Monday, 3 February 2014

Leapin' Leprechauns!

Director: Ted Nicolaou
Writers: Ted Nicolaou, Michael McGann
Producers: Vlad Paunescu, Oana Paunescu
Cast: John Bluthal, Sharon Lee Jones, Sylvester McCoy
Country: USA
Year of release: 1995
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Leapin’ Leprechauns!, produced and released by Charles Band’s kid-vid company Moonbeam Entertainment, is nauseatingly twee, an image of Ireland and Irish people which is about as accurate as Riverdance or those market stalls that sell those awful CDs of crappy Irish cover versions and unfunny Irish comedians. It also stars Doctor Who.

John Bluthal stars as Michael Dennehy who lives in an Irish castle which looks about as Gaelic as everything else in Romania, where he receives coachloads of tourists who traipse up the hill, take a quick look at a small arrangement of three flat stones, hear a bit of blarney/bollocks (depending on your point of view) then head off again. The speed with which they disappear suggests they’re doing Europe in a week and have to see the whole of the Republic of Ireland on Tuesday afternoon. Michael tells them that a hole in the ground underneath the stones is where the leprechauns live. Bluthal is now best known from The Vicar of Dibley but once upon a time he was a regular stooge for Spike Milligan and also the voice of Steve Zodiac in Fireball XL5. His other genre movie credits include The Fifth Element, Dark City, Superman III and The Return of Captain Invincible.

When the tourists have departed (and there’s no indication that Michael makes any money out of this stuff), two comedy surveyors (Jeremy Levine and Mike Higgins) arrive whose attempt to set up a theodolite is scuppered when the equipment takes on a life of its own, complete with magic glow and superimposed stars. They say they were employed by Mr Dennehy but the address is in America - so it’s Michael’s son, John (Grant Cramer: New Year’s Evil, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Raptor, Addicted to Murder 2 and 3).

Michael rings his son to ask about this and is assured it’s all a mistake and hey, why doesn’t he come out to the USA and spend some time with his grandchildren? But before heading off, Michael Dennehy explains where he’s going to some leprechauns. These three little fellows are white-bearded King Kevin (Godfrey James: Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Land that Time Forgot, At the Earth’s Core, also in Moonbeam’s Magic in the Mirror and its sequel Fowl Play), silly Patrick (James Ellis: Z Cars, Nightingales and an uncredited bit-part in Re-Animator, also in Moonbeam’s Dragonworld II) and very silly Flynn (Sylvester McCoy!). They hold a conflab with the other leprechauns who are all played by Romanian extras. Only the leprechaun wizard (Ion Haiduc: a Band regular who played Lt Marin in the Subspecies sequels and was also in Trancers 4 and 5, Magic in the Mirror, Fowl Play, The Secret Kingdom, The Shrunken City, Clockmaker etc; more recently in Mimic 3 and Ghouls) has any lines and he warns of great doom because of an evil entity called Finbara, Lord of the Dead.

The leprechauns’ dinner is then interrupted by the arrival of some fairies who are all represented by Romanian extras in tutus and gossamer wings, dancing down the table. Tina Martin (Legend, Dragonworld II) is Maeve, the Queen of the Fairies who is considerably less delicate and has an enjoyable (if asexual) love-hate relationship with King Kevin which reflects the larger antipathetic battle-of-the-sexes between the fairies and the leprechauns.

The upshot of all this is that Kevin, Maeve, Patrick and Flynn magic themselves into Michael Dennehy’s suitcase (which is conveniently, but inexplicably otherwise completely empty) and accompany him across the Atlantic to Boston. There we meet John, his wife Sarah (Sharon Lee Jones from Princess Warrior), their ten-year-old son Mikey (Gregory Edward Smith, who had just starred in seal-buddy movie Andre and went on to appear in The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space, Small Soldiers and The Seeker: The Dark is Rising) and his younger sister, curly-haired moppet Melanie (Erica Nicole Hess). Sharon and John are welcoming, Melanie is excited but Mikey is grumpy, worried that his grandfather is a mad old bastard who will embarrass him in front of his friends - as indeed the mad old bastard promptly does.

What no-one knows is that John has plans to convert Fairy Hill, where Michael lives, into a theme park called Irelandland.

