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

To create the Leprechaun’s grisly visage, Trimark hired makeup effects artist Gabe Bartalos, whose credits included Gremlins 2 and Sam Raimi’s Darkman and who later collaborated with artist Matthew Barney on his Cremaster cycle of films. “The executives knew of me and my studio, Atlantic West Effects, and as is done with a lot of projects they invited bids and designs,” recalls Bartalos. “I began doing some designs right on a clay bust—I could sculpt very quickly and instead of illustrations I went right to clay. It’s a much better way to present to people, you see the three-dimension in the anatomy. The funny thing was that after two or three designs, I began to get frustrated because it wasn’t what I would want to see, and I’m a horror fan. It was just more soft-core. Almost out of frustration I did a super aggressive [version]: chip-toothed, really souped-up brows, cheekbones that are carved into position through years of rage. It completely caught their attention. They said, ‘Wow, that’s so dynamic, that’s what we’re interested in.’ So we won the account.” Bartalos would go on to create the makeup effects for all of the original Leprechaun which means he has spent literally hundreds of hours making sure Davis looked appropriately hideous. “He’d be in the chair for three hours at the beginning of the shooting day and then there’s another 40 minutes of removal,” says Bartalos. “Warwick was not only pleasant to work with in the sense that he respected what I did, he also understood that the better canvas he is, it’s just going to make him look better. And on the flipside, I very quickly realized he was a serious talent. He was far more than a little person playing a role, he was a completely skilled actor. The size had nothing to do with it.”

Davis himself says he has extremely fond memories of working with Aniston. “She was a fresh, terrific young actress,” he says. “She certainly had a lot of drive and a lot of motivation, just a lot of oomph. There was just something about her where you thought, Yeah, she’s got ambition, this kid, and this is just the beginning of what she’s going to do. She was delightful to work with, as well. But she was definitely going places. I think she actually denies Leprechaun now.”

The film certainly isn’t top of the actress’s list of favorite things to talk about. In the course of a TV interview to publicize the 2009 movie Marley & Me, Aniston was asked by an Irish journalist if she would care to apologize to the nation for Leprechaun. “I should have apologized,” she responded. “But didn’t that punish me enough?” However, Jones has no beef with the star. “Jennifer was great,” says the director. “She was absolutely professional. She was sweet. She just wanted to do a good job. We had a lot of fun. It was my first picture, her first picture, so we were sort of stumbling through it, but we got through it. I bumped into her about three years after Friends had been on the air and she was a superstar and she came up to me and she goes, ‘You know, there’s been articles sometimes that I don’t look at Leprechaun fondly.’ And she said, ‘I just want to tell you I’ve been misquoted and it’s not true. It was a lot of fun.’ I said, ‘Jennifer, if I ever have the success you have, I’m going to deny I directed Leprechaun, so don’t worry about it.’” (Aniston was unavailable to comment for this article.)

Leprechaun was released in January 1993 and garnered extremely negative reviews. Variety described it as a “dull, unscary horror movie whose sole selling point is some extraneous gore footage” and The Los Angeles Times reviewer was just as harsh: “This dingy, drab pointless little movie — a would-be shamrock shocker about four teenagers menaced by the Irish super-scamp while renovating a North Dakota farmhouse — is made without flair or imagination, seemingly enervated by its own bad taste and low intentions.” Riffing on the Emerald Isle heritage of Davis’ character, Washington Post critic Richard Harrington wrote that “in retrospect this is one set of reels Davis wishes he had sat out” and prophesied “There will be no pot of gold at the box office for Leprechaun.” Harrington was wrong on both counts. Made for just under $1m, Jones’ film raked in $8.5m at the box office and Trimark greenlit a sequel, turning Davis into cinema’s most unlikely franchise star.

