William F. Claxton, 1972
Starring: Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, DeForest Kelley, Rory Calhoun
I know this isn’t a popular opinion, but I absolutely love Night of the Lepus. It’s completely ridiculous, almost nothing happens, and there is no real way to make rabbits scary, yet I adore it. I suspect this is related to my secret love of bunnies. I have never spoken about this openly on the internet, so you, dear reader, are the first to know. Don't judge me. Watership Down is still one of my favorites books, I have fond memories of Bunnicula, and I love all scary rabbit films, not that there are many. I was first introduced to the Rabbit of Caerbannog, a killer bunny with sharp, pointy teeth in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) as a child, and I think this deeply ingrained the belief that killer hares are absolutely hilarious. As an adult, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) is one of my favorite animated films. Thus my love for Night of the Lepus was probably inevitable.
Rabbits are taking over a ranch in the American Southwest. Cole Hillman, a rancher, asks the local college president, Elgin Clark, for help dealing with the situation. Hillman wants the most environmentally friendly option, so Clark recommends working with some scientists new to the area, Roy and Gerry Bennet. The Bennets decide to explore hormone therapy and shoot up a bunch of rabbits with an experimental drug. Their daughter accidentally takes one of the test subjects home to be her pet. Said bunny quickly escapes into the wilderness and, doing what rabbits do best, breeds like crazy, filling the area with wolf-sized mutant rabbits hungry for human flesh.
There is no way to make rabbits scary - though it is based on a book that also tries, The Year of the Angry Rabbit by Russell Braddon, high on my reading list for 2013 - and this film utterly fails at every attempt. There are many, many close ups of rabbits, some with bloody fur or teeth (it’s actually ketchup). Regular looking rabbits are shown next to miniatures, to be make them seem bigger, which doesn’t work at all. In a few scenes, a man in a bunny suit attacks people. Rabbits are shown running, jumping, lazing about and more from every imaginable angle. Some amazing scenes ensue, like cops interrupting a screening at a movie theater with the announcement, “Attention! Killer rabbits are on their way!” There is bunny versus chair and, more upsettingly, bunny versus fire when Janet Leigh sets one ablaze.
Janet Leigh's appearance here is utterly baffling, but so is the high caliber of acting talent in general. Western star Roy Calhoun (he was also in Motel Hell, 1980, and Hell Comes to Frogtown, 1987) appears, as does the rugged and prolific Stuart Whitman. In addition to a number of classic films like The Sound and the Fury (1959), Whitman was in a few animals attack films, such as The White Buffalo (1977) and Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive (1977). I was most excited to see DeForest Kelley (Star Trek, for all you poor, unfortunate non-Trekkies). Though he has a fabulous mustache, his role is sadly brief.
I can’t really say the acting is bad; all the actors are solid and well-trained. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the script or dialogue either, this is just somehow not a good film. Probably because it’s about giant, killer rabbits. The characters also make some really stupid decisions, like blowing up the mine shaft to bury the rabbits inside, seemingly forgetting that the animals are natural burrowers. And then there is the electric conclusion. The worst I can say about Night of the Lepus is that there are a few slow, overly talky moments that could stand to be broken up with more hare-raising action. There is a surprising amount of gore, considering that we’re talking about an ineffectual movie about murderous bunnies, and it might have a certain so-bad-it’s-good appeal. I really like this movie a lot and want to recommend it, but I feel like I might lose some readers if people force themselves to sit through 90 minutes of bunny terror on my account.
It seems that MGM knew they had a stinker on their hands and tried to trick people into seeing the film. They changed the original title from Rabbits to Night of the Lepus (lepus is their Latin name, which the film explains), which was probably a good move. They also cut any direct shots of bunnies out of the trailer, making the monster seem, well, monstrous. Critics and audiences hated it, but it has since gained a small cult following. I am probably its biggest fan. Fortunately it was released on DVD from Warner, and upon reflection, the reviewers over at Amazon have given it 4 stars out of 5, so maybe I’m not alone in my devotion.