Irish-American Dining: Leprechaun Cookies

Cookies decorated by Sugarbelle. I want to eat these right now.

Cookies decorated by Sugarbelle. I want to eat these right now.

Sometimes I worry that we Americans are putting the Irish off leprechauns. We’ve taken the little creature and run with him, and the results, including sports mascots and preposterous St. Paddy’s Day costumes, are a little embarrassing to the Irish, I hear. I can imagine a real-life leprechaun sneaking into some Irish farm house to do some late-night cobbling and being met with an Irish farmer, broom in hand, crying out “Away with you, to America, like all your kin!”

He’d live a welcome, if degraded, life here, as Americans affix leprechauns to just about anything they want to seem Irish. Let’s take a leprechaun cookie, as an example. I see no evidence it is made out of leprechaun at all, although, to be fair, the first time the treat is mentioned, on Thursday, March 16, 1922, in the Caledonian-Record, there is no recipe. The story merely mentions that Mrs. W.R. Prouty entertained her Fortnightly club with green-colored food in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day. Among the foods she served were leprechaun cookies, and, although it goes unmentioned, perhaps Mrs. Prouty did trap a leprechaun or two and put them in her food.

We don’t get a recipe until 1960, when the Lexington Herald offered the following:

To make 2 1/2 dozen cookies, cream 1/2 cup softened butter or margarine and 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Sift 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour , 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt together. Combine 1/4 cup chopped maraschino cherries, well drained (about 10 cherries), 1 slightly beaten egg and 2 tablespoons milk; mix well. Add dry ingredients and cherry mixture alternately to cream mixture. Mix well after each addition. Chill 1 hour. Roll out on lightly floured surface to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut into rounds with floured 2 1/2-inch cookie cutter. Place on greased baking sheets. Arrange cherry halves on cookies to resemble shamrocks. Bake in moderate 375 F. over or until cookies are lightly browned.

The recipe isn’t explicit, but I expect the cherries should be green colored and not red, or one will end up with a cookie that looks made from a pulped leprechaun.

Some sort of leprechaun cookie made it into school lunch menus: Around St. Patrick’s Day in 1976 and 1977, the Rockford, Illinois Lexington Herald published the school meals for the day, and the cookie was there, along with St. Patrick’s Salad and cold meat. They made it to Michigan schools in 2004 and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 2011. The last newspaper mention I find of the cookie is this past year: The Press of Atlantic City wrote about St. Patrick’s Day partying, and mentioned that Bally’s Boardwalk Cupcake were offering leprechaun cookies and Guinness Stout Intoxication Cupcakes. In most of these cases, it’s anyone’s guess about what is being called a leprechaun cookie, but I found an image from Bally’s and it is a gingerbread cookie in what looks to be green icing lederhosen.

Yah, Irish lederhosen.

Yah, Irish lederhosen.

As this little fellow suggests, there are great things that can be done with frosting, and I must say I genuinely marvel at the cookies decorated by blogger Sugarbelle, pictured at the top of the page. You supposedly can make these at home, and the creator is kind enough to offer step-by-stem instructions, but were I to attempt it I know the results would be better sent to the Nailed It blog than given out as food.

 

 

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 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.”

Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Movies: Leprechaun 2 (1994)

"Leprechaun 2": A film that almost makes the case that Hollywood is the perfect town for an evil Irish spirit.

“Leprechaun 2”: A film that almost makes the case that Hollywood is the perfect town for an evil Irish spirit.

Leprechaun 2 (1994)

Written by: Turi Meyer, Al Septien
Directed by: Rodman Flender
Starring: Warwick Davis, Charlie Heath, Shevonne Durkin
Summary: An unsatisfying, charisma-free sequel to “Leprechaun” that manages a few amusingly oddball moments.

This is the first sequel to 1993’s “Leprechaun,” and there would be four more and a reboot, but this would be the last intended for theaters; the rest would go straight to video, although the reboot had a limited theatrical run. “Leprechaun 2” was the recipient of some bad reviews, but, then, so was the first film, and that made almost 10 times its budget in ticket sales.

But “Leprechaun 2” floundered in the theater, and is perhaps the most reviled in the series, which is saying a lot, as “Leprechaun” films aren’t well-regarded in general.  The critical reviews on the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes alternate between comically galled (“Because there were so many unanswered questions from Part 1.”) and the more straightforwardly galled (“i still hate leprechauns”), and the audience reviews are a little more generous, but also generally disappointed.

“Leprechaun 2” isn’t really a sequel; it’s more like a variation on a theme. Warwick Davis is back as the titular leprechaun, but the film ignores any attempt at continuity between the earlier film and this one. Instead, writers Turi Meyer and Al Septien concoct their own set of fairy tale rules for the story, and, to their credit, stick to them.

