It’s Easter week, weird movie buffs, and that’s always a big to-do in the Strangefilm household. There are such time-honored holiday traditions as the coloring and hiding of eggs (hopefully to be found within the same month), the consuming of massive quantities of chocolate animals and baked ham, and of course the annual viewing of the 1972 MGM scare opus Night of the Lepus. The uninitiated of you out there might be wondering what a fright flick could possibly have to do with Easter. Well–and look away now if you DON’T want the identity of the film’s monster revealed–in a cinematic universe filled with attacks by mutated and over-sized bees, grasshoppers, spiders, scorpions, octopi (or their six-tentacled equivalent), sharks, lizards, alligators, shrews, bears and every other sort of predatory creature, Night of the Lepus was the first such feature to depict what happens when a town is overrun by giant, rampaging, carnivorous…rabbits.
You read that right: adorable, fluffy-tailed, nose-twitching bunny rabbits. Of course, “Rabbits, which seem so cuddly as pets, can become a menace.” So says the authoritative newsman who opens this hip-hop (sorry) horror romp while newsreel footage plays showing the critters overrunning the Australians plains in the 1930s and ’40s and being caught in nets and slaughtered. Our commentator goes on to say, “It’s difficult to conceive (though apparently not for the bunnies) that such an innocent, furry rabbit–scientifically known as Lepus–can be so destructive.” Well, at least that answers the question of the film’s title. Obviously the producers figured out that its original moniker of Rabbits was not going to pack in the fright fans.
After this expository opening and the oh-so-cute opening credits of bunnies and their burrows (see right), Night of the Lepus takes us to the wide open spaces of Arizona, where rancher Rory Calhoun is forced to shoot one of his horses, thanks to a broken leg caused by the many rabbit holes dotting the landscape. Unwilling to use pesticides or chemicals to eliminate the varmints (part of the ecological tone of the film I’ll discuss later), Calhoun visits nearby college head DeForest Kelley–sporting a mustache and ascots and making his last screen appearance in a movie that didn’t have the words “Star” and “Trek” in its title–and is introduced to husband-wife scientists Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh, whose work with insects and bats somehow makes them the logical choice to deal with the burgeoning bun population. Their solution is an experimental hormonal injection that should stop the hare-raising (sorry again) problem in its tracks. I say “should” because Whitman at the start of the experiment proclaims, “I wish I knew what the effects of this serum would mean.” Gee, that’s a reassuring thought from the guy in charge.
No sooner do Whitman and Leigh have a lab full of specimens pumped full of the untried serum than their precocious young daughter decides she wants one of their subjects for a pet and, while their backs are conveniently turned, switches it with a rabbit from the control group. I think you can see where this is going, because in the very next scene the girl’s would-be pet escapes into the wild and somehow manages to infect its furry brethren, turning the local lagomorphs into bloodthirsty, wolf-sized (give or take–the size of the rabbits seems to change from scene to scene in this film) predators with a nasty streak a mile wide and a taste for human flesh. The colossal cottontails hole up in nearby mines and kill a prospector before heading out into the desert night for a nocturnal ambush on a produce truck driver (nothing like meat and veg for dinner) stopped along the highway.
You can’t, of course, have these kinds of shenanigans going on without the authorities eventually noticing. Calhoun, Kelley, Leigh and Whitman locate the old mine and attempt to dynamite it and bury any surviving Lepus inside. This plan works about as well as it did in the ’50s giant ant favorite Them! (which this movie’s storyline starts to resemble), especially when one of the creatures burrows its way next to a man planting explosives and–courtesy of an unknown actor wearing a bunny suit–starts pawing and gnawing him. Leigh manages to chase the assailant away and soothes its victim by saying, “Calm down, he’s gone. The rabbit’s gone.”
Gone, but not forgotten…and not forgotten in the same way that these “scienticians” failed to consider that rabbits love to dig, and giant ones can just as easily burrow their way out of collapsed mines. Now the long-eared leviathans are out for revenge, as they take over a general store and try to attack Leigh and her daughter after their camper truck gets stuck in the sand. It’s clear that the Brobdingnagian buns’ (ridiculously) slow-motion rampage is only going to be stopped by some National Guardsmen with machine guns, a drive-in theater full of patrons who are enlisted into bunny round-up duty by a local policeman uttering the classic line,”Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way!”, and some electrified railroad tracks. It’s not a very pretty climax for animal lovers, but there were plenty of Arizona residents who had all the hassenpfeffer they could eat for several months afterward.
Night of the Lepus is one of those movies you sit through and wonder while you’re watching why no one in charge could see that they were accidentally shooting a comedy instead of the intended shocker. Fitting into the early ’70s subgenre of environmentally-themed horror/sci-fi cinema, whose roster includes Silent Running, Soylent Green, ZPG, and even the Japanese entry Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, it overloads the audience with references to man’s interference with nature (as Whitman says early on, “There’s a balance to these things. It’s tricky,” although he may have been referring to filmmaking.). Like Whitman, the cast all seem to perform with the same type of earnest resignation to the goofy goings-on, such as the scene where Leigh tries to fend off the creatures with road flares.
But the main problem with Lepus comes with the very first appearance of the title terrors: rabbits, some with “blood” smeared on their whiskers, hopping along miniature sets in slow-motion as they’re photographed at ground level and weird screeches/squeaks that are supposed to represent giant rabbit noises play over synth mood music. Now, your good doctor has seen his fair share of scary and not-so-scary screen monsters in his lifetime, and I’m here to say that no amount of trick camerawork, fake blood or close-ups of nasty incisors is going to make a pack of bunnies look frightening.
By way of illustration, this is not a doctored photo, but an actual image from the blood-curdling rampage in the movie. I don’t know about you all, but when I look at this I fully expect the buns to start clucking like chickens and do a spot for Cadbury chocolate eggs.
If you’re looking for something to entertain your brood during this festive time of year, your good doctor hereby prescribes 88 minutes of Night of the Lepus. After all, how would you rather spend your Easter: watching Charlton Heston part the Red Sea for the umpteenth time, or seeing Dr. McCoy and Marion Crane stopping giant rabbits from taking over the American Southwest?