’s bug-eyedness was natural, and his comic skills impeccable and understated. He never plays his character’s fear as an exaggerated burlesque, but instead as a perpetually fretfulness.

If Darro could often put himself forth with a budding criminal’s swagger, he was also a skilled comic actor, on display in “Irish Luck.”
Darro and Moreland would go on to star in a series of films together, and they were a good pair, with Moreland acting as a sort of weary commenter on Darro’s boundless enthusiasm. In fact, in this film Darro is almost nothing but enthusiasm. Dressed in a bellhop outfit that would look right at home at the Grand Budapest Hotel, he’s determined to be a boy detective, and his hotel, which is the center of a bond-theft ring, given him ample opportunity.

The title, “Irish Luck,” is deliberate. Darro has an Irish mother in this, and, moreover, when he meets a female suspect in this, he decides she must be innocent, as her name is Monahan. Now, my name at birth was Monaghan, so I sympathize, but I also have to admit this is an odd plot point. After all, at the start of the movie he manages to capture a pair of bond robbers, and while they are unnamed, they are played by Pat Gleason and Gene O’Donnoll, so it’s not as though Irish criminals are unheard of, even in this film’s universe.

But the kid has an instinct that Monahan is okay, and, in general, his instincts are right on the money — there’s some suggestion that he literally inherited his genius for deduction from his deceased father, who was a policeman. His father’s former partner, player by Dick Purcell (who himself would make a terrifically entertaining film with Moreland called “King of the Zombies”), is nonplussed at Darro’s boy detective ambitions. But if there is one thing Darro demonstrated in films, it was that he tended to get swept up in things, and once swept was unstoppable.

If only the same could have been said of his career. He did a stint in the military during World War II and contracted malaria. Reportedly, he suffered long-term effects, which he attempted to manage with alcohol. Although he managed to make regular, often small appearance on film and television, he was broke for much of his adult life and struggled with alcohol. This was probably exacerbated when he opened a bar on Santa Monica Boulevard called “Try Later” and named after the response he typically got when he contacted Central Casting.

I worked as background talent for Central Casting several years ago, and I know how frustrating those calls are to this day. Boundless energy and enthusiasm doesn’t stand a chance against the drudgery of making tens or even hundreds of calls per day, hoping a job has opened up and that you’re right for it. It’s just murder, and it’s a murder that even a former boy detective couldn’t solve.

Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Films: The Last Leprechaun (1998)

Big Mick in "The Last Leprechaun"

Big Mick in “The Last Leprechaun”

The Last Leprechaun (1998)

Written by: Paul Matthews
Directed by: David Lister
Starring:  Veronica Hamel, Jack Scalia, David Warner
Summary: Two American children join forces with a leprechaun to stop a banshee from ruining the Irish countryside.

I won’t write overmuch about 1998’s “The Last Leprechaun,” because, alas, it isn’t very good. Weirdly, it has great ratings on Amazon, but, then, there are only five reviews, and I suspect that you can always disregard the first five reviewers as being friends of the filmmaker. Even so, one of the online critics allows that the film is a “tad creepy.”

I didn’t find the film creepy, per say, but it is oddly formed. Superficially, the story is relatively simple, telling of a banshee who plots to flood a section of Ireland and two American children who join forces with a leprechaun to stop her. The film features one character actor who can be genuinely superb, the grim-visaged David Warner, who has a long history of bringing unmistakable menace to his performances. A lot of the film consists of the children running from the banshee and Warner around an Irish country house, and that’s fine — a lot of children’s movies consist of children just running from one place to another, and this can be done well.

But it all seems sort of muddled here. The banshee isn’t like the banshee of Irish legend, who sang a haunting tune as an omen of impending death. Instead, she is a water witch who tends to shriek a lot — despite a game performance by Veronica Hamel, she’s mostly defined by shrill howling and by eccentric wardrobe choices.

Her villainous scheme remains murky, which may be right for a hag of the mist, but leaves the plot vague.
She has somehow managed to marry the children’s billionaire father, played as a headachy nonentity by Jack Scalia, and is using his money to trash the Irish countryside for reasons she never makes clear. She seems to gain power from water, but, with his money, she could just move to an Island in the ocean. She may be tied to a holy well in the basement of the country estate, but, if she is, she never makes mention of it. Her villainous scheme remains murky, which may be right for a hag of the mist, but leaves the plot vague.

