If we’re being honest, not even the most devoted horror fan is likely to watch their way through the entire Leprechaun film franchise on any given St. Patrick’s Day. There are, after all, no fewer than eight films in that franchise these days, after the most recent reboots in 2014 and 2018. It’s much more likely that the casual horror fan may simply seek out something with the Leprechaun title on it, and simply stop there.
This begs the question: Which Leprechaun film is best? Which really captures the anarchic spirit of this deeply silly series? Which of the classic films contains the best performance by the one and only Warwick Davis as the title character (whose real name is apparently “Lubdan,” by the way)?
Suffice to say, you’ll definitely want to be reaching for one of the classic Leprechaun entries this St. Patrick’s Day, the six films starring Davis that were released between 1993 and 2003. As an actor, he brought a warmth and humor to the role that subsequent attempts to reboot Leprechaun have been sorely lacking. Not all the Davis installments are necessarily all that entertaining, but that is never Davis’ fault—he always brings his best, like Robert Englund in a Nightmare on Elm Street entry. We’re here to point you toward the films where you get to see this guy shine his brightest.
Note: There’s no shortage of Leprechaun pretenders and rip-offs trying to confuse consumers into thinking they’re part of this series. As a result, don’t expect to see films like 2012’s Red Clover/Leprechaun’s Revenge on here.
Director: Zach Lipovsky
The absolute nadir of the Leprechaun series came in the first VOD reboot produced by WWE Studios, and the first film made without Warwick Davis as the title character. Here, the part of the Leprechaun was played by WWE little person wrestler Dylan Postl, also known as Hornswoggle—seemingly a fitting choice, given that he’d literally been wrestling as a leprechaun character for years. However, the choice of casting really doesn’t matter in the slightest, given that the character has been reimagined here as a mute little monster without a single line of dialogue. It’s a phenomenally bad choice, reducing the beloved Leprechaun character into a simple stock movie monster in a tiny, inarticulate costume.
That’s par for the course when it comes to Origins, though, a film where it feels like everyone on the creative side must have been in over their heads. Plot is effectively nonexistent—a group of American tourists in the Irish countryside hole up in an abandoned cabin, where they’re attacked by the Leprechaun. That’s it. Visually, it’s extremely muddy and unfocused as well, poorly lit and haphazardly edited—the ugliest and darkest of all the Leprechaun movies without any doubt.
It all adds up to a borderline incomprehensible entry, without any humor, levity, entertainment factor, or anything else that one might cite as a redeeming quality. Whereas all the other entries in this series have at least something going in their favor, Origins is more like an unrelated zero-budget monster movie that just so happened to collide with the Leprechaun franchise. It’s so bad that you’ll struggle to even find a decent screenshot of it online.
Director: Steven Kostanski
The most recent return to the Leprechaun franchise, from The Void director Steven Kostanski, is worlds better than the likes of Origins, and it actually has some decent things going for it. The makeup and effects work are actually pretty excellent—shockingly gory, in fact, for a film that premiered as a SYFY original. The kills are gnarly, and the film looks good despite its low budget, although its decision to bill itself as a direct sequel to the original 1993 film, ignoring all the sequels along the way, is just about the most 2018 move imaginable. I’m honestly shocked that they titled it Leprechaun Returns and didn’t just call it Leprechaun, like the 2018 Halloween sequel that somehow got away with being titled Halloween. As for the plot, there’s absolutely no experimentation here—this is solely a nostalgia trip, playing the hits, with a lead character who is meant to be the daughter of Jennifer Aniston’s character from the 1993 original.
What holds Leprechaun Returns back more than anything is a certain dearth of spirit from the original series—they at least make an attempt to balance blood and guts with the comedic roots of the films, but the jokes lean more toward pointlessly salacious than silly. The charm just isn’t there, and although new actor Linden Porco does his best, he doesn’t possess the presence of Warwick Davis. There are simply factors standing in the way of his performance—most notably the fact that he can’t seem to adjust to the teeth/jaw prosthetics of his costume, which makes his lines sound badly slurred, hurting the comprehensibility of the dialogue. For a villain who is best known for jokes and one-liners, that’s a difficult hurdle to overcome.