So this film doesn’t bother with the leprechaun’s previous obsession with cleaning and mending shoes, but instead gives him a millennium-long hunt for a bride, chased through history from ancient Ireland to modern Los Angeles. It is a marriage created by three sneezes, and can be undone by a listener responding with “God bless you.” It’s a strange conceit, and yet has a certain fairy tale logic — after all, sneezes were once viewed as prophetic signs or as the mark of an evil spirit.

Unfortunately, the film’s premise is unsettled by some failings in direction. The series creator and first director, Mark Jones, was a rather nonsensical storyteller, but had an eye for talent. So the first “Leprechaun” movie benefited from a scrappy performance from Jennifer Anniston, as well as an eccentric collection of secondary characters.

Warwick Davis tries to play up his role as a malevolent trickster opposite them, but might as well be acting opposite a pair of listless pine cone.
The cast in this film is, for the most part, rather anonymous. There is a male lead, Charlie Heath, who plays the part gamely but without much charisma, and a female lead, Shevonne Durkin, who often seems a little lost throughout the film and, as a result, mostly produces awkward, accidentally comical line readings. Warwick Davis tries to play up his role as a malevolent trickster opposite them, but might as well be acting opposite a pair of listless pine cone.

Nonetheless, the film does have a genuine oddness around its edges. This doesn’t save the film, precisely, but does recuse it from being unwatchable. The film is set in a Hollywood filled with alcoholic hucksters attempting to make a buck off tragedy — the male lead works for his uncle’s business, which involves driving a hearse filled with disinterested tourists to Hollywood’s more gruesome historical sites.

There’s something that feels right about this, but isn’t investigated fully. I was a resident of Hollywood for quite a few years, and it is a town that sometimes feels like it was built by sinister occultists and thrives on tragedy. A walk around the neighborhood produces a surprising number of buildings that have ancient symbols embedded in them, from Jackal-headed Egyptian gods to the ruins of Babylon to locations that look legitimately Satanic. Were this world carefully detailed, it would not be surprising to have an ancient Irish evil emerge. In fact, the film is specific about where the leprechaun makes its home: Just outside Houdini’s Hollywood mansion, which could be one of several adjacent buildings on Laurel Canyon, all supposedly haunted.

There is another Hollywood joke that I think is a very good one, even if it is manhandled enough by the film that it’s easy to miss. There is a moment when the leprechaun has paused in Hollywood to work some magic and a passing movie agent throws him some money. In 1994, Hollywood Boulevard wasn’t the bizarre menagerie of panhandling costumed superheroes and cartoon characters it is now, but there were a few (indeed, we briefly see one pass Davis in this scene), and so the fact that an evil leprechaun might get mistaken for a costumed beggar further emphasizes that this is a town where a monster might go unnoticed.

The film takes place on St. Patrick’s Day, and, surprisingly, is the only film in the series to do so, and the movie has an entertainingly balmy conception of the day: For some reason, these scenes mostly take place in an Irish bar downtown, and the bar is filled with cops, drinkers in green plastic bowler derbies, and little people dressed as leprechauns. There are a lot of little people too — they outnumber everybody else in the bar, selling gold foil wrapped chocolate coins. When Warwick Davis shows up, they cheer him on, presuming his is just another costumed actor. They do this by pounding on a table and chanting “One of us, one of us!”, a line stolen from the cult film “Freaks.” (It’s not the film’s only nod to cult movies either; two of the passengers in the heroes hearse are midnight movie stalwart Clint Howard and “Twin Peaks” actress Kimmy Robertson.

I‘ll mention one more thing I like about the film, and it is the element that seems both the most cultish and the most Southern Californian. For some reason, the movie makes occasional detours to a go-kart racetrack in Northridge. There the leprechaun murders several people, including a police officer; he runs this man down in a souped-up, modded go-kart with skulls for headlights and “I WANT ME GOLD” spray painted on its side.

Suddenly, the film’s leprechaun has turned into one of the custom hot rods illustrated by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.
Suddenly, the film’s leprechaun has turned into one of the custom hot rods illustrated by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, a native of Los Angeles who liked to draw big monsters riding tiny, souped up cars.

I share the sentiment that there is no point remaking good films, but there might be a lot of value in remaking bad ones. There’s the germ of a better film here, and an outrageously Irish-American one, This would be a tale in which an Irish leprechaun comes to Los Angeles and discovers that it’s the perfect place for him; the town is a haunted, occult land in which out-of-work little people dress like him for money, the streets are filled with people in costume, and monsters have always driven hot rods through the streets.

I’d love to see that film done well.

Irish-American Dining: Fried Leprechaun Legs

They’re always after me lucky legs!

They’re always after me lucky legs!