The children don’t have much by way of personality either; they mostly seem defined by one being a boy and the other being a girl. There is a cleverness to them, in that they figure out what’s afoot pretty quickly, although this seems to be more a function of plotting than of any real genius. They aren’t the real engines of the story, anyway; they can throw pies at the banshee, but she’s a magical creature, and it will take another magical creature to stop her.

So we have a leprechaun, and, to the film’s credit, it’s a good one. The role is played by Yorkshire-born actor Mick Walter, credited as Big Mick, and while he never really manages an Irish accent, he gets everything else right. Unlike the banshee, this is a leprechaun that seems inspired by actual Irish myth, and his day-to-day life seems to consist mostly of stealing stuff from the farm and leaving gold behind as payment.

Finn dresses in ratty old Regency clothes that seem especially elfin, and he wanders around muttering to himself like a tiny Popeye.
The leprechaun is named Finn McCool, which is either an ironic choice, as this historic Finn McCool was supposed to be a giant, or an accidental choice. Whatever happened, the filmmakers have given the leprechaun a middle name, Regan, to distinguish him from the creature who threw so much of Ireland at a rival that it formed the Isle of Mann.

Finn dresses in ratty old Regency clothes that seem especially elfin, and he wanders around muttering to himself like a tiny Popeye. He lives in a little hobbit-like warren under a tree filled with Rube Goldberg-style mechanical devices that suggest a fantasy alternative to steampunk. He will occasionally launch into odd little jigs when happy, and they couldn’t be any more lerpechauny. Big Mick’s version of a leprechaun often seems transplanted from another, better movie, a film in which both production design and performance conspired to bring Irish folklore to life. I wish I had seen that film.

Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Films: Leprechaun: Origins (2014)

This is actually how the leprechaun appears throughout the movie.

This is actually how the leprechaun appears throughout the movie.

Leprechaun: Origins (2014)

Written by: Harris Wilkinson
Directed by: Zach Lipovsky
Starring: Dylan “Hornswoggle” Postl, Stephanie Bennett, Teach Grant
Summary: A rebooting of the “Leprechaun” franchise that tries and fails to make the monster authentically Irish and genuinely frightening.

With this film, 2014’s “Leprechaun: Origins,” we officially complete the entire leprechaun series, and I think I deserve some sort of ribbon or certificate or something, the way you are awarded when you manage to eat seven pounds of brisket on a dare at a roadside barbeque, which seems like an impossible and dangerous feat and leaves you nauseated for hours.

I’ll start by pointing out something relatively unnecessary: This film is a “reboot” of the series, and has very little to do with the earlier films. It is unnecessary for me to mention this because it has been true of every other film in the series, which, for the most part, exist independently of each other, as though they were entirely different films that just coincidentally had Warwick Davis playing a murderous leprechaun in them.

But I mention it because even by the standards of earlier “Leprechaun” films, this one strays far afield. In a lot of ways, it feels closer to “Red Clover,” a lesser-known murderous leprechaun movie (which I have also reviewed, and where’s my ribbon for that?). Both films are set in a town that once stole from a leprechaun and keeps the fact as a deadly secret, and in both films the leprechauns are more like ghastly forest animals than tiny Irishmen. The “Red Clover” leprechaun was a solid piece of costume design in an otherwise delightfully incompetent film, looking a bit like a monster had been knitted together from the roots of trees. The leprechaun in this film, played by wrestler Hornswoggle (who debuted in a leprechaun costume), is rarely seen. The filmmakers take great care to hide the monster, and, as with “Jaws,” one gets the sense that this is because the creature would be ridiculous-looking were you to see it without trickery. Once in a while the beastie appears, usually lensed by a camera that seems slathered in vaseline, and it’s a strange thing, looking like a crushed face with pointy ears.

The filmmakers take great care to hide the monster, and, as with “Jaws,” one gets the sense that this is because the creature would be ridiculous-looking were you to see it without trickery.
The film is set in Ireland (subbed in by Vancouver), and fits perfectly into the genre of Irish-American horrors where Americans go to Ireland and experience old county terror. In this case, the Americans are four students; one of them (played by Stephanie Bennett) has studied Irish history, which gives her a bit of an edge. The gang travels to a small Irish village with a spooky megalith on its outskirts, and the film represents the entire town as a group of weirdly friendly bearded men in a pub who constantly raise their pint glasses in silent toast. All this is good, classic horror from the British Isles and Ireland — anyone who has seen films with megaliths and too-friendly locals knows there is a pagan secret hidden somewhere.

