Remember those 1950s and ’60s movies about giant, radioactive creatures that terrorized cities and stuff? Like ants in Them!, the grasshoppers in The Beginning of the End, or the myriad things in the Godzilla franchise? Also, remember bunnies and how they aren’t remotely scary at all? Well, one movie in the early 1970s sought to upend the stereotype and terrify everyone with its depiction of behemoth, bloodthirsty rabbits: 1972’s Night of the Lepus.
The film plays like any of those other, higher profile post-atomic monster movies except… this one’s about bunnies, or “lepus,” as the Greeks call them, a point which gets made five times within the film’s first few minutes. The film is based on a darkly comedic Australian political sci-fi novel from the 60s called The Year of the Angry Rabbit, but any allusion to the novel’s anti-war message was lost in favor shooting scenes of real rabbits running through miniature town sets in slow motion. It’s the ultimate laugh-at-the-screen-until-you-can’t-breathe movie!
The film stars ’50s B-western hero Rory Calhoun as a rancher in the Southwest whose land is being menaced by an overpopulation of rabbits. He contacts his friend in the local government, played by Star Trek star DeForest Kelley, about ways to combat the problem. They call up environmental scientist Stuart Whitman, also a western movie staple, who has been experimenting on ways to get rid of pests without using poisons that damage the ecosystems. It was he who got rid of coyotes on Calhoun’s land, thus causing the upsurge in rabbit population. Whitman, along with his wife, played by Janet Leigh (the hell is she doing in this movie?), perform tests on some of the rabbits from the land. I’d like to point out that they are referred to several times as “the young scientist couple,” even though they look about as leathery as Rory Calhoun’s cowboy boots. One test rabbit, which is given a serum to cause birth defects, gets away and joins its brethren, soon giving birth to a horde of thousands of the fast-growing hippity-hoppers that are, for some reason, now carnivorous. The state and the army must intervene to stop this terrible, albeit adorable, threat from spreading.
I feel like initially the makers of this film wanted to make a point. A faux news report in the movie’s opening minutes talks about the horrible ecological problems the introduction of rabbits had been to the Australian prairie lands. We see real footage of farmers attempting to round up swarms of the cuddly suckers using fences and nets. It’s a pretty off-putting sight. This news report wants to make it abundantly clear that a rabbit problem could easily happen in America if their population remains unchecked. Since the book had been a Joseph Heller-esque condemnation of war-mongering and a call for environmental protection, it makes sense that they’d want to somewhat follow suit. The problem, of course, is that MGM probably was only interested in making a monster movie and thus the “point” had to be shoehorned into a single, pre-credits news report and in the stilted dialogue of the Whitman character. It’s a shame it worked out that way, because the real-life footage of the rabbit roundup is easily the scariest and most effective in the whole movie.
To say nothing of the wooden acting and boring direction from William F. Claxton, the film’s major failing, and subsequent hilarity, comes from the effects. It’s bunnies, for pity’s sake! Two things were done to create the giant bunny effects: 1) shoot real rabbits running through scale models of the town’s streets and farms and such, and 2) have guys in rabbit suits attacking people. The first method is easily the most prevalent; generally, the rabbits are shot from below with a very wide lens to make the small animals seem huge. But how huge? Throughout the dialogue, the rabbits are described as “the size of a wolf,” yet, depending on the set they made these animals run on, they could be as big as a car. They shoot these in slow motion so the rabbits’ erratic running seems more horrific. They also smear red paint on these poor animals to indicate that they’ve been eating people.
For the scenes where they are supposed to interact with humans, suddenly they shrink so they look very much like a guy in a rabbit suit angrily tickling the overacting victims. They honestly didn’t even try to make these two things match up. There is a total of two shots in which a human is made to interact with a stampede of force-perspective rabbits and they are the silliest, most laughably bad chroma key (pre-blue screen compositing) you’ve ever seen. Honestly, it looks like there’s a hole in the movie and you can see another movie playing behind it.
Night of the Lepus is a movie that demands to be seen with a bunch of beer-swigging friends. It seems like a pretend movie you’d see within a comedy, but it’s actually real. If you’ve seen Joe Dante’s great film Matinee, you’ll remember the film-within-a-film MANT, about a guy who turns into a giant ant; that movie is better and more realistic than Night of the Lepus. By the end of the film, you’ll feel bad that some Hollywood idiots put all these poor rabbits through such torment. The film’s finale, wherein the bunnies are electrocuted en masse on railroad tracks, is quite sad. Still, it’s almost beautiful in its crappiness, so I’d recommend watching it for certain.
I also made fun of this movie in my Awesomely Bad Movies webseries if you’d like to see a bit more.