Night Of The Lepus (1972)

JUNE 15, 2018

GENRE: MONSTER
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

I assume availability issues are the main reason that Night of the Lepus was never lampooned on MST3k (it was never released on VHS, and the show was long done by the time it finally hit DVD), having to settle for a Rifftrax episode instead. But in a way I'm kind of glad; if it was on the show I probably would have seen it for the first time that way, and found it hard to give it a chance on its own, as my impression would be "this is a bad movie" as opposed to something I didn't really know much about at all. Sure, the plot sounded goofy, but I could say the same about Frogs and that movie kind of rules, so I gave the killer bunnies the benefit of the doubt.

Well, it's not quite Frogs-level good, but it ain't Manos-level bad, either. It's actually pretty fun and charming as long as you don't expect it to be scary or find its FX to be all that successful. As with most B-movies that employ miniatures, the illusion almost never works, because they always goof up by adding things like water, dirt, or fire in shots that are supposed to make us believe that what we're seeing is much bigger than it is. The problem is that these natural elements have a sort of a standard size to them, so whenever a little splash or water or cloud of dirt sprays across the thing that they're trying to scale (in this case, a rabbit) it just looks like exactly what it is, and my mind goes to "Why is this bunny running around in a model?" instead of "HOLY SHIT THAT BUNNY IS HUGE!" A lot of stock footage is also used, giving the film a minor Ed Wood touch ("Nobody knows what`s causing the explosions, but it`s upsetting all the buffalo!"), which probably didn't help matters.

The split screen/forced perspective shots are far more successful; they still have problems (matte lines and such) but the editor tends not to dwell on them as long as the miniature shots, and we can at least fully grasp the scale since a human will be in the shot too (though the scale seems to change throughout the movie anyway). One shot in particular works fantastically, when a guy crashes his truck and runs out of it on the right side of the screen, with the bunnies coming in from the left. The split line is hard to see and there's no interaction yet (they get him a few seconds later, the poor bastard) so the effect is pretty much flawless until that point, and if they were all on that level I'm sure the movie would have earned a few more good reviews.

Because really, they've pretty much turned everything into horror villains, and when you think about it a rabbit is no less threatening than a cat - they got claws and teeth, they're fast, and if you underestimate one you're a dead man. And to the movie's credit, it's played straight and no one really even laughs (in character) about the threat; they find out about it and kind of spring into action just as quickly as Brody in Jaws or whatever, presumably saving the jokes for later. It's even got a halfway decent explanation for the outbreak - the decrease in coyotes in Arizona has led to the rabbit population getting out of control, which isn't as cute as it sounds (crops being eaten, their holes causing horses to trip, etc.), but no one wants to just kill a bunch of fuzzy wuzzies, so they do something more "humane" - make them sterile via some new experimental drug. But it doesn't work (does a movie serum EVER work?) as it just makes them bigger, and one of the test subjects gets out, gets to the lady bunnies, and we're off to the races.

Like that one shark movie, the director doesn't show off his monster right away; we find a dead body, then a guy gets attacked by an unseen predator, etc. It's a while before we see the giant rabbits, and even after then the movie can be a bit slow at times, favoring occasional isolated attacks of side characters all over town instead of getting everyone together and picking them off one by one like in Tremors or, yes, Frogs. Curiously, almost none of the primary characters are killed or even attacked; the movie racks up a decent body count but it's pretty much all anonymous folks or ones we barely see before their death, like the waitress who sees the bunnies coming and mostly just looks kind of puzzled until they smash through her diner window and gouge her throat. But like I said, the movie's kind of charming and this just adds to it - the script finds a way to make them threatening without bumming us out that this or that fun character had to die in the process.

Plus, everyone's pretty friendly! There are shockingly no human villains of any sort; hell, the plot wouldn't even have happened if not for a cowboy (Rory Calhoun) refusing to kill a bunch of rabbits with poison, only changing his pro-life status after they turn into monsters and kill some of his acquaintances. Everyone gets along, works together, and (spoiler?) has a nice game of football at the end once the threat is over, a little detail that I loved since I figured this was one of those movies that would just cut to credits as soon as the last rabbit was dead. They even tell us that the coyotes are back, so yay! Our cats and little dogs will be safe and the bunnies won't come back to kill us anymore. It's one of the most optimistic horror movies ever, really.