The secret isn’t too complicated, and our intrepid heroes figure it out almost immediately, although not soon enough: The locals are sacrificing outsiders to a leprechaun that lives in their woods. This seems like is usually goes pretty well, with an avuncular fellow named Hamish (played by character actor Garry Chalk wearing one of the tightest fiddler caps I have ever seen) locking visitors in a cabin and then letting in the leprechaun to eat them. This time, it goes poorly, as Hamish’s mopey son doesn’t want to help, and the hapless victims turn out not to be so hapless. Hilariously, one of their most successful survival tactics is that when somebody in their group is attacked, the rest just turn and run, leaving their compatriot to fight for themselves.

The filmmakers have some fun with their movie — there is a wickedly nice turn of events in which the heroes decide to lay a trap for the leprechaun, which goes very badly. But there isn’t enough of this, and, at the end of the movie, much of the story fades away, leaving a blurred memory of people running at night, Irishmen ineffectually chasing after them, and some sort of unseen monster that is more defined by its frequent absences than killer presence.

I hoped for more. It’s the only film of the series set in Ireland, and it’s setup is so perfectly consistent with the great British and Irish tradition of folk horror that I had hoped this film was, in its way, taking the leprechaun series and turning it from a campy series of perverse fairy tales into something authentically Irish and authentically terrifying.

I still think it can be done, and, what the heck, if another “Leprechaun” film comes out, I’ll go see it. In for a penny, in for seven pounds of brisket.

Irish-American Crime Films: Kiss of Death (1995)

Cage and Caruso: Method vs. glower in "Kiss of Death"

Cage and Caruso: Method vs. glower in “Kiss of Death”

Kiss of Death (1995)

Written by: Richard Price
Directed by: Barbet Schroeder
Starring: David Caruso, Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson
Summary: A competent, enjoyably eccentric film about an ex-con and a weird crime boss, but feels like Pulp Fiction’s leftovers.

“Kiss of Death” had the misfortune of coming out a year after “Pulp Fiction.” It’s a serviceable, fitfully entertaining crime film with generous helpings of eccentricity, many of them provided by Nicolas Cage. Cage plays the strangely named Little Junior, the son of an ailing crime boss named Big Junior, and the actor beefed up for the role — one of the first times we meet him he’s bench pressing a stripper. Cage plays his character as having a comparably thick neck and wit; he’s a hulking man with suspicious eyes but little recognizable intelligence.

He’s responsible for a prison term served by the film’s ostensible hero, a former lackey and barely recovering alcoholic played by David Caruso. This is a remake of a well-liked 1947 noir film, and in that the characters were Italian, but they have been changed to Irish for this film, probably because Caruso, despite being half-Sicilian, resembled nothing so much as a Thomas Nast caricature of an Irish bruiser. So Caruso is named Jimmy Kilmartin, and he’s constantly led into trouble by his noxious dunce of a cousin, named Ronnie Gannon and played by Michael Rapaport. Through a complicated plot twist that causes the death of Kilmartin’s wife — played in a surprisingly abbreviated role by Helen Hunt — Kilmartin becomes an informer.

There is a lot in this film that is memorable; unsurprising, as it was scripted by Richard Price, and he’s good at this sort of story. As an example, Gannon comes to a horrific end that must rank as one of cinema’s most unique gangland assassinations. Another example: Kimartin is accountable to a police detective played by Samuel L. Jackson, who was shot in the face and now has an eye that weeps continuously. In one of the film’s more memorable bits of plotting, Cage’s character attempts a halting, awkward friendship with Kilmartin, despite the fact that Caruso’s trademark glower communicates nothing but contempt and loathing for the other man. But they share a tragedy, and so Cage just blurts out knuckleheaded facts about himself, like he has an Elvis-style acronym that he basis his life around, and he can’t stand the taste of metal. It goes bad with alarming speed, and then goes worse when some double-dealing on the part of the DA (an oily Stanley Tucci) leaves Kilmartin and his family out to dangle.

Cage’s character attempts a halting, awkward friendship with Kilmartin, despite the fact that Caruso’s trademark glower repeatedly flashes contempt and loathing for the other man.
It might be a very good film, but for “Pulp Fiction.” “Kiss of Death” shares cast members with the earlier film — besides Jackson, there is Ving Rhames and Paul Calderon. And “Kiss of Death” suffers in comparison. Its oddness feels mannered, and Caruso’s downbeat performance, consisting of a series of grimaces and a habit of. speaking, very. deliberately, comes of as charmless and unengaging compared to the collection of live-wire weirdos Tarantino populated his universe with.