Well, naturally Michael is a bit put out to find the leprechauns in his luggage and they start playing pranks, including a sequence in the park when they cause all the swings and roundabouts to go crazy (though without hurting any children, of course). Mel is the first of the Yanks to see the little folk, who can only be viewed by those who believe in them; this is why Michael generally appears to be talking to himself. Sarah, who has unfulfilled ambitions to be an artist, learns to see the wee folk too and eventually so does Mikey.

Hoping to have his father certified insane, thus making it easier to take control of the land in Ireland, John invites to dinner his next-door neighbours, psychiatrist Dr Voyznic (Mihai Niculescu: Nostradamus, Vampire Journals, The Secret Kingdom, The Shrunken City, Clockmaker) and his wife, psychiatrist Dr Voyznic (Dorina Lazar: The Shrunken City, Phantom Town, Subspecies IV, Wolf Girl). Naturally the leprechauns have great fun playing with the food which John can’t understand although the rest of the family find it hilarious.

As so often with Moonbeam films, the ending ticks the right boxes but is rather incoherent. Sarah, having accidentally trapped King Kevin in a pedal-bin and then released him, is granted three wishes. She rather wastes these by wishing for her family to see the leprechauns (which Kevin explains is not really up to him) and then later for her family to be safe (which Kevin again explains he can’t guarantee). She may use her third wish for something but to be honest I didn’t notice.

The safety issue arises because John goes driving off with his father in the car but is pursued by Finbara, Lord of the Dead, who has somehow also got over to the States. This threat is briefly shown as a vaguely anthropic (and rather scary) dark cloud and later reappears as a Death-like figure - dark cloak, skull face, glowing red eyes, stout staff in place of scythe - who is backed by a small number of similarly dressed figures with animal skulls. This is all rather frightening to be honest, especially when combined with a spectral black horse, rearing wildly like it’s auditioning for a Lloyd’s Bank advert, and the distant screaming of banshees supposedly foretelling a death.

Mikey chases after his father on his BMX, utilising several shortcuts, and Sarah and Mel follow behind in another car. John’s car crashes and overturns, though the two men are unhurt, and there is some sort of malarkey whereby they can only defeat Finbara if John believes in leprechauns and/or something to do with John telling his son that he loves him. Frankly, it’s vague and not explained but it’s all very feelgood and family and leads into an epilogue showing the family (and the wee folk) back in Romania, um, Ireland with John providing the bollocks for another batch of tourists.

Leapin’ Leprechauns! is okay, I suppose. It’s a direct descendent of Darby O’Gill and the Little People and should not be confused with the Warwick Davis-starring series of Leprechaun horror movies. I mean yes, family is important and yes, John Dennehy has learned his lesson and cancelled plans for Irelandland (which, as his wife points out, is a really, really stupid name) and yes, believe in magic and all that. And I suppose Americans might not know the difference between an Irish castle and a Romanian one (in fact, many of them probably don’t know the difference between Ireland and Romania). The story is not what you would call satisfying but it rarely is with Moonbeam films. The denouement in particular is rushed and vague but makes up for this to some extent with its genuinely unnerving (if only briefly glimpsed and thoroughly unexplained) antagonist.

What marks this out as unusual is that unlike films such as Magic Island and Prehysteria, the child characters are incidental to the plot. Although this does, as usual, see reconciliation between father and son, both are grown men. As for the three leprechauns and the fairy, their role is basically to cause mischief, much like the tiny dinosaurs of the Prehysteria trilogy. They are catalysts more than characters.

Ted Nicolaou presumably directed this film back-to-back with its sequel, Spellbreaker: Secret of the Leprechauns (just called Spellbreaker in some territories and released in the UK as Leapin’ Leprechauns! 2) which featured all the same main actors and much of the same crew. He also helmed both Magic in the Mirror films and both Dragonworlds; the former were shot back-to-back but the latter were separated by a few years. His other films include The Shrunken City, Bad Channels, The Horrible Dr Bones, the non-Band Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys and of course all four Subspecies pictures.