The Leprechaun also seeped out into the broader pop culture universe, often in unexpected ways. The 1993 comedy sequel Wayne’s World 2 found Mike Myers’ Wayne freaking out Dana Carvey’s Garth by shining a torch into his won face and imitating Davis’ monster. (“Garth, I’m the Leprechaun!” “Cool it, okay?” “I’m the Leprechaun!” “Stop it, alright!” “Don’t try and steal me pot o’ gold!” etc.) Davis was even asked to appear on MTV’s Spring Break programming block and judge a “Beauty and the Beach” in full Leprechaun get-up. “It was a TV show on a beach in San Diego and lots of people in swimsuits and what-have-you,” he says. “I just played it in character, I played it as the Leprechaun, the whole thing. I found out I could just be in any situation and react to it and mess about with people. It was great.”

After the first film, Jones headed for fresh directorial pastures (fresh-ish, anyway—his next movie was 1995’s horror film Rumpelstiltskin) and the second Leprechaun was directed by Rodman Flender, who had made 1991’s The Unborn. Leprechaun 2 relocated the action from North Dakota to Los Angeles and had Davis’ creature plotting to marry a comely but highly reluctant damsel played by Shevonne Durkin. Released just 15 months after the original, the film grossed less than a third of its predecessor’s take. “I was a little disappointed,” says Jones, whose deal with Trimark granted him a share of the profits from any sequels. “I thought it could have been done differently. I was going to have Warwick in drag and he’d play the Leprechaun’s wife coming after him. They wanted to go more traditional horror.”

Leprechaun 2 seemed to have little interest in maintaining a strict continuity with the first film. In the original Leprechaun, it is made clear that Davis’ villain is 600 years old. But in Leprechaun 2 he is celebrating his 2,000th birthday. This, and other apparent continuity errors in the series, has led to the theory among fans that Davis is playing different leprechauns as the franchise progresses—which in turn has led Leprechaun 3 director Brian Trenchard-Smith to the conclusion that he really couldn’t give a hoot. “There are undoubtedly some people who have far too much time on their hands,” says the filmmaker. “These are pieces of guilty-pleasure popcorn, which if you approach them in the right way, can give you a satisfying 90 minutes of entertainment, preferably around the six-pack and the bong. As an actor said to me recently when I pointed out that he was committing a continuity error, he said, ‘F— continuity!’ How can your argue with that?”

Trenchard-Smith is a prolific b-movie veteran and Quentin Tarantino favorite whose eclectic resume includes the 1982 action-bloodbath Turkey Shoot, the 1983 children’s film BMX Bandits—on which the director gave a teenage Nicole Kidman her first big break—and the forthcoming John Cusack-starring comedy-thriller Drive Hard. The filmmaker demonstrated a firmly competent, if never overly serious, hand on Leprechaun 3, which stars John Gatins as a young out-of-towner who starts turning into a leprechaun after being bitten by Davis. (Possibly realizing he could never top this thespian achievement, Gatins later turned his hand to screenwriting and last year scored an Oscar nomination for penning the Denzel Washington addiction drama Flight.) Leprechaun 3 is set in Las Vegas but was mostly shot in Los Angeles, although Trenchard-Smith did decamp to Sin City itself for a night to film exterior shots. “I definitely wanted to integrate the Leprechaun into the capital of greed but we had been refused permission to shoot anywhere,” recalls the director. “They thought we were making fun of gambling and that’s a shocking thing to do. The Golden Nugget particularly said, ‘You may not shoot outside our premises.’ So I naturally went to the Golden Nugget and stuck the 14 mm lens on the pavement and had the Leprechaun in the foreground, apparently towering over it.”

It is fair to say the result is not your average horror flick. “Of course, it’s not your average film—it’s Punch & Judy on acid,” says cast member Caroline Williams, whose aging casino worker character is gifted first youthful curves and then a literally explosive demise by the Leprechaun. “But I loved it, and embraced it, and had a great time.” Gabe Bartalos describes Trenchard-Smith as bringing “ a whole different breath of fresh air. He got the wink-and-the-nudge right away. And he was the only director that’s been brought back, so that I think is significant.”