Unfortunately, what resulted felt like a film that was unneeded. The original “Kiss of Death” was good enough not to need a remake, and the conventions of the crime genre had been thoroughly goosed by Tarantino so that more mundane crime stories felt dated and unwanted. “Kiss of Death” still feels this way, even though it is a film that also feels borrowed from actual police logs. Unlike Tarantino’s universe, which always seems like a series of speedy, ironic supercuts of Tarantino’s favorite movies, “Kiss of Death” is set in a world of ploddingly stupid crime bosses, where a few bad decisions can lead to a deepening spiral of misery, and where various law enforcement agencies screw up, and screw each other over, constantly, leaving splashes of blood behind without concern for who is bleeding. In other words, it sounds like our world.

But, I guess, our world just isn’t as much fun as Tarantino’s.

Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Movies: Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood (2003)

"Back 2 the Hood": The leprechaun ends on a high note.

“Back 2 the Hood”: The leprechaun ends on a high note.

Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood (2003)

Written by: Steven Ayromlooi
Directed by: Steven Ayromlooi
Starring: Warwick Davis, Tangi Miller, Laz Alonso
Summary: The last of the Warwick Davis “Leprechaun” film is at once the most menacing and the silliest.

“Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood”  was the last of the Warwick Davis “Leprechaun” movies, although apparently he still pitches sequels, including one taking place on a pirate ship that I think is a terrific idea. “Back 2 tha Hood” is also one of the worst reviewed in the series, with Entertainment Weekly notoriously, and nastily, writing “if a movie could spark a race riot, this is it.”

I don’t share that sentiment. This is not the best in the series, but it’s far from the worst, and in its own way ends the series on a high note — quite literally, given the abundance of pot jokes. The film even gives its titular leprechaun a backstory, presented in entertaining animation during the opening credits. In it, leprechauns were guardians of an ancient kings gold, hunting down and punishing all those who stole from their liege, and all but one returned to the earth upon the king’s death. This is literally more motivation than the leprechaun was given in five earlier films, and it also sets the story in place: One cannot simply return the gold, because revenge is also part of the monster’s mission. And so anyone who touches the gold dies.

The film, as its title suggests, is once again set in South Central Los Angeles, which was reportedly not the original intention. Instead, it was meant to be a more typical teen flick, perhaps set in a resort town on spring break, which sounds dreadful to me. Instead, this film has been effectively rewritten for the hood, although with some elements that seem left over from the earlier conceptions. The two female leads, as an example, are struggling to get into college, which is a storyline you don’t see often enough in exploitation films set in the black community.

Once again, the film boasts an appealing cast, with Tangi Miller and Sherrie Jackson as the college-bound teens and Laz Alonso and Page Kennedy as a weed dealer and pot smoker, respectively. Alonso has run into trouble with some local hoods who see his pot dealing as infringing on their turf, and all run into trouble when they find the leprechaun’s gold.

A pothead is impaled on his bong, and his bongwater turns red.
This is the only film to reimagine the look of the leprechaun, and opts for a more menacing appearance than the Victorian-styled green top hat and swallow-tailed version of the earlier film. Here he wears a black top hat and a funereal black coat, looking more like a tiny undertaker than a traditional leprechaun, and it’s a good look — unworldly and menacing. Additionally, although this film manages to be fairly discreet with its violence, with much of it happening offscreen, it also has a sense of ghastly spectacle. A pothead is impaled on his bong, as an example, and his bongwater turns red. This is, at times, a leprechaun with a genuine sense of malice.

Although that’s a bit at odds with the film’s genuinely loopy sensibilities. Preciously films had tried at comedy but often failed at it, while this film offers a series of sequences that play as skilled setups and punchlines. As an example, there is a scene were the leprechaun is menacing the movie’s head hood, which is interrupted by a cell phone call from the hood’s girlfriend. He insists on taking it, and sweet talks his girlfriend while the leprechaun waits patiently. Later, the leprechaun will intercept a call from the same girlfriend and likewise attempt to sweet-talk her, describing himself in ways that are at once lacivious, a bit pathetic, and awful. The film offers a lot of callbacks to scenes from earlier in the film that seemed like one-off jokes, but turn out to be important to the plot: Contaminated pot, car hydraulics, and a police officers leg among them.

The story has a slightly scattered quality, perhaps owing to the fact that it was rewritten in such bold strokes, and perhaps simply because everybody in the movie seems high, including the leprechaun, who smokes copious amounts of marihuana. Despite this, the film is enormously watchable — perhaps the only one in the series I would enjoy watching again. If earlier films felt like they were accidentally borrowing from folklore, this one feels like it is borrowing from EC Comics, with its mix of low comedy, sly irony, and garish bloodletting.  And, come to think of it, EC Comics often felt lifted from urban legends and campfire tales, which are the American equivalents of traditional folklore.

