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Friday, April 30, 2021

‘Leprechaun’ Creator Mark Jones Bites into the ‘Vamprechaun’ Franchise He Still Hopes to Launch [Phantom Limbs]

phantom limb /ˈfan(t)əm’lim/ n. an often painful sensation of the presence of a limb that has been amputated.

Welcome to Phantom Limbs, a recurring feature which will take a look at intended yet unproduced horror sequels and remakes – extensions to genre films we love, appendages to horror franchises that we adore – that were sadly lopped off before making it beyond the planning stages. Here, we will be chatting with the creators of these unmade extremities to gain their unique insight into these follow-ups that never were, with the discussions standing as hopefully illuminating but undoubtedly painful reminders of what might have been.

This entry, we’ll be looking over Vamprechaun, an intended franchise starter from Leprechaun creator Mark Jones. To have potentially starred the Leprechaun franchise’s Warwick Davis, the film would have featured an unlucky little goblin who finds himself bitten by a vampire and turned into the titular hybrid monster. Mr. Jones is on hand to talk about the project’s origins, the story it would have told, whether or not it would have been in-canon with the previous Leprechaun films, and why it ultimately never happened…and why it might yet come to pass.

“Well, you know they’ve done eight Leprechauns,” Mr. Jones begins, pointing out the impressive longevity of the horror/comedy franchise. “I wrote and directed the first one and produced the second one, but didn’t have much to do with the others other than financial involvement, which was nice. Lionsgate, who owns Leprechaun, decided that they were taking it in another direction, which they did with Leprechaun: Origins, which I thought was not very good.

“What people liked about Leprechaun, we didn’t take ourselves seriously. It was a lot of comedy. We had fun, and weren’t trying to make a horrifically scary movie. In their wisdom, Lionsgate and [production company] WWE decided to take the leprechaun and make it this horrific creature without a personality who just kills people.

“I think the fans didn’t like it, and obviously it was the first one that didn’t work and didn’t do well. Then Leprechaun Returns, which Syfy did, I thought was very good. They had a new leprechaun, but he was very close to capturing the personality of Warwick. I keep in touch with Warwick Davis, and he’s great. When number seven was on the boards, I called Warwick and he said, ‘Yeah, they’re not going to use me.’

I said, ‘No way, you created a whole leprechaun character. You know…we should do something together.’ Once Mr. Jones began drumming up ideas for another collaboration for Mr. Davis, he struck upon an unusual idea for a movie monster hybrid. I said, ‘Well, what have they not done? You know, everybody’s into vampires, obviously Leprechaun is popular. Well…if a vampire bit a leprechaun, he would turn them into a ‘vamprechaun’.”

I told him, ‘Look, let’s go toe-to-toe with Leprechaun here. You can create a whole new character. You’ll be a little person vampire, but you’ll have leprechaun overtones. You’ll be green, you’ll still have red hair, and we’ll put you in a vampire costume. So it would be an original creation from two public domain characters.’ And he said, ‘I’d love to.’ He thought it was a good idea.”

Mr. Jones set about writing the script, sending along his first draft straight away to his intended star. However, Mr. Davis would initially back away from the project early on. “He was hesitant. He liked the script, but at the time he was doing a children’s show in England. I think he said in interviews that he didn’t want to do another horror movie because his kids were still in their early teens. He said, ‘When they turn 18, 19, I’ll get back into doing it.’”

While Vamprechaun may have lost its original leading man, another possibility arose in the form of another cult star. “Verne Troyer, who played Mini-Me in the Austin Powers movies, his agent got ahold of the script and gave it to him. He wanted to do it so badly. He just thought it was a great character that he could play, this evil leprechaun vampire.” Unfortunately, this possibility never came to pass, as the actor passed away in 2018.

