31 Days of Hell: Night of the Lepus (1972) - Reviewed

Bunny rabbits in film outside of Watership Down and Donnie Darko aren’t typically scary.  With the popularization of the Easter Bunny and frequent inclusion in children’s books or movies, our first reaction to the fuzzy little critters are to pick them up like cats or dogs.  The idea of making them into monsters for a horror movie is as absurd now as it was in 1972.  Only a few years before Monty Python and the Holy Grail unleashed the hilarity of bloodthirsty yet cute and cuddly killer bunny rabbits, western television and film director William F. Claxton of Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie tried his hand at the first and ultimately last science fiction horror picture of his career: the now infamous and unintentionally funny giant mutant killer bunny rabbit flick Night of the Lepus

Based on the science fiction novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit while moving the location from Australia to the barren landscapes of Tuscon, Arizona, the premise like The Host or Shin Godzilla mixes a wealth of fact with fiction.  Drawing from a very real epidemic involving a population explosion of rabbits in Australia which threatened the livelihood of farmers whose crops were decimated by the furry creatures, Night of the Lepus like The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue functions as an ecological disaster film with elements of science gone awry.  In this case, an experimental serum injected into captive rabbits intended to curb the feeding frenzy results in the small mammals growing into giant beasts with a thirst for human flesh.

Starring an ensemble cast in suitably thankless roles including Stuart Whitman, scream queen Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun and even Star Trek’s DeForest Kelley, Night of the Lepus bears the distinction of being that one movie everyone involved in it regards as an eyesore on their respective resumes.  With stilted performances and often cloying dialogue, nearly every actor looks trapped in this, collecting a paycheck while taking the piss out of the production in retrospective interviews.  Only Janet Leigh emerges intact as she would go on to star in a multitude of horror films throughout her career anyway.  Everyone else seems confused and looking for a nearby exit.

Let’s talk about the film’s visual effects which are at once cleverly detailed and dumbfounding in their stupidity.  Utilizing a combination of miniature buildings and cars with domesticated rabbits filmed in slow motion intercut with snippets of human actors in rabbit costumes for attack scenes, there are times when the illusion works and other times when it comes off as hokey.  Take for instance a wide shot of thousands of bloodthirsty bunnies rushing toward the camera, an effective shot that’s immediately squandered when it cuts to a close-up of an actor dressed in a rabbit suit for an attack shot.  Then there are the matte lines dividing footage of the cast members with footage of the impending rabbit stampede with edges that clearly look artificial and stick out like a sore thumb.  The film also, like Jaws: The Revenge, tries to add menace by giving the animals a predatory roar, a technique which unintentionally works against whatever sense of fear or dread the filmmakers were trying to create.  

While some visual effects are passable, most of the blood and gore effects are obviously red paint thrown on the actors without the makeup department bothering to add cuts and scratches.  What’s more, Night of the Lepus while exploiting the locations beautifully thanks to Ted Voightlander’s cinematography sports some of the jumpiest editing seen in a long while, cutting short potential exposition and character development.  It doesn’t help that frequent western film composer Jimmie Haskel’s acoustic guitar driven score can’t help but undermine potential scares at every turn.   

Closer to Irwin Allen’s The Swarm than Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Night of the Lepus now stands as a camp classic whose studio went so far as to change the title from Rabbits and supplant elusive posters to hide the mammals from prospective ticket buyers.  In a move that was as foolish as it was telling, promoters inadvertently leaked out the premise by sending out souvenirs with rabbit foot designs.  From there on, Night of the Lepus was dead in the marketplace. 

Panned by critics upon release and dying a quiet death at the box office, the film never saw a home video release of any kind until 2005 when Warner Brothers issued an edited version on DVD.  Curiously, snippets showed up in Oliver Stone’s 1994 cultural critique Natural Born Killers, playing to a surreal and unnerving effect never felt in an iota of the running time of the film it was derived from.  With the chilling closing image of a carnivorous rabbit drooling over the camera in Stone’s still relevant kaleidoscopic epic, who would have thought the film it was lifted from had the reputation of being so unintentionally hilarious?

- Andrew Kotwicki