So “Back 2 tha Hood” may not be award-winning filmmaking, but, among the entire series, it captures the genuine thrill of reading an especially nasty comic very late at night. I’m not sure why others critics disliked it so much, although critics of EC Comics disliked them so much they dragged the creators before a Congressional hearing, claiming the contributed to juvenile delinquency and leading to an industry-wide ban on horror and crime comics. If you’ve ever watched these hearings, they seem to be made up of angry, pinch-faced men lobbing unfounded accusations in response to a vague fear that our children were going bad.

I think the problem with the critics back then, and the critics of this film, comes down to something very simple. I think they didn’t know how to have fun.

Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Movies: Leprechaun: In the Hood (2000)

"Leprechaun in the Hood": Somebody is literally about to get murdered with an afro comb.

“Leprechaun in the Hood”: Somebody is literally about to get murdered with an afro comb.

Leprechaun: In the Hood (2000)

Written by: Doug Hall, Jon Huffman
Directed by: Rob Spera
Starring: Warwick Davis, Ice-T, Anthony Montgomery
Summary: “Leprechaun: In the Hood” puts the murderous Irish little person in Compton, and, somehow, turns the film into a folkloric cautionary tale.

“Leprechaun: In the Hood” is likely best-known for its worst sequence: An awkward, misconceived number in which Warwick Davis’s titular leprechaun takes the stage at a hip hop club and performs a genuinely awful rap number. I’ll start this review by noting that this sequence appears at the end of the film, the closing credits roll across it, and is likely meant to be ridiculous. These facts don’t save the scene, which is terrible regardless, but it is worth noting that the scene is less a sequence from the movie than a bizarre music video wedged in at the end.

I’m going to offer a minority opinion here and say that I think “Leprechaun: In the Hood” is the best of the series. Now, I say this with the usual caveat that, on the whole, it isn’t a very good series, and this film suffers from the same sort of things that make the other films questionable as entertainment. It’s billed as a horror comedy, but “Leprechaun: In the Hood” neither managed to be especially frightening nor especially funny, and some of its humor is needlessly cruel. There is a great tolerance for nonsense in the plotting, and the film veers wildly in tone in a way that never feels deliberate, but instead like the filmmakers just couldn’t get a bead on the sort of movie they were making. Much of the film looks cheap, and some of this cheapness is to the story’s benefit — it is, after all, set in an impoverished neighborhood in Compton, Los Angeles. But the special effects also look cheap, even when they are supposed to be spectacular.

I’m going to offer a minority opinion here and say that I think “Leprechaun: In the Hood” is the best of the series.
With all that out of the way, however, there is a lot to like about the movie. Apparently, the origin of the movie is an act of pure pandering, in that producers discovered that the “Leprechaun” franchise had an unexpected black fan base. (Incidentally, I think this goes a long way toward explaining the Crichton Leprechaun back in 2006, when black residents of Mobile insisted there was a leprechaun in a tree, which seemed to me less like mass hysteria and more like a collective goof; one man even insisted he had a leprechaun flute, which is a plot point in this movie.) Pandering though it might have been, and as odd a conceit as the film offers, plunking its monstrous leprechaun down in South Central ends up working, in its own way.

It helps that the film reimagined the leprechaun, as all films in the series did. Here, he’s less a creature of Irish legend than a helpmate for the devil, and the story has the qualities of being a cautionary folk tale, albeit one where the story is sometimes opaque. The tale tells of three aspiring rappers — played with enjoyable verve by Anthony Montgomery, Rashaan Nall, and Red Grant — who hope to land a record deal performing socially conscious (and somewhat dull) rap music. They end up robbing a hip hop producer, played by Ice-T, and discover the secret to his success is a flute he stole from Warwick Davis’ leprechaun, who has been turned to stone by a talisman. The talisman is from “Leprechaun 3,” by the way, and this is the first time a Leprechaun film deliberately referenced one of its predecessor. The film also gives the Leprechaun back his compulsive need to speak in rhymed couplets, which should make perfect sense in a film about rap but for the fact that the rhymes are often terrible, and an allergy to four-leaf clovers.

