Friday, April 21, 2017

Cult-Movie Review: Night of the Lepus (1972)



The horror cinema of the 1970s is filled with tales depicting Earth’s imminent destruction at the hands (or paws...) of…animals.   

But make no mistake: while Mother Nature may launch her animal armies against us, it is mankind himself that is to blame for her righteous vengeance  By polluting natural environments, by dumping toxic wastes, and by using pesticide, he has only brought upon his own destruction.

Message: it is not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

The Revenge of Nature Cycle may have started as the “when animals attack” genre, a movement exemplified by films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), or Willard (1972).  

But by the mid-point of the decade, filmmakers were almost constantly coupling vicious animal behavior with man’s massive and on-going mistreatment of the environment.

Accordingly, polluting man battles amphibians in Frogs (1972).  

Pesticide-spraying man battles spiders in Kingdom of the Spiders (1977).  

Toxic-waste dumping man faces insect rebellion in Empire of the Ants (1977).  

Other films of the same ilk including The Bug (1975), Squirm (1976), Day of the Animals (1977), and perhaps the most infamous revenge of nature movie of all: Night of the Lepus.

In Night of the Lepus -- a film derived from the satirical novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit (1964) by Russell Braddon -- the careless mistake of two scientists results in the spread of a dangerous hormone that can cause “genetic deformity.” It becomes unloosed on the out-of-control giant rabbit population of Arizona. 

Before long, the ranchers and law enforcement officials near Ajo are waging a war against giant carnivorous bunnies with teeth the size of “saber tooth tigers.”

The guiding principle behind the movie, and indeed, behind the Revenge of Nature cycle is sound, and not entirely new in the 1970s.  Just as the original Godzilla (1954) is about a monster that represents out-of-control atomic power -- the opening of Pandora's Box, so-to-speak, the bunnies represent out-of-control science and irresponsible man tampering in God's domain, in Night of the Lepus.  

The big problem with the film is that as avatars of fear, rabbits are rather un-intimidating creatures.  Even with red paint splattered on their whiskery mouths. 

Ants, spiders, worms, and even frogs seem more appropriately terrifying.  And Night of the Lepus does itself no favors by showing the “enlarged” rabbits on screen constantly with tiresomely repeat or stock footage. 

 In fact, these giant rabbits hop around -- or rather “stampede” -- across miniature sets in slow-motion, in full view of the camera for long, dull stretches of the running time, and the result is underwhelming to say the least.


“Mommy, what’s a control group?”

A newscaster on TV hosts a special report about the “imbalance in the animal world,” and a “plague of rabbits” infesting Australia.  He then describes how the same situation is bedeviling the residents of Arizona.

There, rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) is seeing his land overrun by ever-multiplying rabbits.  One day, his favorite steed trips on a rabbit hole, breaks its leg, and must be put down, and that’s the last straw. Cole asks a friend, Elgin Clark (De Forest Kelley), to help him solve the crisis.

Elgin contacts two scientists who work with animals, Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh).  With their daughter Amanda (Melanie Fullerton) alongside them, the scientists examine the problem and begin to experiment with hormones in an attempt to suppress the mating drive of the rabbits.  The experiment doesn't work, and the scientists mix up a new concoction with results they can't predict, as they readily admit.

Unfortunately, Amanda accidentally frees an affected rabbit, Romeo, from captivity, and the new hormone it carries causes a mutant strain of giant rabbit to rapidly develop.

The Bennetts, Elgin and Cole attempt to stop the onslaught of the rabbits, even blowing up a mine-shaft where they have made their home.  

But a herd of giant carnivorous rabbits escape from this trap, and make a run for Ajo, where they have the capacity to do major damage in terms of life and property value.



“There’s a herd of killer rabbit headed this way!”

You may not realize it, but if you have watched The Matrix (1999), you have seen, at least momentarily, imagery from Night of the Lepus.  

The movie plays on-screen during the scene in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) visits the Oracle, and sees children bending spoons.  The subtle suggestion is that a movie like Night of the Lepus -- about a “herd of killer rabbit” -- could only exist in a weird facsimile of reality.

That’s a good point, because Night of the Lepus is surely one of the most unintentionally hilarious horror movies of its day, particularly with Amanda, the Bennett’s little girl, asking exposition-heavy questions such as “Mommy, what’s a control group?” or speaking for the audience and noting “I like rabbits!"

Even the humorless narrator of the “Rabbit War” news report at the film’s beginning adds to the film's unintentional sense of humor by noting that these “cuddly pets” could become a terrible “menace.” 

As a general rule, it’s a good idea not to refer to your monster as “cuddly,” because an adjective like that undercuts the sense of horror. In a movie about slobbering, jumping, man-eating rabbits, the word cuddly should simply never be spoken at all.

Another moment of funny dialogue comes from Whitman who worries “Heaven help us if any of them [rabbits] get away before we know the effects of this serum.”

Guess what happens in the very next scene?

If you said that one of the affected rabbits gets loose, you are absolutely right. Amanda switches rabbits without her parents realizing it, and then the infected rabbit gets loose after Amanda keeps it as a pet for a time.  The Bennets are not merely lousy scientists, they are lousy parents too, for taking Amanda to work with them and not paying attention to her actions. It's clear they recognize what dangers could await if a rabbit escapes.