It's also one of the most surprisingly bloody entries of the sub-genre, with gallons of that melted crayon style fake blood tossed around both our human victims and the rabbits themselves. Even a couple of little kids who are killed offscreen get the treatment, so between that and the whole "killer bunny" thing I suspect this movie must have really warped the minds of any younger kids who saw it at a drive-in or perhaps on late night TV. It definitely has SOME semblance of a legacy, as Scream Factory's Blu-ray has not one but two film historian commentaries, allowing you to be a complete expert on the cast and crew's filmographies if you watch them both. The one by Russell Dyball is more irreverent than Lee Gambin's, as he's quicker to note the film's more ridiculous elements, but both men seem to agree that while it's hardly a classic, it's got more merit than its detractors will claim (Dyball even notes how Vincent Canby, of all grouches, kind of came around it, dubbing it one of his favorite bad movies, which is better than just being a bad movie you dismiss outright). The disc also has the trailer, which hides the fact that it's about killer bunnies (unless you knew Latin), reminding me of Of Unknown Origin's bizarre trailer, which looked more like an alien movie than a killer rat one.

I love seeing these old nature run amok movies from the 70s. They're all pretty similar (this one is a LOT like the later Kingdom of the Spiders, right down to the Arizona setting and a Star Trek actor as one of the leads - DeForest Kelley here, sporting a Ron Swanson 'do) and I have a blast watching them every time, even when they keep stopping to let their paycheck cashing cast (Janet Leigh took the movie because it was close enough to home to get a gig and not lose too much time with her daughters) yammer on about what was happening instead of showing more of it. Because for every scene like that, you get one where Leigh fires a rifle at a bunny a few times and then tells the guy it was attacking - without as much as a smirk - "It's OK, the rabbit is gone!" That's just gold, right there.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Hereditary (2018)

MAY 31, 2018

GENRE: PSYCHOLOGICAL, SUPERNATURAL (?)
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (PRESS SCREENING)

Like its fellow A24 genre films (The Witch, It Comes At Night), some folks are debating whether or not Hereditary is "really" a horror movie, which is a ridiculous waste of time because yes, it is. I suspect these arguments always begin with some stuffy critic who liked the film and feels ashamed to be recommending something in the same genre that gave us Freddy vs. Jason or whatever, or (on the other end of the spectrum) some numbskull horror fan who can't bring himself to qualify a film as one unless it's loaded with gore. As a fan of the genre and all of its potential I find it insulting, but if you are sadly someone who thought The Witch wasn't horror (I myself can go either way with It Comes At Night) then you'll likely have some of the same issues here, and should probably stay home and watch something that fits within your depressingly narrow guidelines.

Of course, the best way to experience the film is to not know anything at all, not even what genre it might be under in the virtual video store someday. The film is, at its core, about a family unit being undone by a series of incidents, some of which are quite horrific in nature, and knowing about even one of those things coming will curtail its ability to fully unsettle you as it does for its characters. First time feature filmmaker Ari Aster manages to get you unnerved as soon as the film begins; nothing horrific happens for a good half hour, and I thankfully avoided its trailer and knew very little of its plot ("a woman and her family deals with the death of her mother" is all I could have told you about it), but that didn't matter. The combination of his slow moving camerawork, the exquisite production design, and the score all put me on edge - the shock moments were tension relievers, really.

In order to keep that same unawareness for you I won't say much about its specific plot (not that I usually offer much of a synopsis anyway, but you know what I mean). The film opens on the obituary listing for an elderly woman whose only immediate family member is her daughter, played by Toni Collette. Collette and her own family (Gabriel Byrne as her husband, and two teenagers) don't seem too broken up by the loss; the woman was in hospice for a while and we get the idea she wasn't exactly a cookie-baking, big-hug giving kind of granny, so it's a mix of "we knew it was coming" and "OK, see ya" kind of attitudes. So we watch them go about their day to day; the kids go to school, and the parents get back to work (Collette is an artist who makes miniature dioramas for a gallery; Byrne is a therapist of some sort) but there's a lingering feeling of dread over it, and you're just kind of waiting for something awful to happen.

And then it does, and it is indeed awful. It's one of those rare moments that's so horrific I kept assuming it was a dream, thinking no film would dare do it. It doesn't help the family unit any; Collette in particular seems to suffer a bit of a mental break as a result, diving deeper into her work, which itself takes on a grimmer tone. It's from that work that the film earns one of its biggest laughs (it's actually a fairly humorous movie at times; not a comedy, but think along the lines of how movies like Joshua used humor and you'll be on the right track), one of the best darkly comic sight gags I may have ever seen, capped off by an oblivious reaction from Collette that made me love her even more than I already did. She's one of those actresses that simply can't be "bad" or even miscast - she's always hitting it out of the park, in all genres (she's actually in another movie that comes out tomorrow called Hearts Beat Loud, and it couldn't be less like this one), and even by those standards she's terrific in this. A nomination or two would be a lock if not for the fact that it's a horror movie.