The three aspiring rappers accidentally unleash the leprechaun during the robbery, as well as earning the ire of Ice-T, who wants his flute back. But the boys have unexpected resources, and proceed to move from one surprising set piece to the next, all residences in Compton, all apparently filmed on the unchanged “Cagney and Lacey” set. The boys have a network of oddball connections, including a pair of pawnshop owners, a transgendered woman, and a lecherous storefront preacher. They avail themselves on each of these for help, moving on when either the leprechaun or Ice-T show up to murder someone. All the while, they increasingly learn the power of the flute, which not only puts audiences in an ecstatic trance but also improves their ability to perform. Subtly, however, their music shifts over the course of the film, moving away from enlightened hip hip to gangsta rap. Without realizing it, they abandon their message of positivity for one that celebrates murder and violence toward women, and the film implies that this is the inevitable path followed by people who use the flute for their own selfish purposes.

I don’t know the seeds of this idea, but there is something enjoyably folkloric about it — there is a Nigerian folk tale from the Igbo people about a greedy woman who takes a golden flute and a magic bowl from the spirits and discovers she has accidentally brought disease and death to her family, and this film feels like a somewhat amateurish descendant of this story, or others like it. This film’s leprechaun is a stand in for the destructive spirits of the ancient world, and it doesn’t matter that he is from Ireland and not Nigeria — he’s a partner with the devil, and immediately fits in in the hood. He quickly becomes a representation of Compton’s ills, which is sometimes presented comically (he develops an immediate appetite for drugs, especially weed), but sometimes not, such as when it is revealed that he is procuring women in the way a pimp would, and, more than that, it is strongly implied he is sexually assaulting them.

I have mentioned a meanness to the film, and I would like to point that out, but also point out that it is subverted somewhat  in the film. As I mentioned, a neighbor of the aspiring rappers is a transgendered woman. She is named Fontaine Rivera, and the boys, as well as the film, sometimes respond to her with open discomfort and mockery, and this sort of transphobia-as-comedy not only feels dated, but cruel. However, the character is played by Lobo Sebastian, a genuinely excellent character actor. He brings to the role a fascinating weariness, like Rivera has seen and done just about everything, hasn’t slept in ages, and just doesn’t have the time or the energy to care what others think about her. She immediately takes charge, even seducing the leprechaun in one of the least fussy come-ons I have ever seen. She dies at his hand, but the film never presents this as a punishment for Rivera presenting herself as female; the leprechaun just kills people.

And later in the film, two of the three boys end up in drag in a weird plot to get close to the leprechaun, and they literally have no problem whatsoever locating women’s clothes that fit them, and they make themselves up with a surprising expertise. The scene is very short, and I expect the fact of them being in drag was intended as simple burlesque, but the film either accidentally or deliberately suggests that the heroes are far more fluid in their conception of gender than they had initially let on.

In researching this film, I discovered it has an unexpected legacy beyond the Crichton Leprechaun. In 2014, it was the subject of a satiric novel by bizarro fiction author Cameron Pierce, among others. Cameron is the author of such oddball titled as “Ass Goblins of Auschwitz” and “Gargoyle Girls of Spider Island,” and he cocreated a novel in which an incompetent theater producer attempts to produce a musical version of “Leprechaun: In the Hood.” His efforts are hampered in part by a production that forever seems to be about to implode thanks to the mediocrity of its creators, but he also accidentally unleashes his own murderous leprechaun.

I haven’t read the book yet, but, honestly, at the moment it seems to be the closest thing this film series has come to real art.

Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Movies: Leprechaun 4: In Space (1996)

Jessica Collins and Brent Jasmer: The most appealing "Leprechaun" leads since Jennifer Aniston, wasted in a shapeless, unfunny satire.

Jessica Collins and Brent Jasmer: The most appealing “Leprechaun” leads since Jennifer Aniston, wasted in a shapeless, unfunny satire.

Leprechaun 4: In Space (1996)

Written by: Dennis A. Pratt
Directed by: Brian Trenchard-Smith
Starring: Warwick Davis, Brent Jasmer, Jessica Collins
Summary: The most critically panned film in the Leprechaun series puts the titular monster in space, where he finds bad acting and nonsensical plotting.

None of the “Leprechaun” movies can really be said to have a firm grasp on any sort of thread. Continuity from movie to movie is absent, there is no consistent tone, and the quality of the filmmaking and acting is wildly uneven. But, if there was any thread between the movies, “Leprechaun 4: In Space” lost it.

Presumably, this one was made because the filmmakers were delighted with the inherent ridiculousness of sending an ancient Irish monster into the future and deep into space. There is nothing wrong with that, per se; it’s precisely what “Jason X” did, placing the killer from the “Friday the 13th” movies into a space opera. That film produced some unexpectedly successful satiric moments, in part because it embraced the daffiness of its premise.