With a title page that boasts both a promise that the film will be in “horrific 3-D” and a tagline reading “short in stature…long in fang!”, the Vamprechaun screenplay opens in the distant past, informing us that “monsters and creatures” trod the earth long before humanity arrived on the scene. Among these were the “wee” people, leprechauns, and blood-drinking vampires. The vampires tortured and killed the leprechauns, prizing them for their powerful green blood. “The leprechauns went underground because the vampires wanted to torture and kill them to find their gold,” Mr. Jones explains.

Once underground, the leprechauns devised a plan to protect themselves. Melting down the gold and infusing it with the blood of a captured vampire, the leprechauns created magical blood-gold coins which bore the power to protect them from the vampires. Unfortunately, a cunning vampire stole the gold. “The vampire hid the gold in a far away place that would eventually be known as America, long before it was even really populated.” There, the vampire hid the gold away deep in a hidden cavern, posting two cyclops bats as sentinels to guard the gold from the leprechauns, who would continue to seek out their gold for all time.

Mr. Jones continues: “Then we open in present day, where a leprechaun has been searching to get this blood-gold back, and finds the cave that the vampires headed in.” This leprechaun dispatches one of the cyclops bats and claims the blood-gold coins as his own, but is promptly bitten by the remaining vampire bat for his trouble. An airborne battle commences, with the leprechaun using his magical shillelagh to blast the bat from the sky in an impressive explosion. However, in doing so, he scatters the blood-gold coins far across the span of the city below.

The leprechaun crashes into the river below, then emerges a changed being. A mixture of a classical leprechaun and Bela Lugosi, boasting pasty skin and slicked back red hair. Even his clothes have transformed into a black, white and green tuxedo (complete with cape). Red eyes, long red fangs. “He ends up getting bitten, and he’s turned into a ‘vamprechaun’, and the movie is him searching for the hundred gold coins. He’s got to go find each gold coin, and they’re scattered over the city.”

From there, the self-dubbed “Vamprechaun” descends upon the sleepy rivertown to wreak havoc and reclaim his one-hundred missing blood-gold coins, one of which finds its way into the hands of our heroes: local rock-n-roller Emilio and his botanist girlfriend Selene. Together, the two will run afoul of the tiny terror, dodging his pursuits while seeking a method to destroy the bitey wee bastard for good. Along the way, many hijinks ensue.

“He ends up meeting a hooker,” Mr. Jones laughs. “He turns her into his maiden, who is nearly six feet tall. They go back to his headquarters, this abandoned mansion. He’s trying to get his gold back, and the gold has powers, and he’s got different powers than just a normal leprechaun. But, you know, he also bites people on the ankles instead of the neck, because he can’t reach their necks.”

In addition to his unique powers, he also has a singular weakness. “He can only be killed with a red four-leaf lover, and there are no such things. So they have to figure out how to make one by cross-planting things. They have to destroy this vamprechaun. But, of course, it’s wide open for a sequel.”

So…is Vamprechaun meant to be an extension to the original Leprechaun franchise, given the subject matter and the participation of the latter franchise’s creator and star?

“Well, it’s an original creation. Anybody can do a movie with a leprechaun. And it’s not going to be a movie with Warwick Davis playing the same character from the Leprechaun movies. I’ve always looked at Vamprechaun as a standalone. If Warwick wants to do it, great. I’d love to have Warwick. But he’s certainly not locked in and attached. And it would work without him. But if Lionsgate wants to make a new deal for Vamprechaun, then I’d certainly be happy to talk with them.”

More than once, it’s looked as though Vamprechaun might actually be fully realized. “Lance Thompson was a producing partner of mine on [Jones’ 2013 thriller] Scorned. He was the one who got the deal with Anchor Bay to make that film. We were going to a breakfast meeting, and I had mentioned this Vamprechaun idea. He said, ‘Hey, that’s a great idea. You should do it.’ Of course, with all producers it’s like, ‘You should write a script!’ Well, that’s helpful. So anyway, long story short, I ended up writing a script.