Trimark had planned Leprechaun 3 to be the last in the series, but Trenchard-Smith did indeed return after the title became a bestseller. “To everyone’s surprise, Leprechaun 3 shipped 55,000 copies,” the director says, “which made it, I think, the highest-selling direct-to-video of 1995.” Indeed, while the Leprechaun franchise was no longer on the big screen, this always-low-budget enterprise was still making serious bank thanks to the home-entertainment boom. “In those days you would sell VHS tapes wholesale to stores for $50 and a good title could do 40,000 to 50,000 easily,” Jones explains.

It is at this juncture that the already peculiar little-engine-that-could franchise departed the rails altogether. If Leprechaun 3 is arguably the slickest of the original movies then Trenchard-Smith’s second entry in the series, 1996’s Leprechaun 4: In Space, is definitely the most balls-out crazy. “I can do balls-out crazy as well as anyone,” chuckles the director. According to legend, the film was inspired by a gag poster which was mocked up for a Trimark Christmas party and combined an image of Davis’ Leprechaun with the 1995 Tom Hanks-starring hit Apollo 13. “Yes,” laughs Mark Amin, when asked to verify this tall tale. “I remember there was a tag-line that said, ‘Houston, we have a problem.’ We thought that was funny.”

Trenchard-Smith suggested that instead of Apollo 13 the template for Leprechaun 4: In Space should instead be Aliens. But director also resolved to parody the sci-fi genre in a film which ultimately had as much in common with Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs as it did James Cameron’s space marines. The end product? A movie which features the Leprechaun bursting out of a horny space marine’s groin to utter the line, “Let that be a lesson to you, lad — always use a prophylactic!”

“It was madness,” says Davis of the fourth Leprechaun instalment. “Brian Trenchard-Smith, he’s a brilliant but eccentric director. I got on really well with him. I actually loved the humor he brought to 3 and then with 4 he kind of — yeah, he went a step further. But I enjoyed all the little nods to popular sci-fi and those sorts of things.”

Trenchard-Smith himself recalls the movie was a commercial disappointment, compared with Leprechaun 3. “I think it only shipped 40,000 instead of 55,” he says. “Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have made the horror scenes more horrific.” Trenchard-Smith suggested the next Leprechaun take place in Washington, D.C. “I proposed Leprechaun in the White House, where a giant Independence Day spaceship suddenly appears over the White House and spits down a block of ice,” he elaborates. “The Leprechaun thaws and gets into the crawlspace and the air conditioner ducts and [there is a] dysfunctional, but positively portrayed first family — because I was a Clinton supporter. But they said, ‘No, you’re getting too wacky.’ 18 months after I proposed the idea, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke so I left a voicemail on the relevant executive’s direct line and said, ‘Hi, remember me and my Leprechaun in the White House idea? Wouldn’t you like to have 1200 prints right now?’ I never got a reply.”

2000’s Rob Spera-directed Leprechaun in the Hood did return the franchise to earth — literally, if not metaphorically — for a film which costarred Ice-T and a host of other African-American actors. “We noticed we had a disproportionately large urban audience,” remembers Amin. “We said, ‘Okay, why don’t we do something that serves them?’” Davis describes Ice-T as an “elusive” character on-set. “He had this big Mercedes, he’d park it outside the trailer, and this music would thump from it during the night shoots” says the actor. “I don’t know if he was listening to his own music or somebody else’s. It was just this thumping: ‘Boom, boom, buh-doom.’ One day he came flying into my trailer and he looked distraught. I said, ‘What’s up?’ He said, ‘I’ve lost something. Mind if I have a look?’ He started tearing the cushions out of all the seats in the trailer and he pulled out the biggest piece of gold chain you’ve ever seen in your life from the back of the chair. I could have probably retired if I’d gone down to the pawn shop with that.”