As for Byrne, he doesn't get as many highlight-y kind of moments, taking the quieter route of a man trying to keep the peace. There's a dinner scene where Collette and her son (Alex Wolff, who is really the star of the film's back half) have a blow out and he barely speaks, rather than join in and let that familiar righteous anger we've seen in other films (I mean this man has played the actual Devil) come shining through. He seems a bit older than the role might have called for in the script (in addition to being more than 20 years older than Collette, he's almost 70 in real life; the younger of their children is like 13), but it kind of helps the strange unease the movie offers throughout. In fact, none of them really look alike in any way, and I kept thinking perhaps we would find out someone was adopted, or Byrne was their stepfather or something, but nope. It's just Aster and his casting people choosing four great actors to play a family even if it might cause snickers from any DNA scientists that might have wandered into the theater.

They should be promptly told to shut the hell up, however, because the sound design on the film is as award-worthy as Collette (and, again, will likely have zero shot because the Academy just tends to nominate action movies) and is probably the best reason to see the film in a (good) theater, unless you have a real home theater (i.e. a soundproof room that won't be interrupted). The daughter, Charlie, has this vocal tic (kind of a cross between a tongue cluck and... whatever you call that thing where you put your finger on the inside of your cheek and pull it out real quick) that she uses on occasion, and it's just so perfectly "off" that I was both delighted by it and properly creeped out every time it was used. And a sudden outburst was mixed in a way that I legit thought it was coming from someone in the theater, allowing me to be as startled by it as the characters. There's also a scene where we hear a pounding, assuming it's fists, only to discover... well, it's not fists, but it IS an example of how effective a horror type moment can play with proper sound design.

So it's all well and good, in fact great, until the final half hour or so. Without spoiling any details, I will say that the more we learn about what's going on, the less invested I found myself. The unsettling dread was largely gone and replaced by people telling us what they found out from looking at old photos, which is what I expect in bad Ring ripoffs, not this kind of movie. I don't know if I'd be happier if they simply never told us why certain things were happening (or at least left it up to interpretation), but ultimately it was at odds with what was working best about the film. Not enough to cripple the movie or anything, but like I've said before, it's better to have a strong finish to a so-so opening than the other way around. And that's especially the case for a longer movie like this (it's over two hours!), where you gave it so much of your time only for it to go off the rails. Maybe down the road I will talk more about my issues with it when everyone's had a chance to see it, but for now I'll just say that I was not expecting to be reminded of a certain classic horror film in its closing moments, and would like to watch them back to back someday to see if I can figure out why it worked for one and not the other (if you see the film and aren't sure which one I mean, hit me up on Twitter or something and I'll private message you).

One thing is for sure: this movie is going to get a low Cinemascore this weekend. I'm actually kind of stunned A24 is putting it out on over 2,000 screens, figuring they would go the platform route and let word of mouth from the normals build up a bit, as opposed to selling it entirely on festival buzz. And I don't mean that as a slight; movies with low cinemascores aren't "the worst movies ever made" or whatever, they're just the most polarizing, and indeed I tend to like a lot of them (some of the F's include Soderbergh's Solaris, Killing Them Softly, and mother!). After I saw the movie I finally watched the trailer, and was dismayed to see that it not only includes two major spoilers (one of which was actually made up for the spot, via recutting some dialogue in a particular scene to tell us something we don't know until much later in the actual film) and also comes off as a sort of Insidious-y kind of haunted house movie, which it isn't at all. To be fair, it's a hard movie to promote in the usual way, as it dips its toes into several horror sub-genres and also isn't exactly packed with trailer-ready images, but that makes me wonder again why they're attempting to woo multiplex audiences. But since I didn't think the movie was perfect (for you Letterboxd devotees, I gave it 3.5), I can enjoy the bewildered takes I'm sure I'll see, without getting too worked up about it like I would if the movie was a personal favorite.

What say you?

P.S. If anyone involved with the Blu-ray is reading this, I IMPLORE you to have a piece on the production design! Both for the miniatures and the house itself, which occasionally felt off-scale like a dollhouse might.

PLEASE, GO ON...

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