Over the decades creatures both great, small, and in between have been given the horror treatment; from disease ridden rodents to gargantuan lizards (and the occasional chicken), no critter has been pushed aside in the pursuit of onscreen terror. And I mean none. Because in the ‘70s everything was fair game, which is how you end up with Night of the Lepus (1972), a wrongheaded Animals Attack flick that is a lot of fun despite its ludicrous premise. Beware the…rabbits?
Released by MGM in October, Lepus pulled in nearly $4 million against a $900,000 budget, making it a success with crowds while leaving critics foaming at the mouth. Reviews were unkind, to say the least: in fact, the film has the reputation in certain circles as being one of the worst of all time; which is subjective of course, but since it’s my column, I’ll just call that a big ol’ stack of bunny biscuits.
But first, let’s head to the dusty varmint infested fields of Arizona and see what’s what: Actually, we’ll start with a solemn newscaster informing us of an infestation of rabbits in the southwest, with a look back at old news footage from the ‘50s when Australia suffered a similar problem. (This is actual footage, whereas the current coverage looks a lot like a scene that appears later in the film.) We soon meet Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun – Motel Hell), a rancher with some major hare issues; his university pal Elgin Clark (DeForrest Kelley – Star Trek) turns him on to a “young” couple, Roy and Gerry Bennett (Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh, respectively), married scientists using alternate measures to help with animal population explosions.
Roy and Gerry try out hormone treatments on the little hoppers, but their 10-year-old daughter Amanda (Melanie Fullerton – To Rome with Love) takes one of the test subjects as a pet, and will you look at that, it escapes on Cole’s ranch. Before you can say copulation three times fast, the whole area is overrun with bunnies the size of lions (with apparent roars to match) who maim and mutilate anyone in their way. Can Roy and Gerry save the sleepy little community from becoming reprocessed people pellets?
Night of the Lepus should get points alone for pure chutzpah. Based on Russell Braddon’s novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit, a satirical look at Australia vying for world domination, Lepus jettisons everything but the voracious rabbits, instead choosing to be a straight ahead eco-thriller with the most adorable of creatures as antagonists, which brings us to the 800 pound bunny in the room: it’s impossible to make rabbits scary. It’s certainly not for a lack of trying by director William F. Claxton (Desire in the Dust) and screenwriters Don Holliday and Gene R. Kearney (Night Gallery), but when your villains bring chocolate to kiddies every Easter, it’s hard to view them as menacing.
Everything from forced perspective to miniature models is used to give the critters some weight and substance, the illusion of a threat that simply can’t be; close ups of rabbits’ maws covered in crimson and people in bunny suits (proto-furries, I suppose) swiping away as distraught actors thrash and writhe one step removed from Bela Lugosi in Wood-land. It simply doesn’t work as intended.
So why are we here, then? Well, because they went ahead and made the damn thing anyway, and regardless of its sleepy western vibe (Claxton shot a lot of westerns, although he did helm some Twilight Zone episodes) mixed uneasily with laughable effects, Night of the Lepus still works as fun fodder for the B crowd. All the ingredients are here: Science (nature needs balance, see), Scientists (mid-40s “young couple” Whitman and Leigh), The Law, Kids in Peril (of course Amanda heads into a mine shaft that houses the whole litter of rabbits. Coterie? Pod? Whatever they’re called), and The Monster.
Now, just because The Monster (seemingly) doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain, people frown upon Lepus. But really, did audiences not laugh at the papier mache heads and zipper backed creations from the ‘50s and ‘60s? Of course they did; however Lepus came long after an insurgence of well-structured horror such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Psycho (1960), and Rosemary’s Baby (’68). A quaint (well almost – there is a healthy amount of red stuff thrown around) throwback like this is noted more for what it lacks than what it offers: drive-in food for the soul, passably performed by screen veterans who try their best to keep a straight face and just do the work.
If this sounds like a soft sell for Night of the Lepus, that’s because it kind of is. I can’t tell you it’s a misunderstood hidden treasure of the burgeoning Nature Run Amok sub-genre; they would lock me up and take away my passport. But if I ever need a fix of flesh-eating fluffy hoppers, there’s only one dangled carrot for me. And that’s enough.
Night of the Lepus is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977)