Director: Steven Ayromlooi
Here’s the thing about the two “Hood” installments in the original Leprechaun series—they sound in theory like they’d be far funnier than they actually end up being in practice. When someone who enjoys bad movies casually reads through the titles of the Leprechaun series, their eyes are inexorably drawn to the abject absurdity of Leprechaun in the Hood and especially Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood. Even next to Leprechaun 4: In Space, those titles just stand out for their semi-offensive humor value. And the humor of those titles and premise has made some Leprechaun fans incorrectly conclude that In the Hood and Back 2 tha Hood represent the most fun-bad of the Leprechaun sequels.
In reality, though, the series has really run out of gas by this point. The Leprechaun as a character is very much a creation of the 1990s, and the 2000s entries struggle to operate as either comedies or slashers, during a period when the slasher genre was also in the dumps. The one-liners are badly dated, having not evolved since the middle of the previous decade. The script is self-parodying in the extreme, and Warwick Davis’ screen time seems significantly reduced, as if even he is tired of going through the motions. Even the (problematic) urban setting had already been thoroughly explored a few years earlier, leaving Back 2 tha Hood as an entry without anything new to bring to the table. The only saving grace is Warwick Davis’ undeniable charisma. If you really want to see an urban leprechaun, you might as well just watch the entry that preceded this one.
Director: Rob Spera
In comparison with sequel Back 2 tha Hood, the Leprechaun’s first trip to the inner city at least has the benefit of putting him into new territory, although it’s hilarious that the meter for exotic “dangerous locations” goes from Las Vegas (Leprechaun 3), to OUTER SPACE (Leprechaun 4) to “the hood,” like that’s a linear progression. The results are just as culturally insensitive as you would expect them to be, so don’t say we didn’t warn you.
On the plus side, the cast here is significantly stronger than in Back 2 tha Hood, especially given the fact that we’re blessed with no less than Ice T himself as “Mack Daddy O’Nassas,” a corrupt hip-hop producer who has won fame and glory with the help of the Leprechaun’s stolen magic flute. It’s yet another instance of a random magical object owned by the Leprechaun becoming a major plot point in this series, despite never being mentioned in any of the previous (or subsequent) installments. Leprechaun movies, you may be shocked to learn, are not much for continuity.
The series has most definitely stopped taking any of its horror elements seriously by this point, making the kills somewhat on the lackluster side, but Warwick Davis shines in his interactions with the main cast. The cannabis gags in particular flow constantly throughout, peaking in the scene where the Leprechaun shares a joint with Ice T in a bathroom, quipping that “a friend with weed is a friend indeed.”
Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
This is definitely the most avowedly and committedly bizarre of the classic Leprechaun films, stranger even than the title would imply. Just going off “Leprechaun: In Space”, you might expect the movie to be about Warwick Davis sneaking aboard the International Space Station and causing his usual brand of mischief there, but the story is instead set above an alien world, removing it entirely from previous Leprechaun canon—in fact, the Leprechaun here might be some sort of alien? Throw in an alien princess with magical powers, and the premise has significantly more fantasy elements than you’d expect for what is presumably supposed to be a sci-fi horror movie.
Not that any of this really matters. Leprechaun 4: In Space feels cobbled together from re-used “spaceship” sets, much like the similar Jason X, with a motley crew of nobodies giving our little green friend no shortage of Space Marines to murder in various absurd ways. Most notoriously, the Leprechaun is at one point blown to bits, but manages to survive by entering a man’s genitals when the guy pees on the corpse, only to explode back out of the man’s nether regions later on. We also get a giant version of the Leprechaun, and a finale that apes the conclusion of James Cameron’s Aliens. This is perhaps the series at its most aggressively stupid, but that’s not a bad thing when the series in question is Leprechaun.