“He read it and really loved it, and said he thought he could get it made. He approached different places, but we just couldn’t get anybody to commit to it. Of course, if he had gotten the funding, then he obviously would have been involved as producer.”

At one point, the potential producer even attempted to fund the film via Indiegogo. “I guess Lance knew somebody that said he can do this stuff. And, you know, I wasn’t really a hundred percent. ‘You’re asking fans to give you money to make a movie?’ And he said, “No, it’ll be interesting. We can do it without a studio involved and you’d have complete creative control. So it was kind of a test. They wanted me to do a funny video for it, which I did … but I just wasn’t that comfortable with trying to do that. And we never really pulled the trigger on it. I said, ‘No, I think I can get a distributor or studio based off the leverage of the franchise and some other horror movies I did.’

“So that kind of just went away, and Lance went off to do whatever he went to do. Then I had some projects I was doing with another good producer friend of mine, George Saadi. Vamprechaun had been sort of in limbo. I said, ‘I gotta figure out how to get this made.’ George had a relationship with somebody, a young guy with a trust fund who was looking at getting into movies. George told me that this guy and his father were wanting to pick my brain because he was a big fan of Leprechaun and he knew George and I were working on projects. George said ‘He’s got a script, and he wants to do this horror movie for like a couple of million dollars.’ So we went to dinner, and he was telling me he had some people [on this project] that had never produced or directed. He had spent like forty grand in developing and scouting locations in Hawaii. They were going to shoot in Hawaii. Vamprechaun wasn’t even on my mind, I was just talking to him about Leprechaun and Rumpelstiltskin, another movie of mine that he was a fan of. And I kind of was saying it didn’t sound like these guys were legitimate. I think they were just trying to find a guy who wanted to make a movie, who was a good guy, but wanted to sort of learn how to do it. To be on set and learn how to direct and make movies.

“And I said, ‘These guys, all this stuff, it just doesn’t sound kosher.’ So then he asked me what I was working on. And I said, ‘Well, George and I have this script…’ He said, ‘You’re going to do a sequel to Leprechaun?!’ I told him no, that George and I were trying to do Vamprechaun. I told him what it was about, and he got all excited. ‘Are you going to try to get some funding for it? What’s it about? Can I read the script?’

“He eventually says, ‘I think I’d rather do your movie than the movie that these guys are wanting me to do.’ I wasn’t pitching, but he read the script, loved it, and said he wanted to make it. George and I went ‘Well, okay!’ It was totally independent money and I would have full control, which I prefer to do. We could find a distributor after the fact, which is better for us. You can make a better deal once you have a completed movie.

“So we went down the road, we started to negotiate with the attorneys, and we had a done deal. And it was a decent amount of money for a low budget movie, almost $3 million, which is good for these movies.

“We signed a deal there, we did the budgets. We did the scheduling, we opened up a corporation, and they were ready to drop the first chunk of money into our Vamprechaun account. We did it all …and this wonderful, lovely man, Lance Thompson, wrote an e-mail to these people. He said, ‘Well, you know, I’m involved. I’m a producer. And I’ve gotta be involved in this.’

“I called Lance to put a stop on it. That’s the easiest way to shut down a movie, having somebody send an email that says ‘I’m involved.’ I told Lance, ‘You absolutely would have been involved if you had gotten the funding. But you didn’t give me any money. You didn’t option it. You didn’t pay for the script. I wrote a spec script that I allowed you to shop. And you shopped at a couple places and you didn’t get it done.’ So it’s not like he had any ownership of it.

“I said, ‘You know what? Let’s make this go away.’ And this is a classic Hollywood story. I said, ‘What do you want? I’ll give you some money. We’ll give you a credit. It’s really nothing that you deserve, but they’re ready to fund the picture.’ Rather than shut the picture down and have them go away, you know? It’s like blackmail. And he just … you know, he wanted to produce it through his company and all that. I said, ‘Lance, you can’t do that. That’s not fair. This is ridiculous. Take a little bit of money.’ And it wasn’t just a little bit, we offered him a decent amount. This happens all the time, and he just wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t do it. Then the trust attorneys … you know, this kid was going to put a few million dollars into a movie, so it had to go through all the vetting. Then they said, ‘Now somebody is claiming that they’re involved, and we can’t do it.’