As with whiskey tomato soup, which I have reason to believe was introduced by Kieran’s Pub in Minneapolis, I think the appetizer called Fried Leprechaun legs was introduced in a Minnesota bar. I can’t prove it — I find a reference to a food called Leprechaun Legs offered by a bar called Crazy Horse in Indiana in 1995. But precisely what it was that Crazy Horse was selling isn’t mentioned.

Serving fried green beans as leprechaun legs still seems to be an exclusively Minnesota tradition, and I wish I could say that’s the entire story.
So we leap forward in time more than a decade, to 2007, and this is where we first find the snack I know of as fried leprechaun legs. The bar was Casper and Runyon’s Shamrocks Irish Nook in St. Paul, which is still there, and the food they called leprechaun legs was deep-fried green beans with dipping sauce. The St. Paul Pioneer Press declared that the beans were “sure to be a hit,” and they seem to have done well enough, as they are still on Shamrock’s menu, costing $7.95 as of this writing.

The next year, a competing St. Paul bar named O’Gara’s introduced the snack to an event that is a sort of coming out party for local foods: The Minnesota State Fair, where most of the food is offered on a stick, for some reason, and where locals claim the corn dog was introduced. This time, the Pioneer Press was unimpressed, writing ” The serving of these lightly battered, deep-fried green beans is generous but there was no bean flavor. If you closed your eyes and took a bite, you’d never know what they were.”

The Star-Tribune was more impressed, and revealed what the sipping sauce was, saying the snack was “worth checking out: green beans, lightly battered (and teasingly spicy) and deep fried, with a chipotle ranch dressing.”

Serving fried green beans as leprechaun legs still seems to be an exclusively Minnesota tradition, and I wish I could say that’s the entire story, it’s Minnesotan, rah rah rah for Ski-U-Mah, and here our story ends. Alas, I cannot, as the only innovation here is the name. Fried green beans has an older history,  and it seems to have originated in the Minneapolis of the Pacific Northwest, Portland. At least, that’s where I find the first reference to it, in the Oregonian, dated September 20, 1938. The paper even offers a recipe, which I shall reproduce:

Snip the ends and pull the strings from green beans. Cut diagonally in very thin slices, not more than one-quarter inch in size. Melt two or three tablespoons of shortening, which may be butter or bacon fat or other good cooking shortening. When the shortening is hot add the sliced beans and sprinkle with salt. Cover closely and simmer for about 10 or 15 minutes, or until beans are barely tender.

I will note that this recipe lacks one of the essential steps of the leprechaun legs: bread batter.  Alas, Minnesota cannot even claim that. The innovator for this recipe seems to have been Loretta Keller of San Francisco’s Bizou, who debuted batter-fried green beans with a fig dipping sauce in 1992, frying the vegetable tempura-style. “Although it sounds strange,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “the combination should be inducted into any best- dish hall of fame.”

Soon, tempura-fried green beans started to appear on the menus of a number of San Francisco’s Asian fusion restaurants, and then, in 1997, jumped both to a new city and a new cuisine. According to The Orange County Register, the item was offered at Luciana’s at Newport Beach. According to the paper, “The long beans come to the table sizzling, with a tempura-like coating. They are best when hot, and the balsamic vinegar and mild garlic cream sauce add little to the mix.”

Alas — alas! — Minnesota wasn’t even the home of the first Irish pub to offer fried green beans.
Alas — alas! — Minnesota wasn’t even the home of the first Irish pub to offer fried green beans. According to newspaper records, the food first made an appearance at Beckett’s in Walnut Creek, CA, which was offered with soy dipping sauce. Their version wasn’t as well-liked as earlier incarnations. The Contra Costa Times declared the following: “The batter wasn’t heavy, but it was hard. Strangely hard.”

Tempura-fried green beans surged in popularity in the next few years, with an astonishing selection of sipping sauces, and, frankly, here is where I think the Irish pubs, even those in my home town, have gotten it wrong. You don’t make a food Irish simply by affixing an Irish name to it. No, it’s important to actually give it an Irish or an Irish-American flavor. I think tempura frying the green beans is fine, but it is with the dipping sauce that a cook can find the meal’s true Irish spirit.

Frankly, I’m not sure what might be best with this, but there are a variety of Irish and Irish-American sauces to experiment with. There is a mustard sauce that is popular with corned beef, made with mustard, vinegar, and horseradish, that might go nicely with the beans. The Irish are apparently fond of a parsley sauce, and that’s worth a shot; there’s also a cabbage cream sauce that sounds like an odd choice, but who knows? It might be paradise in the mouth.

Anyway, I guess I feel if you’re going to pretend to cut the legs off a leprechaun, the least you can do is dip them in something that’s pretending to be Irish.

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.