Director: Mark Jones
The original Leprechaun, and Jennifer Anniston’s feature film debut, is a pretty unassuming little film. It’s not nearly so absurd as the series entries that would follow, but it does do a good job of establishing the general template that most of the later films would repeat. The Leprechaun is a rhyming little avenger, after his stolen pot of gold. He takes gleeful joy in dispatching humans, and although the deaths aren’t so colorfully outlandish as they’ll soon become, this one does still have him pogo-sticking on a man’s belly until it bursts, so we’re not talking about arthouse horror here. Regardless, this entry does take itself most seriously as a horror film, in the sense that it spends roughly the same amount of time trying to scare its audience as it does trying to make them laugh. No other Leprechaun film comes close to reaching that roughly 50/50 split.
Immediately, Warwick Davis establishes himself as the franchise star, and the reason to watch any of these movies. He takes impish delight in all of the character’s physical mannerisms, emoting through what must have been a hellish makeup application. He imbues the Leprechaun with a zest and enthusiasm for evil that is practically unmatched among comparable horror icons.
With that said, the most purely entertaining entries in the series would end up being its first two sequels.
Director: Rodman Flender
Leprechaun 2 is a horror franchise sequel in the classic sense: Bigger, louder, zanier, sillier. In much the same way as A Nightmare on Elm Street started in more serious roots before becoming more comedic and absurd in the sequels to its original series, the same thing plays out in the Leprechaun series, albeit faster. This film takes the formula handed to it by the first installment and applies a wider cast of dumb characters to it, in more creative locations, and truly lets Warwick Davis start running wild in the charm department. The Leprechaun suddenly has a new motivation, in the form of finding a bride, and a new weakness in the form of “cold iron,” borrowing a bit of historic faerie folklore that will never be mentioned again.
Leprechaun 2 is simply a good synthesis of the elements that make the Leprechaun series work best—good kills, obnoxious characters, clever rhymes, and Warwick Davis hamming it up. Highlights of this installment include the Leprechaun engaging in a drinking contest with actor Len Lesser (“Uncle Leo” from Seinfeld), and then going to a coffee bar to sober up, where he murders MadTV’s Michael McDonald for good measure. We’re also treated to the Leprechaun driving a killer go-kart, and exploding at the end like he’s the freaking Death Star, while our hero points out that “he’s gonna blow!” This kind of earnestly dumb fluff is Leprechaun at its best, only surpassed by our last installment.
Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
Compared to such glamorous locales as “outer space” or “the hood,” the Leprechaun simply visiting Las Vegas might not seem particularly exciting, although it’s hard to deny how thematically appropriate it is to have a luck-granting fairy prowling around Sin City. In truth, though, Leprechaun 3 is the most perfect distillation of all the series’ charms—and Warwick Davis even agrees, citing this as his favorite Leprechaun installment as well. In the same way that A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is perhaps the most iconic and archetypal of all the Nightmare films, this is the high point of the Warwick Davis Show.
The sophomoric humor of the franchise reaches its zenith this time around, in a film that is colorful, fun, lively and brisk, featuring characters all fighting over a piece of gold with the power to grant ill-fated wishes in the style of “The Monkey’s Paw.” Our hero is dumb as a bag of rocks, and this only makes him more charming in his own pathetic way—especially after he gets bitten by The Leprechaun and slowly starts turning into a leprechaun like he’s a goddamn lycanthrope. His slow transformation into an angry Irishman over the course of the film is worth the admission alone, and the scene where he orders half a dozen variations on potatoes from a casino restaurant is delightfully hackneyed.
At the same time, the kills here are also excellent—very absurd and over the top, and featuring some of the best practical effects of the series as various characters are undone by their greedy wishes. One woman who wishes to be beautiful finds her breasts and buttocks inflating until her entire body explodes. Another guy who lusts after a TV stripper is killed in a robotic sequence that seems to directly mimic one of the best kills from the aforementioned Dream Warriors. From top to bottom, Leprechaun 3 is simply the most reliably entertaining, genuinely funny of these movies, and it should absolutely be your pick this St. Patrick’s Day.
Jim Vorel is a Paste Magazine staff writer and resident horror buff. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.