Mark Jones
August 25, 2014 at 12:00 PM EDT

How did a low budget horror movie about a diminutive Irish monster spawn five sequels, a new reboot, and the career of Jennifer Aniston? EW tracks the deranged history of the Leprechaun franchise.

British actor Warwick Davis says he has “specific” fans—well-wishers who want to discuss just one of the several fantasy franchises in which he has appeared. “People talk about Star Wars, people talk about Harry Potter,” he explains, “and people talk about Leprechaun.

Alert readers will have noticed that one of these franchises is not like the others. While Star Wars and Harry Potter have raked in billions of dollars, the Leprechaun series has a more niche appeal. 1993’s series-inaugurating Leprechaun, in which Davis’ titular, homicidally inclined Irish monster tormented a pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston, was a bona fide box office hit. But the ensuing five sequels—that’s right, five sequels—were less successful, with the last four entries all going straight-to-video. And while Star Wars and Harry Potter have for the most part been carefully curated franchises in terms of tone and continuity, the Leprechaun series has been creatively hurled from pillar to post, depending on the whims of studio executives and the films’ writers and directors. For example, 1997’s Leprechaun 4: In Space is set not just in space but also in the distant future, while the next two movies, 2000’s Leprechaun: In the Hood and 2003’s Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood, sought to squeeze further shillings from the horror-comedy series by giving it a blaxploitation twist. Sometimes Warwick’s gremlin is after gold, sometimes his principal desire is a wife. Sometimes he speaks in grandiloquent rhyming couplets. Other times? Eh, not so much. “If you’re asking me, ‘Were we trying to have consistency between all these sequels?’ the answer is ‘No,’” admits Mark Amin, the founder of Trimark Pictures, who greenlit the first film and helped shepherd the sequels to the screen.

The Leprechaun franchise is a film series even many horror aficionados regard as a camp joke whose very titles seem to exude a money-grabbing cynicism of which “Lep” himself might well approve. Yet Davis says he is proud of his work on the movies. “I don’t think for a minute we, as filmmakers, pretend they’re anything else other than entertaining popcorn movies,” he says. “I would suggest people sit down with a can of beer, put their brain in the fridge, and watch the film. You don’t need to think about it; you just need to enjoy it. I get tweets daily and they refer to Leprechaun. It’s amazing. The Leprechaun films are cheesy, they’re low-budget, but they have a serious following. They watch marathons on St. Patrick’s Day.”

Indeed, to mark the Irish holiday in 2011, the LA-based Cinefamily—a nonprofit organization devoted to screening “exceptional, distinctive, weird, and wonderful films”—held a three-film “Leprathon” fundraiser attended by two-time franchise director Brian Trenchard-Smith and Leprechaun 3 cast member Caroline Williams. “They were turning people away,” recalls the actress. “It was fantastic: talking back to the screen, throwing popcorn. It was the greatest thing ever.”

The franchise has also proven surprisingly resilient, and Tuesday sees the release on VOD of a series reboot, Leprechaun: Origins, albeit one which stars not Davis but a little-person wrestler named Dylan “Hornswoggle” Postl. The movie is a collaboration between Lionsgate and WWE Studios, the film production arm of Vince McMahon’s wrestling empire, whose president Michael Luisi has a longstanding affection for the franchise. “I used to go to the Criterion Center over in Times Square,” he says. “It was a grindhouse, definitely a real low maintenance theatre, and they would play all the classic genre movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. That’s where I fell in love with the Leprechaun franchise. I’ve been a Leprechaun fan from the very beginning.”

So who on earth dreamed up the idea for Leprechaun in the first place? What is the secret of the films’ success? (Did mention there were five sequels?) And does Davis think he will ever play a leprechaun again?

You may be astounded by the answers you’re told/For this is a tale of pure B-movie gold.

Once upon a time—let’s call it “the ‘80s”—there was a man named Mark Jones who worked as a TV writer-producer on the massively popular NBC action show The A-Team. Jones earned good money but had ambitions beyond thinking up new ways to get Mr. T’s famously flying-phobic character B.A. Baracus onto a plane. “I always wanted to direct,” says Jones. “I said, ‘The only way I’m going to direct is to write a low-budget horror movie.’” Ironically, the inspiration for the project which allowed Jones escape from TV came courtesy of the medium itself. “The Lucky Charms commercials had the cute little leprechaun advertising cereal,” he explains. “I said, ‘We could turn this into something evil.’”

