Rabbits, nature’s most vicious killing machine, furred beasts that mercilessly stalk and devour their prey — or at least that is what MGM Studios wished audiences to believe when they released Night of the Lepus back in 1972. Based on Australian author Russell Braddon’s book The Year of the Angry Rabbit – a political satire that the following film resembles not at all – Night of the Lepus came into being due to the increased popularity of the “When animals attack” genre. Where films like The Willard – an excellent killer rat movie – made a lot of money, the idea of killer rabbits seemed to some studio execs to be less than implausible. Thus, the film’s original title of “Rabbits” was changed to Night of the Lepus, and almost all promotional material were altered to hide the fact that the move was – in fact – about killer bunnies.
The movie opens with a news anchor informing the viewer of the dangers of rabbits – stock footage of rampant herds of rabbits swarming across Australia used to sell this point – and that even American farms are almost helpless against this furry onslaught. We next meet rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun), who loses a horse due to stepping in rabbit holes, and so he approaches college president Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelley) for advice on how to rid himself of this pestilence. Elgin suggest they talk with researchers Roy (Stuart Whitman), and Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh), who are experts at removing pests without damaging the ecosystem. The two scientists sympathize with the rancher’s desire to get rid of the rabbits without resorting to poison – it would end up destroying his land and force him to sell his cattle out of season – and so Roy and Gerry start to work on a method of hormone treatment that would disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle.
Unfortunately, time is not on their side, as months of testing with different hormones would not help the current situation, so Gerry uses an untested serum delivered to him by the Public Health Department, remarking to his wife, “I wish I knew what the effects of this serum would be.” This is basically the equivalent of a mad scientist throwing darts at a problem – even Victor Frankenstein had a stricter work ethic than this – and when Roy and Gerry’s precocious daughter sneaks one of the “treated” rabbits out of the lab, well, we’ve got ourselves a monster movie. Soon, giant rabbits are rampaging across the Arizona landscape, killing any and all who cross their path, but wait, aren’t rabbits herbivores?
Director William F. Claxton had the unenviable task of making a monster movie about a creature that would only be threatening to you if, by chance, you were dressed as a piece of lettuce. I’m not saying a herd of giant rabbits wouldn’t be an ecological disaster, as well as a threat to the nation’s stockpile of Trix cereal, but unlike rats, sharks or bears, who have terrorized many a cinema goer for years, rabbits are not known for attacking humans. Also they are just too damn cute. You can smear as much ketchup as you want on a rabbit’s face, add all the implausible roars and growls your Foley guy can come up with, but you are still left with a cuddly monster.
The film was not helped by the movie-of-the-week look that cinematographer Ted Voigtlander brought to the project, it had none of the atmospheric effects one would expect to find in a horror movie, visual or otherwise. The cast was clearly “in the know” as to how ridiculous the movie was shaping up to be – Janet Leigh is on record stating that the film lacked an “ideal director” to bring the script to life – and thus performances ranged from bored to disinterested. So with a ridiculous premise and a cast of mostly Western actors – Janet Leigh agreeing to do the part simply because it was being shot close to home – it was up to the special effects department to save the day. They didn’t. The filmmakers used the standard technique of shooting the rabbits on miniature sets and filming it all in slow motion – with the odd shot of a guy in a rabbit suit to do the actual attacking – and with the added sound effects of a “thumping” giant herd of rabbits. But as much as they tried to sell this giant menace, the resulting effect was laughable to say the least. Now to be fair, making the Easter Bunny into a credible threat wasn’t easy – overcoming a rabbit’s innate cuteness does seem insurmountable – but we do know it is possible.
Night of the Lepus would have been better off if it hadn’t taken itself so seriously – that they thought a giant killer rabbit film could be played straight is just baffling – and trying to do so is probably the film’s biggest misstep; if they had played it a little more self-aware, we could have ended up with a pretty fun film. At one point in the film, our heroes need to herd the giant rabbits towards an electrified section of railway tracks – to then fry the poor buggers while the National Guard pumps rounds of ammunition into them – and to herd rabbits, a police officer is sent to a local drive-in to recruit civilians to aid in this plan. It’s at this point that we are treated to the one single moment of joy this film has to offer, and that comes when the police officer yells at the drive-in patrons, “Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!” With more of this kind of dialogue, and a cast willing to place tongue firmly in cheek, we could have had a comedy classic on our hands. Instead, the filmmakers played their hand straight down the line, ending with a bunny massacre that was pretty unpleasant to watch, and subsequently giving us a rather dour and lifeless monster movie.
Note: The plan to use an electrified section of a railway line as a barrier to stop the giant rabbits somehow misses the fact that rabbits can jump. Are we supposed to believe a rabbit the size of a car can’t jump four feet?
When it comes to the genre of nature fighting back, there are certainly worse entries than Night of the Lepus – the film The Killer Shrews, which used Coon dogs in shrew costumes, being one of the worst – but its attempt and consequent failure to make bunnies scary is indefensible. The film could have tried to focus on man’s meddling with nature – making an environmental message in a horror film is certainly not unheard of – but instead, we got an overly talky monster movie where the talking didn’t actually say anything. Shout Factory has recently released a Blu-ray with a new 2K scan of the movie – it is quite the gorgeous print – with two very informative commentary tracks, but overall this movie on its own is a bit of a slog at times, and thus hard to recommend.