Leprechaun in the Hood infamously ends with Davis performing a rap (sample lyric: “From the Emerald Isle to your place in the hood/I’m the man of green, come to do no good”). “I personally came up with the idea that the Leprechaun should be rapping,” says Amin. And is he proud of that achievement? “To me, cinema is a combination of art and entertainment and it’s very difficult to know where to draw the line,” he says. “Have I done movies, like Frida or Eve’s Bayou, that in terms of artistic [achievement] I’m really proud of? Definitely. But I’m proud of the fact that we were able take a tiny idea and make it a success.”

Gabe Bartalos suggests it was the very lunatic nature of the franchise which kept fans coming back for more. “Every Leprechaun seemed to top itself in the outrageousness,” he says. “But it seemed to be that going that far out there [was] what kept building an audience. It seemed like you couldn’t go ludicrous enough. Yeah, I think I giggled every time I read [a new script]. Like, Wow, these guys are nuts.” One diehard fan of both the original Leprechaun and its sequels is prolific horror director Darren Bousman, whose credits include three of the Saw movies and Repo! The Genetic Opera. “I have always loved the Leprechaun franchise,” says the filmmaker, who is currently at work on a sequel to his 2012 film The Devil’s Carnival.  “So much so I pleaded desperately to anyone who would listen to let me direct a reboot some years back. There was something so ridiculously fun and silly about them. A lot of people shunned the sequels, but for my money, nothing is better than watching a franchise let its villain go to Vegas, space, the hood, and then back to the hood.”

Davis says he and Bartalos did their best to keep the Leprechaun character as true as possible to the first film’s concept, regardless of where, or when, the film happened to be set. “We were the only constants throughout all the films,” he explains. “Directors would try and change things, and the change the rules, and me and Gabe weren’t having it. It was like, ‘No, no, you can’t change that.’ Like I said about the shoes, they’d try to alter the character and it was like, ‘No, we’ve got to deliver the Leprechaun. Whatever happens around him, or wherever we are — if we’re in space or Vegas — we’ve still got to deliver the Leprechaun. Because that’s what’s made the films successful, that character and what he gets up to. You can’t just suddenly have him speaking different or acting more aggressively or what-have-you. He’s got to be that sort of chirpy character that just sometimes loses it. I felt we owed it to the fans.”

Davis and Bartalos also work-shopped plotlines for further Leprechaun adventures. “We would sit in makeup for three hours every day and we had a lot of time to talk,” remembers the actor. “Myself and Gabe came up with loads of ideas, We had an idea that these children were kind of enslaved by a Leprechaun group, and gold was going missing from all over, and they were constructing a Buddha to the leprechauns, like a god-like structure. It was kind of a road movie as well, because we felt there hadn’t been a road movie for the Leprechaun and that was what we needed to do. We used to throw around all sorts of ideas.”

2003’s Ice-T-free but basically more-of-the-same Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood was the last of the original series. Davis says he was never officially told the franchise had been shelved for good and when Johnny Depp filmed a cameo in the actor’s 2011 sitcom Life’s Too Short he pitched the Pirates of the Caribbean star the idea of a crossover film. Alas—or perhaps not—Leprechaun vs. Pirates never received the green light. Regardless, Davis had hopes that he would get the call to once again don those buckled shoes in another Lep movie. “There were some big gaps between them,” he says. “So you were never surprised if was a few years and you didn’t hear anything. And then it was like, ‘We’re gonna do another.’ But there was never a point when you thought, Oh, that’s the end.”

Then in March 2012 WWE and Lionsgate—with which Trimark had merged in 2000—announced their intention to reboot the franchise. Two weeks later, Dylan Postl broke the news on Twitter that he had been cast as the lead in Leprechaun: Origins. “I’ve seen this coming since the Leprechaun reboot was announced,” Davis wrote on his own Twitter account the same day.

Davis’ message came with a hashtag postscript: #bigshoestofill.

