Mar 7, 2018
Night of the Lepus (1972) (part 1 of 10)
Note from the author: This recap was updated August 22, 2010 with new screencaps and new snarky comments, thanks to the DVD release of Night of the Lepus, available now from Amazon.com!
The Cast of Characters:
Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun). A rancher who finds his land overrun by giant killer bunny rabbits. Yes, giant killer bunny rabbits. Star of about a bazillion westerns, Calhoun is best known today as “that fellow who’s always standing around on two legs,” at least, according to C. Montgomery Burns.
Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelley). The president of a local university. Accordingly, goes around doing very presidential things, such as helping to dynamite a mineshaft. Naturally, he does this in the interest of ridding his town of giant killer bunny rabbits. Sadly reduced to this just three short years after playing Dr. McCoy.
Roy Bennett (Stuart Whitman). A Movie Scientist™, which gives him free reign to make crucial decisions at any moment concerning subjects he knows nothing about. Such as: how to deal with a rampaging horde of giant killer bunny rabbits. Amazingly, one of two Oscar nominees appearing here.
Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh). Roy’s wife and fellow scientist/Oscar nominee. But being a female Movie Scientist, she heads for the hills while the menfolk do all the dirty work. Unfortunately, she’ll still have to deal with a terror worse than a night at the Bates Motel: polyester bell-bottoms. Oh, and giant killer bunny rabbits.
How often have you seen an awful movie and said to yourself, “What were they thinking?” Well, after watching Night of the Lepus, the question you’ll be asking instead is, “Were they thinking?” This is one of those rare films where a person doesn’t need to view a single frame to realize that the basic concept itself (giant killer bunny rabbits!) is spectacularly misguided.
Another phrase that comes to mind upon viewing this movie is “begging to be MiSTied”, but this movie wasn’t simply begging to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, oh no. It was pleading, groveling, beseeching, imploring to be ripped to shreds by Joel and/or Mike and the Bots in a bacchanalian orgy of riffing. Unfortunately, this movie was never featured on the show because they couldn’t get the rights to air it. I know this, not because I have any special inside knowledge, but because there’s simply no other explanation that makes sense.
(However, interestingly enough, Night of the Lepus later became enough of a cult film to be referenced on occasion by big name directors. In The Matrix, it’s the movie playing on TV when Keanu first goes to see the Oracle. And a clip of it shows up in Natural Born Killers, but with all the random shit Oliver Stone threw in, I’d be hard pressed to name a movie that doesn’t show up in there.)
Bolstering my theory about the rights being hard to obtain is the fact that, amazingly, this cinematic turd wasn’t brought to us by AIP, Medallion, or Crown International Pictures. Nope, this thing was made by MGM. That’s a real studio! Thinking this movie was released by the same company that brought us 2001 and The Time Machine is enough to make baby Jesus cry.
Okay, to be fair, there were a lot of entries in the killer animal genre back in the ‘70s. In general, most of these movies feature a typically innocuous animal or insect either growing to massive proportions, or simply attacking in massive numbers after humans foolishly screw around with the local ecology. And when you get right down to it, Night of the Lepus isn’t really that much worse than the rest of them.
Don’t get me wrong; It’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but in terms of plot, it doesn’t attempt anything dumber than, say, Kingdom of the Spiders or Piranha. The primary difference, of course, is that spiders and piranhas are scary. Giant killer bunny rabbits are not.
Believe it or not, Night of the Lepus is based on a novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit by Australian author Russell Braddon. This means that someone at some point actually read a book about giant killer bunny rabbits and said, “Wow, this sure looks good on paper! It’ll make an awesome movie!” I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how giant rabbits come across on the page, but it couldn’t possibly be anywhere near as goofy and non-threatening as they come across on film.
Actually, according to Wikipedia, the most trusted name in stuff that seems believable enough, the original novel was more of a sci-fi satire, in which case the presence of giant bunnies makes a little more sense. But why the satirical aspects of the book were jettisoned in favor of making a straightforward horror movie, well… that’s a mystery for the ages.
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The movie opens with a TV news report, an infallible alert that those involved are completely clueless about how to subtly insert exposition into a movie. An anchorman sits at a desk, with a bright blue “special report” graphic behind him. Los Angeles residents will immediately become saddened as they recognize him as recently departed local anchorman Jerry Dunphy (Kent Brockman was partly based on him). Sorry, Jerry, but only two things in life are certain: death, and the Agony Booth.
Jerry begins his “special report” by stating vague generalities about the environment. He tells us that nature maintains a “balance”, but that sometimes humans throw off this balance. He then introduces footage that was shot in Australia in 1954, which is just the sort of thing you’d expect to lead off a so-called “special report”. I’m guessing all the viewers who saw the big graphic and assumed the Soviets had just nuked Miami are now utterly mystified.
Jerry tells us that Australia is where a “plague of rabbits has been, and still is, a threat!” Okay, so far, things in this report are sticking fairly close to reality. Since the 1800s, rabbits have in fact been running rampant in parts of Australia and New Zealand, destroying crops and infuriating local farmers.
Jerry asks, “Has man the right to defend himself against an enemy that threatens his life and property?” Well, since you put it that way… Yes.
There’s more archival footage of rabbits being rounded up, hacked at with machetes, and stuck in cages. Jerry informs us that rabbits were originally sent to Australia with the hopes that “they’d become a valuable addition to the food supply!” Um, not exactly. What actually happened was that some rich aristocratic dude from England had rabbits brought to Australia so he could hunt them for sport. I guess he was a pretty lousy shot, since some of those rabbits got away, and not having a natural predator in Australia and all, the rabbit population quickly grew out of control. Of course, Australians eventually got back at the rest of the world by giving them Yahoo Serious.
The black and white newsreel continues, showing rabbits futilely ramming themselves against a fence. And I’m pretty sure this is the famous Rabbit-Proof Fence, the only fence in the world cool enough to have its own movie! Things are totally silent at this point, because there are huge gaps in Jerry’s narration, which is another little touch that just screams quality.
Jerry then attempts to shift the topic of this “special report” towards something of actual relevance to those watching it. He tells us that rabbits are also currently a problem “all over the American West” and that “Science is doing all it can to contain this population explosion!” Oh, science. Is there anything it can’t do?
Jerry tells us “a new plague of rabbits has broken out in the Southwest, as shown in these color films just received from our news team in Arizona!” Well, at least now we’re seeing films made after the advent of color. Oddly, Jerry never gives an explanation for this new American rabbit outbreak. And come to think of it, neither does the rest of the movie. Well, it never gives us a good explanation, anyway.
And then, just so we can understand the title and everything, Jerry informs us that rabbits are “scientifically known as Lepus”, and concludes by asking, “Can this population explosion be contained?” I don’t know, but someone really needs to buy his writers a thesaurus, because he just used the phrase “population explosion” roughly twenty times in the space of two minutes.
Also, Jerry pronounces Lepus as “LEAP-us”, but for the rest of the movie everyone else will say “LEH-pus”. I hope this doesn’t bother you, because it sure didn’t bother the filmmakers.
Either way, we cut to some cute li’l bunnies coming out of a hole, and the opening credits roll to a tune that sounds like a leftover from a James Bond movie. And at the time, James Bond was also an MGM property. Coincidence? …I would say so, yes.