“Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help! ” ~ Officer Lopez, Night of the Lepus
Director: William F. Claxton
Genre: Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller/Inadvertently Hilarious Comedy
Running Time: 88 mins
Release Date: 4th October 1972 (US)
You need to have seen this movie.
If you haven’t seen this movie I really think that you should watch it today.
Or at the latest over this next weekend.
Originally entitled Rabbits, but renamed when someone pointed out, at some ridiculously late stage in the production process, that the public might not necessarily be convinced by the idea of a horror film about bunnies; Night of the Lepus is a cautionary tale about how things can go terribly wrong when humans try to mess with the food chain.
The basic premise of the film is that a ranch in Arizona has been overrun by a plague of wild rabbits which are destroying grazing land and posing a perilous threat to the livelihood of the rancher, played by Rory Calhoun.
His friend, DeForest Kelley, sporting a mustache that deserved its own credit, offers to see if there’s anything a couple of his biologist friends can do to help out.
The couple are played by Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh – who later stated that she had forgotten as much as she could about this picture.
I know that it’s customary in film reviews to refer to the names of the characters that the stars portray and to talk a bit about the development of those characters, but I’ve watched this film three times now, and I still honestly can’t remember any of their names.
It hardly matters anyway. At no point during this film does anybody on-screen make the slightest attempt at anything that even vaguely resembles acting. They leave that entirely to the rabbits. The human cast spends most of their time standing around and reciting their unintentionally hilarious lines of dialogue.
Anyhow, Whitman and Leigh arrive in town with their young daughter. The family then pay a visit to the stricken ranch and take away some of the rabbits to have a closer look at them in a lab, where they spend five minutes repeatedly informing each other that Lepus is the Latin word for rabbit. A plot device designed to explain the film’s title to the audience, who had presumably entered the theatre expecting to see a horror movie only to find themselves watching a cross between an eco- infomercial and a western.
The biologists plan to find a way to make some of the rabbits either genetically sterile, or diseased, and then reintroduce them into the wild population, causing the mutation to spread and the rabbits to be wiped out.
The intended scenario is something akin to the introduction of myxomatosis into the wild rabbit population in Australia.
The actual result, due in part to some mischievousness from the young girl, is the creation of a mutant race of giant, killer super-bunnies.
And the police are soon called to investigate a series of gruesome murders; where all the victims appear to have been asphyxiated by the fumes from the gallons of red paint poured over them by the prop department but have actually been eviscerated by the newly-created herd of virulent vermin.
And, by the way, when I say bunnies I really do mean cute, furry bunnies. Rather than create a suitably imposing monster-rabbit through the medium of special effects the makers of this film decided to use normal domestic rabbits filmed in slow motion on miniaturised sets.
Yet, unbelievably, it seems, it still didn’t occur to anyone that the fundamental flaw in the premise of this movie was that they were never going to be able to make a gang of household pets looks menacing. To anyone.
Much less the men they dressed up in rabbit suits to make the scenes where the giant rabbits pounce on the humans.
The race is then on to save the local population from the predators before they have time to breed like rabbits, thereby becoming an unstoppable force of nature.
To be fair to this production, in spite of it’s hamminess – or maybe because of it, it’s hard to be sure – it does manage to create moments of genuine suspense. There is a scene where the main characters discover the mutant rabbits holed up in an old mine shaft throughout which we, the viewers, are genuinely unsure as to whether anybody will survive.
Eventually the National Guard are called in for support at the final showdown between the locals and the Leporidae – which is the actual Latin term for rabbits, Lepus is in fact the Latin name for hares.
Thus ensues the worst sequence of pyrotechnic special effects that I have ever seen – seriously, the 1933 version of King Kong managed a greater degree of realism than Claxton brought to this project – and for the most part it makes for an amazing finale.
My only genuine complaint about the whole film is that this scene does drag on a bit towards the end and becomes slightly tedious.
But victory in this battle is definitely conclusive.
Night of the Lepus manages the remarkable feat of being simultaneously both the best and worst film ever made. Although I would recommend that it only be viewed by people old enough to appreciate this achievement.
While the film obtained a PG certificate in the more conservative era of the Seventies; and contains no swearing, no sexual references beyond a few jokes about multiplying rabbits that young children wouldn’t understand anyway, and no actual on-screen rabbit-on-human violence, I wouldn’t particularly recommend watching it with children.
I’d imagine that they would either find its lack of action and visual effects lame and boring, or else become caught up and afraid during the moments of suspense and refuse to ever go near their poor pet Thumper again.
Otherwise this film is a gem and a must-see for anyone with a sense of humour who wants to watch something a bit silly.