Leprechaun: Origins stars Stephanie Bennett, Andrew Dunbar, Melissa Roxburgh, and Brendan Fletcher as a quartet of vacationers who are offered up as a sacrifice to Postl’s Leprechaun by locals while on a tour of Ireland. Although the film tips its hat to the original movies with a clutch of in-joke homages—Roxburgh’s character, for example, is named Jeni—the result is much less campy. Certainly Postl’s feral, non-speaking monster is far removed from Davis’ portrayal of the Irish myth, and the actor neatly sidesteps the question of whether or not he fills his predecessor’s shoes by not wearing any.

The Vancouver-shot film was directed by Zach Lipovsky, who previously made the SyFy movie Tasmanian Devils and was one of the producers of the recent, well-received found footage vampire film Afflicted. “The idea was to start fresh,” Lipovsky says. “Everyone, when they think of a leprechaun, it’s the guy in the little green suit saying little limericks. The challenge of trying to make something that could actually scare people was something I really was excited to take on. The original did really well, what it did. It has a huge fan base because of that. The idea wasn’t really to copy that or do it in a new way, it was really just to take a completely new approach. Maybe there was a creature thousands of years ago that the Celtics met in some scary cave and they’ve been telling ghost stories about and that over time became the silly character we know today. But at the beginning it was this really grotesque scary creature that had a lot of the attributes that we know from the myth, but was more legitimately terrifying. I looked at a lot of references for creatures that live underground—things that have really pale, crinkly, disgusting skin.”

The man wearing that skin is Postl, who recalls with a shudder sitting in the makeup chair every morning for two and a half hours during the film’s shoot. But the WWE star claims it all seemed worth it when he recently attended a screening of Leprechaun: Origins at the Los Angeles Film School. “They reacted to every scare I wanted to get out of them,” he says. “ I would say everyone left happy with it—and I think they left happy because they were expecting something different. They were expecting the cult classic Leprechaun movies, and it definitely wasn’t [that].” Postl admits to “talking the ear off” of WWE Studios boss Michael Luisi about making a sequel. “I think we’re on to something,” says Postl. “As long as we don’t go to space, or the hood twice, I think we might be okay.” Postl says he is untroubled by his predecessor’s tweeting: “It’s no skin off my back.”

Davis himself reveals he was offered a cameo in the Leprechaun: Origins but declined. “I wasn’t playing a leprechaun in it [and] I just didn’t want people to misled,” he says. Postl, in turn, says he is untroubled by his predecessor’s tweeting: “It’s no skin off my back.” The actor has professionally prospered over the past dozen years. In addition to Life’s Too Short he played both Professor Filius Flitwick and the goblin Griphook in the Harry Potter movies. In January of this year, he launched the Reduced Height Theatre Company which stages classic British plays with all little people casts. He has also appeared in a couple of films directed by Bartalos: 2004’s Skinned Deep and the fantasy-horror movie Saint Bernard, which is currently screening on the festival circuit. “It’s a pretty dark film,” says Bartalos of the latter. “It focuses on a musical composer who begins to become mentally unhinged and slips into madness. Warwick plays, in the loosest of senses, a guardian angel to our hero.”

Despite these professional achievements, Davis is clearly miffed about no longer playing the Leprechaun. “If I was ever asked to play the character again, I’d jump at the chance,” he says.

Davis’ days playing a leprechaun—if not the Leprechaun—may be far from over. “I met with Warwick and he said, ‘My fans want another horror franchise,’” says Mark Jones, who most recently directed a Billy Zane-starring thriller called Scorned. “I came up with the unique concept and the title is Vamprechaun.”

Oh, do go on.

“We’ve got a leprechaun who gets bitten by a vampire and he turns into this little tiny vamprechuan,” says Jones. “He’s now a half-vampire, half-leprechaun. He bites women on the ankle because he can’t reach their neck. Warwick loved the idea. It’s in development now and we’re very close to getting the green light. Lionsgate don’t want to use Warwick, they don’t want to use me, so we are coming up with a new franchise. I think it’ll be interesting to see which one does better.”

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