Few sober people would ever describe an evil leprechaun as a slam-dunk movie pitch. But Jones had recent box office history on his side. Director Joe Dante’s 1984 hit movie Gremlins kicked off a mini-craze of small creature movies such as 1985’s Ghoulies—whose box office was boosted by a poster featuring one of the movie’s tiny terrors in a toilet—and 1986’s Critters, which grossed an impressive $13 million. Jones admits the latter movie in particular encouraged him to develop his own mini-monster. “I saw Critters in the theater and I really liked it,” he says. “Leprechaun was in that line.”

Jones struck a deal with Mark Amin’s Trimark. Amin had cofounded the video store chain 20/20 Video in 1981 and four years later set up what was then called Vidmark, essentially a distribution company which specialized in straight-to-video product. A few years later, Amin rechristened the company Trimark to reflect his ambition of starting to distribute theatrical movies—an ambition he achieved with the unlikely success of the 1991 Richard E. Grant horror flick Warlock—and actually producing big-screen fare. “That was the beginning of the video boom,” says Amin. “So you could make movies, and release on video, and make money. But in order to build the company we had to get into production and the theatrical business.

“We were looking for movies that had theatrical potential, and could be made for a low budget, and would be easy to market, and would have a target audience, and Mark Jones brought Leprechaun to us. Leprechaun was our first movie that we actually produced in-house that went out theatrically.”

Having secured funding from Trimark, Jones set about casting his movie’s monster. “We were interviewing a lot of little people and nobody had the chops,” says the director. “Somebody said, ‘What about the guy who played Willow?’” That guy was Warwick Davis. As a preteen, the actor played the ewok Wicket in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, which in turn led to his starring role in 1988’s George Lucas-executive produced fantasy movie Willow. But Davis suffered a fallow period following that film and by the time Jones got in touch was thinking of giving up the acting game altogether. “I didn’t have any work for quite a while,” he says. “It started to dawn on me that perhaps my good fortune of the ‘80s was was drying up and I would have to look for a proper job. Then the script arrived and after a couple of pages I was like, ‘I want to do this.’ At that point, I think everyone was just seeing me as playing a good guy, having seen films like Willow. So I leapt at the opportunity.”

Jennifer Aniston was a complete unknown when Jones cast her in the role of the seemingly shallow but ultimately heroic, Leprechaun-battling Tory Reading. “The casting director brought in a bunch of girls,” says Jones. “I just said, ‘There’s something about her.’ She really did have charisma in the room.” But Jones claims he had to fight Trimark to have the future Friends megastar in the film and then go behind the back of the studio’s executives so she could keep the look of her soon-to-be-famous hair. “They wanted me to go with another girl that had some credits,” recalls the director. “They said, ‘Well, we’ll let you take Jennifer, but you have to bleach her hair blonde.’ Because they thought blonde-haired California girls were sexy. So I said we’d do it. Then I called Jennifer and said, ‘I got good news and bad news. The good news is, you’ve got the part, the bad news is that you have to bleach your hair blonde.’ And, you know, she had that that beautiful auburn hair, which later became iconic. She said, ‘Mark, I can’t do it, I don’t want to do it.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not going to do it, we’re just going to say you’re going to do it, and we’ll start shooting. What are they gonna do? They’re not gonna stop production.’ And that’s exactly what happened. That’s a true story. No matter anybody tells you differently.” As it happens, Trimark founder Mark Amin does tell a different story. “I honestly don’t remember that,” he says. “They put all the audition tapes on VHS and I looked at them and Jennifer Aniston completely and clearly jumped out. I don’t remember there being a conversation. I don’t think anybody was thinking she should be blonde or brunette. It was more about, ‘Can we [get] somebody that’s right for the role? That has the right energy?’ And she fulfilled both of them.”

Jones’s script found the Leprechaun menacing a group of folks at a remote North Dakota house as he tried to reclaim his lost gold and had much in common with such “cabin-in-the-woods” fright flicks as 1980’s Friday the 13th and 1981’s Sam Raimi-directed Evil Dead movie. Jones decided to change tack when he began to rehearse with Davis. “He was bringing some charm and some funniness to it,” says Jones. “I said, Let’s put some comedy in here. I think that’s one of the things that made Leprechaun popular and spurred all the sequels. It wasn’t just your horrific killer. He had a personality. I give Warwick a lot of credit for that.”

Davis, in turn, says the key to his performance was the Leprechaun’s buckled footwear. “They were these big high-heeled shoes,” recalls the actor. “As soon as I put them on, I felt I was the character. In subsequent sequels the new designers would come on and try to alter things. I had to cling on to those shoes. It gave me the walk, it gave me the stance. It was everything, really.”

NEXT: Bringing the Leprechaun to life.

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