But “Leprechaun 4” is miserable — so far, the worst in a famously suspect series. It shares a director with the earlier film in the series, Brian Trenchard-Smith, but his outrageous directorial sensibility is dulled here by a poor screenplay by Dennis Pratt and performances that range from hammy to terrible. (I should note that the film’s two leads, Brent Jasmer as a space marine and Jessica Collins as a space doctor, are the most natural and appealing since Jennifer Aniston; they are wasted here).

The script offers up some b-movie weirdness, and I will describe some of it, but know that it comes off as labored and not inspired.
The story, such as it is, has Warwick Davis’s malevolent leprechaun kidnapping a dull-eyed space queen and murdering marines aboard a surprisingly depopulated space ship. The script offers up some b-movie weirdness, and I will describe some of it, but know that it comes off as labored and not inspired. In one example, the Leprechaun is killed, but then emerges, fully grown, from a marine’s penis. In another, a mad scientist is injected with DNA drawn from a spider and a scorpion and turns into a monstrous hybrid.  In another, the Leprechaun turns a marine sergeant into a torch singer, which leads to a short circuit in which we discover the soldier was a robot all along.

These details all seem thrown together but not necessary, like a bad improv in which all the performers panic and simply throw out the most absurd ideas they can and then try to build a scene out of a plethora of unrelated nonsense. The film has a few competent moments — its opening scene is an effective low-budget approximation of the scene in “Aliens” when the space marines taunt each other in chummy ways. But the scenes between the Leprechaun and his space princess feel less like a parody of 1950s science fiction than a recreation of the worst elements of these sorts of films, and they feel weirdly misplaced in this film.

As does the Leprechaun. I have a grudging respect for the fact that the film refuses to explain how the Leprechaun got into space, but I feel the essential lunacy of placing him there is lost. He doesn’t belong in this sort of movie, and the filmmakers could have had a lot of fun with that fact. Instead, it’s business as usual for him, sort of. Earlier films sometimes toyed with the Leprechaun’s fairy tale origins; this film abandons fairy tales entirely, instead simply having the Leprechaun act as a sort of low-rent Freddie Kruger, offing nondescript characters and following their murder with a cheesy one-liner and engaging in vaguely surreal magic tricks.

The next two — and last two — of the Warwick Davis Leprechaun films would take the Leprechaun to an environment that the filmmakers seemed to think was equally unlikely: Los Angeles’ African American communities.

Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Movies: Leprechaun 3 (1995)

"Leprechaun 3": What happens in Vegas slays in Vegas.

“Leprechaun 3”: What happens in Vegas slays in Vegas.

Leprechaun 3 (1995)

Written by: David DuBos
Directed by: Brian Trenchard-Smith
Starring: Warwick Davis, John Gatins, Caroline Williams
Summary: Warwick Davis’s titular leprechaun goes to Las Vegas, and the film series starts to lose its mind.

“Leprechaun 3” went directly to video; as far as I can tell, it was never meant for the theaters. It’s also a film that has a very different tone than the earlier two, and I suspect the two are related. Because the first two films were oddball fantasies with occasional doses of lurid violence and a slapdash comic sensibility, mostly provided by star Warwick Davis, who preferred his leprechauns quippy.

But “Leprechaun 3” is something else. I sometimes see it described as camp, but I don’t think that’s the right word for it, although there is an occasional archness to the film. I don’t know there is a single word for the tone of the film, but it leans into the silliness of the premise. If the first film had a cartoon sensibility, this film feels like a live-action cartoon.

As with the earlier sequel, “Leprechaun 3” isn’t so much a continuation of the earlier films as it is another iteration of them. Rules established in previous films are ignored in this one, while new rules are introduced, as though the series were created independently of each other, and the filmmakers were given only two suggestions: The film should be about a murderous leprechaun, and it will star Warwick Davis, who is going to want to make jokes.

Roughly the first third of the film plays out like an ultraviolent Tom and Jerry cartoon.
Roughly the first third of the film plays out like an ultraviolent Tom and Jerry cartoon, set in a Las Vegas pawn shop and detailing a battle between the titular leprechaun and the pawn shop owner, an Indian man named Gupta. The film instantly signals its mood with the arrival of the leprechaun, who has been frozen into a statue by an amulet and is carried by a haggard man missing one eye, one arm, and one leg. “What is that?” Gupta asks. “Good luck charm,” the haggard man answers.