“And I don’t think Lance ever thought we’d sue him, but he cost us a movie. We had a terrific attorney named Alan Dowling, an entertainment guy, and we immediately sued Lance. We sent him this really elaborate lawsuit, which cost us a lot of money. We were suing him for millions. I was just so angry. He didn’t even answer the lawsuit. He just went, ‘Oh, shit.’ In a month, he was gone. But by that point, the money had went away. So he got nothing, we got nothing, and we had to pay for a lawsuit that he had no resources to fight. We won the suit hands down, but we weren’t going to be able to collect anything from him. And the movie just went away. That’s sort of it in a nutshell.

“In the interim, other people started reading the script. A lot of people are in this business, independent moviemaking. As you’re probably aware, it’s a tough game. We had a lot of people wanting to do it, and we thought we can get the money. We had a couple of different bites. George and I went off and did other things. So it just never got the steam that we’d had.

“It’s always been something that could be another franchise for Warwick. If we get him to play the lead, he’ll bring his personality. It’s completely our franchise because it’s an original character, but it would be Warwick, and everybody knows Warwick from Leprechaun. We’ve been sort of talking to people, but I haven’t reached out again to Warwick. At some point, if we get this thing going, and I think his kids are old enough, I think it’s something he might want to do. So that’s kind of where we are with it.”

Though this column usually charts the unfortunate fates that surround movies that will likely never be, it’s always this writer’s genuine hope that those movies will one day get made in some form. In Vamprechaun’s case, its filmmaker is certain that the wee vampire leprechaun will yet see his day in the sun. “You get enough determination, and you just keep going. We will get it made. We’re talking to people, but the industry has changed quite a bit. We were offered money to make it, but under a million dollars. We have had some independent people, but people want to spend 500, 600 thousand to make these low budget horror movies. We wanted it to be a theatrical, like the first couple of Leprechauns were, and you need a little more than that for something like this.

“The climate for independent movies with a theatrical release is very tough, and it’s expensive to get out there. But now with streaming and all this stuff, like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu … we’re talking to those kinds of people about doing it as an original. So that’s sort of resurrected it a little bit.

“I didn’t want to just throw it away just to get it made. As I said, it’s not a huge amount of money, but it’s a couple of million dollars and you need that. So, you know, it’s on the boards. I’m optimistic. It would be a great little franchise, it’s very funny. It’s got some horrific stuff, but I think it’s kind of unique.”

In closing out our talk, Mr. Jones offers up his final thoughts on Vamprechaun and its current state. “There’s such a fan base for the first Leprechaun, and I think most people got it. You know, it was not an Academy Awards picture. It was a fun little picture that we had a lot of fun making. When it first came out, I got beat up a lot by the critics because it had a big theatrical release all over the country in ’93 The critics beat me up, but then as years passed, it became a cult classic. So it went from being a horrible picture to now becoming a cult classic. It’s funny how the viewpoint has changed.

“You know, the leprechaun has sort of been taken by the Leprechaun movie. It now it seems to me that it’s past due to create a hybrid character of these two popular characters, the vampire and the leprechaun. Just bringing those two legends together, and come up with a little two foot tall vampire that’s half leprechaun. It has not been done. I just think we could create a great franchise and do a bunch of them.

“I think the timing is right. And the great thing is, they show Leprechaun on St. Patty’s Day, then do vampires on Halloween. So now you got a movie that can show on both. It’s an obvious no-brainer to me. I would love to get to work on it. I think it’d be great for the fan base.”

Very special thanks to Mark Jones for his time and insights.


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