From the DVD case:
A hormone intended to alter the breeding cycle of rabbits overrunning ranchlands instead turn them into flesh-eating, 150-pound monsters. Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun and DeForest Kelly are among the intrepid humans facing the behemoth bunnies. They use guns, flames, and dynamite to subtract them, but the rampaging rabbits know how to multiply. Can anything stop these hare-y, scary monsters? (1972, color)
The most amazing thing about Night of the Lepus is that it is not played for laughs. Instead, the film is approached as a cautionary ecological tale regarding the fragile balance of nature. Director William F. Claxton (who directed a lot of television, including several episodes of The Twilight Zone), and a cast of veteran actors, among them, the great Janet Leigh (Psycho, The Fog), treat the script earnestly, as if the premise is not utterly ridiculous. I mean, the movie is about giant, bloodthirsty bunnies. That’s funny, right? Even the book it is based on, The Year of the Angry Rabbit by Russell Braddon, is described as, “a savagely humorous indictment of War, Nationalism and Capitalism.” Savagely humorous! This movie may have had some success if it were created as a spoof of the giant, radiated, mutant bug/animal horror flicks that gained popularity in previous decades, but it is played absolutely straight.
So, how did MGM decide to make a picture like Night of the Lepus? Tom Weaver, in his book, Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes, put this very question to lead actress, Janet Leigh. Her response:
I read the script, and I have to tell you that it read very well. Night of the Lepus was made at the time of science fiction pictures like Willard and Ben and Frogs, and I must repeat the script read very well. No one twisted my arm and said I had to do it. What no one realized was that, no matter what you do, a bunny rabbit is a bunny rabbit! A rat, that can be menacing – so can a frog, spiders or scorpions or alligators – they could all work in that situation, and they have. But – a bunny rabbit? How can you make a bunny rabbit menacing, what can you do? It just didn’t work.
If the premise of rampaging, killer rabbits doesn’t elicit a giggle, the special effects will. The primary effect is accomplished by placing ordinary rabbits among miniatures and playing ominous music. Sometimes the rabbits stampede, and we are treated to countless scenes of colossal rabbits galloping in slow motion. To make matters worse, the rabbits don’t even appear to be wild, but more the household pet variety. There’s only so much terror a calico bunny can evoke. When a rabbit attacks an individual, a man in a rabbit suit is used. It looks almost as bad as it sounds.
Night of the Lepus does have some unsettling moments, however. For example, the actual newsreel footage documenting the Australian rabbit plague of 1954, used at the outset of the movie, is a bit unnerving. Of course, our sympathy is more for the terror-stricken rabbits being herded and captured, than for the humans. Also, the film opens on a grim note when rancher Cole Hillman, played by Rory Calhoun shoots his horse after it breaks its leg in a rabbit hole. The reality of ranch life far outweighs the horror of gargantuan bunnies.
Another startling, if not shocking, aspect of the movie is the copious amounts of blood used. Granted, it is the phoniest type of movie blood, but there is a lot of it. Perhaps realizing the futility of scaring people with ferocious rabbits, Director Claxton decided to overcompensate with gore effects (which are also done poorly). Not only are the victims covered in it, but the red stuff is painted onto the rabbits’ paws and faces. Particularly look for the scene where Rory Calhoun shoots rabbits through the cellar floor. The blood is positively gushing.
As for entertainment value, Night of the Lepus does have something. Unintentional humor seems to be its saving grace, but there’s a certain early 1970s allure that plays a role, too. It doesn’t have the charm of an Ed Wood, Jr. film, but something akin to it. It’s also amusing that the sheriff enlists the help of drive-in theater goers to wrangle the Herculean hares. I imagine a drive-in theater would have been the perfect venue for this flick.
Unfortunately, the movie drags too often for it to be a true treasure. It also features one of those annoying kids that cause a lot of problems. In this instance, it’s Melanie Fullerton in the role of Amanda Bennett. Amanda, in an attempt to save her favorite bunny, unintentionally releases an infected rabbit into the populace, which triggers the chain reaction. If B movies have taught me anything, it’s that little kids should not be allowed near labs where deadly research is being conducted. (Also see, The Monster that Challenged the World, for another example of a little girl unleashing havoc for the love of a rabbit.)
I’ve already mentioned Janet Leigh (in the role of Gerry Bennett) and Rory Calhoun (as Cole Hillman), but you will also recognize TV regular Stuart Whitman (who played uncredited bit parts in The Day the Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide) as leading man, Roy Bennett; and DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy from TV’s Star Trek) as Elgin Clark. Mr. Kelley wears a moustache in this movie, but, unfortunately for him, he is still recognizable. This was DeForest Kelley’s last non-Star Trek role.
I’m giving Night of the Lepus extra points for its shear absurdity and unintentional humor, but it is probably one of those flicks you’ll enjoy more in the company of others. Bad movies just seem to be more fun in groups.
Scene to watch for: Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) demonstrates a unique hitchhiking technique by standing on the side of the road and waving his rifle above his head like a madman.
Line to listen for: “But doctor, rabbits as big and as ferocious as wolves? It isn’t conceivable!”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! out of 5.