Night of the Lepus or “That’s the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on!”
There is a long history of horror movies involving killer animals and monsters created by scientific mistakes. Jaws, King Kong, and Godzilla are prime examples. Even more frightening is when something which we normally see as relatively benign becomes a predator capable of destroying humanity, for example the ants of Them! and the spiders of Tarantula.
In 1972, this treatment was given to rabbits. Yes, that’s right, cute little bunny rabbits.
Night of the Lepus is adapted from the 60’s novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit. Having not read the original work, I can not comment on it beyond saying that viewers of the film can be extremely grateful that the time span allotted for the rabbits’ rampage was reduced from a year to a single night.
The film is plagued by a number of problems, the primary one being the fact that rabbits — even giant, carnivorous rabbits, simply aren’t frightening. If one were to rate all of the cinematic rabbit appearances, the creatures in Night of the Lepus rate far below the killer bunny of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, below Bugs and Roger. Quite frankly, Harvey is scarier.
The film packs quite a bit of star power, including Rory Calhoun, Stuart Whitman, and Janet Leigh. Star Trek’s DeForest Kelley makes an appearance rocking a particularly Charles Bronsonesque mustache. Unfortunately, many of the actors turn in less than stellar performances hindered by ridiculous dialogue.
The movie starts our with a pseudo documentary about the perils of the overpopulation of an accidentally introduced species upsetting the delicate natural balance. There is an interestingly progressive ecological message. The rancher, played by Calhoun, wants to avoid the use of poison for fear of how it might affect the other wildlife. Instead, a team of scientists are called in and they attempt to limit the population via an injection which will stop them from breeding.
One of the test rabbits escapes, due to two kids, and the serum which was supposed to render the rabbits infertile causes them to grow to enormous size.
It also makes them carnivorous, for some reason which is never explained.
The special effects in this film are laughably bad, even for the early 1970s. The creatures are obviously domesticated bunnies filmed in front of models. Often the rabbits are painted with thin red paint that is supposed to be blood, but looks more like they got into a fast foot ketchup packet. In some scenes the live animals are replaced by people in costumes.
The film was obviously made using a limited budget. Many of the special effects scenes are reused. The same rabbits run in front of the same buildings over and over. There is a scene where a rabbit is gut shot that is used no few than four times, one time shown rotated 90 degrees. In a dramatic scene where the characters are trying to trap the monsters underground by dropping dynamite into a cave, the viewer is treated to a view from inside the cavern looking up. This is done by covering the edges of the camera lens and leaving a circle in the middle.
None of this is helped by characters who are simply so silly to survive. An expert tracker, encountering the giant rabbit tracks for the first time, proclaims them to be made by a mountain lion. I grew up in the city, but even I can tell the difference between a rabbit track and a feline. In another scene a rancher yells “They’re as big as wolves!”
Two people watching the movie with me responded “Um, no they’re not.”
A final problem is that director William Claxton shot the film using the same techniques he used for his previous productions — all westerns. While there is little that could be done to help Night of the Lepus, perhaps some of the methods used to create atmosphere common in the horror genre could have given the film a bit more of an edge.
Even the studio realized that the premise of the film was faulty. Before its release, they changed the name from Rabbits and eschewing the mention of the actual creatures which appear in the film. The movie poster features a series of eyes staring out of a furry darkness, not exactly frightening, but more frightening than rabbits.
For all of its faults, Night of the Lepus is a good film if you are looking for a laugh, or perhaps looking to invent a new drinking game. If you are looking to be scared, give this one a pass.
Rating: 4 out of 10
About the Author
Michael Cieslak is a lifetime reader and writer of dark speculative fiction. He lives near Detroit in a house covered with Halloween decorations in October and dragons the rest of the year with his wife and two dogs. His works have appeared in numerous anthologies. He is the Literature Track Head for Penguicon. In 2013 he started the Dragon’s Roost Press imprint which which published its first book, Desolation, 21 Tales for Tails in 2014. His mental excreta can be found at thedragonsroost.net.