Even Janet Leigh, the great star of Psycho (1960) seems diminished by the film’s ridiculous dialogue. When she comforts Amanda after a lepus attack she soothes her.  It’s gone,” she assures her daughter.  “The rabbit is gone.”

Yes dear, the cuddly pet rabbit is gone now, and you have nothing to fear.  

Again, this is a fear that should not be named, specifically.  Even the very word, "rabbit," doesn't promote scares.

Let's be clear: Night of the Lepus features a monster that would be difficult to make scary under the absolute best of circumstances, but the movie doesn’t create or promote the best of circumstances. Director William Claxton allows for the rabbit scenes to linger on-creen -- in slow motion -- for long spells, and any illusion that they are giant, or dangerous, is lost because of their familiarity.  In fact, you get to the point where you start to recognize the rabbits.  There's the black one, the orange one, and so forth.  

And as the friendly-seeming rabbits hop across miniature sets it is painfully obvious that they are not gargantuan. The sound effects that accompany their runs  may “sound like a cattle stampede” to bystanders, but that too is kind of funny.

I should be clear, it’s not just that the shots linger beyond reason, in agonizing slow-motion, it’s that they repeat.  A scene with rabbits leaping a chasm is seen at least twice, and many scenes of the rabbits traversing a highway seem to repeat as well. Either that or are the roads are so similar as to be visually indistinguishable.



Director William Claxton -- a talent who directed several outstanding episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959 -1965) including the sensitive “I Sing the Body Electric” --  seems to approach this horror film as more of a Western, right down to Hill’s motivation for fighting the rabbits (the death of a horse), and some attractive, even picturesque landscape shots.  The rabbits are treated more as a stampede of out-of-control animals than as a threat resulting from science-run-amok, and nature’s reprisal.

Now, on one hand, treating the film’s threat as fairly realistic could be a good thing…if the monsters inspired fear. 

But on the other hand, Claxton goes way over-the-top in terms of fake-looking gore, a step which moves the film out of the zone of realism. The scene vacillates between deadly dull conversations and over-the-top moments of ridiculous violence, and the approach is not pleasing.

As one might expect from this approach, critics weren’t terribly impressed with the results of Claxton’s efforts.  

Roger Greenspun, writing in The New York Times, noted the “technical laziness,” “stupid story” and “dumb direction,” a kind of trifecta of utter terrible-ness. 

Alan Frank, in 1982, treated the film more gently, though drew the same conclusion, noting that the “enlarged rabbits” don’t “really carry a genuine monstrous charge.

Watching the film again for the first time since I wrote Horror Films of the 1970's I felt a little bad for the out-dated wonders of Night of the Lepus. The movie features a lot of likable performers in it -- it’s great to see De Forest Kelley again, for instance -- and it surely capitalizes on the eco-terror Zeitgeist of its moment.  

And yet beyond that, this is a horror film unable to enunciate even a single moment of authentic horror.

Almost funnier than the movie itself is the trailer, which discusses a “night of total terror” and a “devil creature.”  It asks “what happened the night science made its greatest mistake?”

Well, what happens when the horror film makes a great mistake?  

5 comments:

  1. John, accurate review. I watched this again last week when it was on TCM, I believe. I was glad to see De Forest Kelley too, just three years after Star Trek:TOS ended. There was a scene with rabbits hopping together down a dirt road. The problem is it was a close-up and you could see the tire tracks were in the dirt proving the rabbits were normal size.

    SGB

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  2. I've long stated that this film is so wrong that it's right. What a wonderfully misguided motion picture. And for it to be cast with major actors is just the icing on the cake. Looking back, it's a amazing this thing got made. Let's face it, the FX tech of the time was certainly not up to making bunny rabbits look scary. And look closely at it's DVD release, in the corner of the picture you can see more than a few instances of the rabbit wranglers making it onscreen, in slow motion no less. When you hear tales of movies that got cancelled midway through production or were supposedly so bad that they never got released, it makes one wonder what the studio head meetings concerning Lepus must have looked like. My only complaint of course is the fact that, let's face it, more than a few rabbits were harmed, more than likely killed in the making of the film. And honestly, I always felt the little girl who caused the whole mess should have been tossed to the horde. All in all, a wonderful example of "well, it seemed like a good idea at the time" film making.

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  3. I have a perverse affection for this film. I married a dedicated non-genre film fan, and he thinks this is one of the funniest movies I ever made him sit through. To this day (27+ years together later), he still talks about the time I made him watch Attack of the Killer Bunnies.....

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  4. There was a movie night at a local hangout that showed a rapper slasher movie, "Holla if you Hear Me." We were so unimpressed, we shut it off halfway through. I suggested, "You want me to run home and get the rabbit movie?" It was more well received. We at least had fun riffing it.

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  5. what is surprising is that it's 1972 & the filmmakers still had ants & spiders to choose from. scary rabbits are a hard horror sell, no doubt, however i've seen a film with very menacing sheep, it can be done

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