Directed by William F. Claxton
Written by Don Holliday & Gene R. Kearney
Based on the Book “Year of the Angry Rabbit” by Russell Braddon
Starring Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, & DeForrest Kelley
NIGHT OF THE LEPUS is one of those films thats premise if so goofy it should be a comedy, but this story of giant killer rabbits plays things dead seriously. Much like FOOD OF THE GODS (which came a few years later in 1976) and many other giant monster movies before it, NIGHT OF THE LEPUS uses trick photography and live rabbits to make the thrills seem more real. The result is a somewhat creepy albeit goofy film that stands up even after all of these years in that it’s worth some good laughs and a few surprise scares.
The story starts out giving factoids and newsclips of real rabbit infestations in New Zealand and then shifting focus to right here in America, as disturbing footage is shown as thousands of rabbits are herded and slaughtered due to their tendency to reproduce and turn cropland into barren fields in days. This looks like actual footage, so one could see how audiences would see this film as timely as and probably much scarier than the jaded populace of today. Still, these black and white images of people bagging bunnies and rabbits diving headfirst into a rabbit proof fence (like from the movie RABBIT PROOF FENCE) to escape made even my black heart bleed a bit for the little critters.
The film then cuts to cowboy Rory (MOTEL HELL’s Farmer Vincent) Calhoun as he rides his horse across his land. And as if the animal rights people didn’t have enough to complain about from this movie, his horse steps into a rabbit hole and old Rory takes out his rifle and pulls a Lenny on it. One to the back of the head. Rory coolly walks back to his farm and the initial call is made to take care of the growing rabbit problem.
The theme of the film is a common horror credo: “don’t fuck with nature.” Rory calls DeForrest Kelley in search of a doctor, but this time Kelley is a university president, not a doctor (!), so Kelley refers him to Stuart Whitman (star of many a war movie through the 50’s & 60’s and played Pa Kent in the SUPERBOY TV series), who doesn’t really specialize in this type of thing, but knows science and that seems to make him qualified enough to tackle that rabbit problem. Like most scientists, Whitman brings his wife (played by Janet Leigh) and kid along with him everywhere he goes, which includes caves filled with bats and labs filled with experimental bunny formulas. Though Whitman is trying to record the sounds of bats, he decides to take Rory up on his problem. The main reason Whitman is chosen is because no one wants to kill the rabbits, they just want to find a humane way of taking care of them. Of course, this doesn’t work or we wouldn’t have a movie. The kid’s favorite rabbit is injected with an experimental hormone, she switches the rabbit with an uninfected one, and before you can say, “What’s up doc?” the rabbit escapes and somehow immediately effects the rest of the rabbits, causing them to grow to an enormous size.
But the science stuff isn’t really important here. We want to see giant rabbits stampeding through towns and eating people. After the rabbit escapes, this is where the film gets pretty fun. Director William F. Claxton does a great job of filming the rabbits and making them seem to be the size of Volkswagens. The slo mo shots make the rabbits seem as if they are bigger and their hops are more gigantic. The modeling of towns is pretty good, making the effect all the more convincing. Close up shots of bloody-snouted and foamy mouthed rabbits add to the coolness. There’s a particularly effective scene that really shows that the director was having fun with this film, but is also has the talent to map out a scary scene. Check it out below.
As you can see, NIGHT OF THE LEPUS isn’t shy about using the red stuff (apparently the growth hormone also makes them carnivorous–what kind of a monster movie would it have been if they weren’t?). In fact, for a 1972 major motion picture release, it’s pretty graphic with its scenes of bunny carnage. Though the performances are somewhat stiff and scientific logic is thrown out the window, as far as giant monster animal films go, this one is pretty effective. The main reason is due to the fact that real rabbits are used. Yes, the scenes of slo mo bunnies running in a herd down a street gets tedious after the umpteenth time, but the havoc that the bunnies cause is pretty fantastic.
In the end, the message the folks in this film tried to communicate, namely “let’s try to find a humane way to get rid of these bunnies”, gets tossed down the rabbit hole as all of the giant bunnies are slaughtered. But the message that scientists, especially ones who take the stupid chances that this one does (like bringing an annoying daughter to work to screw things up), shouldn’t fuck with nature still stands. Though the ending would have been more satisfying had the little twat girl been eaten and then shat out as a human-sized pellet by the big bunnies, the film still has enough wacky and cool scenes to warrant a peek.
This is a movie that is just asking to be remade into an over the top horror comedy. I wish Hollywood would stop remaking good films into crap and start remaking crap films into good ones. Clips of NIGHT OF THE LEPUS were featured in both THE MATRIX and NATURAL BORN KILLERS. It seems to have blazoned its place into movie mythos. I know after seeing it, I won’t soon forget it.