As Gupta and the leprechaun proceed to go to war with each other, a second story plays out in a casino across the street, and eventually this story will dominate the film. We are introduced to a series of Vegas characters, including our protagonists: There is Scott McCoy, a student passing through Vegas on his way to college who blows his entire college fund at the roulette wheel. He is played by John Gatins, who has gone on to a reputable career as a screenwriter (he’s responsible for “Real Steel” and “Flight”), but was then an actor. He has a twitchy, distracted quality as a performer and never seems to know what he’s supposed to be looking at in a scene, but he’s more eccentric and engaging than the leads in the previous film.

The same can be said of actress Lee Armstrong, who plays an frowny magician’s assistant. She genuinely seems to have no patience for anyone around her, and, as the film progresses, she becomes increasingly unhappy about her circumstances and embarrassed by her costume — a skimpy stage-assistant affair that the filmmakers keep her in far too long, and so she starts covering with long-sleeve shirts whenever she gets the chance.

This star-crossed couple is surrounded by a circle of sleazy Vegas types, all played by interesting actors with strong comic chops: There is Michael Callan as pervy casino owner, the original Riff from Broadway’s “West Side Story” who had a brief career as a movie heartthrob. There is Caroline Williams in a very bad fat suit as a frustrated casino dealer; she starred in the outrageous sequel to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and has been a welcome staple of horror movies ever since. There is John DeMita as a magician; he has mostly done voice work for cartoons, and plays his role as a low-rent David Copperfield, constantly delivering his dialogue with dancelike magical gestures.

And there is Tom Dugan as a loan shark; Dugan has one of Hollywood’s odder resumes, alternating from tiny comic roles in blockbusters (including “Ghostbusters II” and “Kindergaden Cops”) to weird character pieces in direct-to-video films, which this might be the best example of. He either improvised all his dialogue or screenwriter David DuBos just lost his mind when writing the role, as Dugan spends most of the film engaged in inane, weirdly hysterical dialogue with his henchmen. At one point, they seem to spend five minutes discussing what sort of underwear they prefer.

They all meet the leprechaun thanks to a single, errant gold coin, and there is a sort of a fairy tale structure to what happens next. In this film, the leprechaun’s gold coins confer wishes, but each wish is cursed. The wisher will get the thing they want, but not for long, and then the leprechaun will show up and give them a variation of their wish, but one that destroys them. The casino owner desires sex, but winds up in bed with an automaton whose only human characteristics are enormous breasts; he is electrocuted. The casino dealer wishes to be young and beautiful again, but the leprechaun seizes on her wish for a more voluptuous figure by providing some deadly plastic surgery. The magician wants to offer world-class entertainment, and the leprechaun simply saws him in half.

And as for our heroes? Well, the student, Scott McCoy, wanted wealth. As a result, he is slowly turning into a gold-obsessed leprechaun.

Although Las Vegas may be the easiest place on earth to satirize, “Leprechaun 3’s” satire is stranger than one might expect. Certainly, there are some obvious choice — at one point, the leprechaun poses with an Elvis impersonator. But there is a wildness to much of the film’s comedy, especially demonstrated in a long sequence in a hospital, where McCoy has gone, terrified that a Donegal beard has started to sprout on his chin and that he has started talking in rhyme in an Irish brogue. Throughout the hospital, there are slot machine, with infirm patients playing them. One scene takes place in the morgue, and there is a slot machine there too, albeit a broken one, as though dead one-armed bandits end up in the same place as dead humans in Vegas.

Trenchard-Smith’s films are marked by wild premises, slumming movie stars, daffy details, and crackerjack pacing, which are all things I like in a movie.
I credit the sheer weirdness of the film’s sense of humor to director Brian Trenchard-Smith. He’s not well-known, although Tarantino has declared himself a big fan, but he has quietly carved out a career making perfectly lunatic genre films. He’s responsible for “BMX Bandits,” a film about bank robbers foiled by children on motorcross bicycles, which is best-known as featuring early starring role from Nicole Kidman. He followed this up with “Frog Dreaming,” a film starring “E.T.’s” Henry Thomas in which the young man finds himself in an Australian town that seems entirely populated by men with pompadours and may be haunted by a swamp monster.

Trenchard-Smith’s films are marked by wild premises, slumming movie stars, daffy details, and crackerjack pacing, which are all things I like in a movie. I sort of feel like binge -watching his oeuvre. And, as it happens, he directed the next film in the “Leprechaun” series, and, unsurprisingly, it’s the weirdest of the series: “Leprechaun 4: In Space.”