Night Of The Lepus (1972)

JUNE 15, 2018


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?


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