Nicolaou co-wrote the script for this film and its sequel with someone named Michael McGann who has no other credits. Charles Band and his then-wife Debra Dion share the executive producer credit; Dion worked on Band’s productions as far back as Ghoulies in 1985 but they must have split up shortly after this film as Spellbreaker is one of her last movie credits. The actual producers on Leapin’ Leprechauns! were Vlad and Oana Paunescu, owners of Castel Studio in Romania, home to dozens of Charlie Band movies as well as everything from Pumpkinhead III and IV to Incubus. Ray Bright, who plays a tourist in the opening scene, was associate producer.

Cinematographer Adolfo Bartoli worked on a stack of Full Moon/Moonbeam/Torchlight titles including Trancers II-V, Puppet Master III-V, Robot Wars, Demonic Toys, Dollman vs Demonic Toys, Oblivion II, The Exotic Time Machine II and The Creeps. His non-Band credits include Octopus, Caved In, Operation Delta Force 4, The Second Jungle Book and teenage witch telemovie spin-off Sabrina Goes to Rome plus gigs as camera operator or second unit DP on Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie, Alien Contamination, Iron Warrior and Curse II: The Bite.

‘Visual effects designed and supervised by Jim Aupperle’ - who also worked for Band on Dollman, Troll and this film’s sequel. Aupperle started out in the 1970s working on films such as Planet of the Dinosaurs and Beware! The Blob and later provided visual effects or stop-motion work on such movies as Evil Dead II, Critters 2, Gremlins 2, Tremors II, The Gate I and II, RoboCop 2 and 3 and Here Come the Munsters. The credit block does not mention Aupperle but says instead ‘special visual effects by AlchemyFX’.

Mark Rappaport gets a separate credit for ‘leprechaun effects’ although his name is misspelled as ‘Rapaport’. Now, there are three basic techniques used to make the leprechaun actors appear tiny - well, four if you include simple editing between ‘humans’ looking down and ‘wee folk’ looking up. Green screen is used sparingly as it is complicated and expensive. Some over-the-shoulder shots of Michael Dennehy looking down at the leprechauns are achieve by standing John Bluthal and the camera on a high platform above Ellis and co., then using a long focal length to get all the actors n focus. And for a few reverse shots they use puppets.

I assume it’s this puppetry that constitutes Rappaport’s credit as his other films include puppet work on Puppet Master I, II and III, Prehysteria, Batman Returns, Scary Movie 2 and Child’s Play 3. More recently, he has been supervising effects on such blockbusters as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and I am Legend. Among his team the heads of department were ‘mechanical supervisor’ John ‘Teenie’ Deal (Kraa! The Sea Monster), ‘artistic supervisor’ Allen ‘Weenie’ Barlow (Tremors, Total Recall, Van Helsing) and ‘costume supervisor’ Christine Papalexis who is also credited as ‘FX puppet operator’ and went on to be principal puppeteer on Team America: World Police!

The costumes for the actors themselves were designed by producer Oana Paulescu and Mihaela David (miscredited as ‘Mihael David’) who worked on Subspecies II and III, Trancers 4 and 5, Totem, Highlander: Endgame, Dracula II and III and many other Romanian-filmed movies. Mark Rappaport’s unusual ‘leprechaun effects’ credit, incidentally, is superseded in the oddity stakes by Luiza Popa who was ‘fairy co-ordinator’ - by which I assume she choreographed the fairies dancing down the leprechauns’ table as during the rest of the film there’s only one fairy to co-ordinate.

Buried in among the credits is concept artist Reiko Kobayashi who went on to be production designer on the Andy Hurst-scripted ‘sequels’ to Wild Things and Single White Female. The actual production designer on Leapin’ Leprechauns! was Radu Corciova (Mandroid, Subspecies II-IV, Retro Puppet Master, Elvira’s Haunted Hills).

The irritatingly fiddly-faddly music to this movie is jointly credited on-screen to Richard Kosinski (Totem, Killjoy, Langliena and, um, Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw), John Zeretzke (whose surname is actually ‘Zeretzka’) and William Levine - although Levine’s name is curiously absent from the credit block. All three gentlemen also worked for Nicolaou and Band on the Subspecies films.

In summary, Leapin’ Leprechauns! was a product of Charles Band’s Romanian period which, like most of the Moonbeam films, has entertainment value for small children and reasonable production values, but little or no adult appeal. I have now watched it twice in ten years and that’s probably often enough.

MJS rating: B-
review originally posted 24th September 2007

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