Happy October! I’m resurrecting horror movie articles from my old blog and revamping them. This article is reworked from a 2011 post, and it seemed appropriate since Red Letter Media recently covered this movie on their “Best of the Worst” program.
I’ll disclose the Star Trek trivia for this movie up-front: Night of the Lepus stars both Paul Fix and DeForest Kelley. Paul Fix played the Enterprise’s Dr. Mark Piper in the second pilot for the original series, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and DeForest Kelley replaced him as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy for the rest of the run. Two Enterprise doctors in one movie! And they share scenes together! And none of them are interesting!
I should love Night of the Lepus. I should adore it. But it won’t let me. It won’t let me laugh at it. It won’t let me admire it. It won’t entertain me on any level. A Western-set monster flick from the ‘70s about titantic flesh-eating rabbits failing to entertain me. I’m thankful Tremors exists, because it gives me the same movie—but good.
I lay many of the faults of Night of the Lepus, aka “The Giant Killer Bunnies Movie,” to when it was made. The timing for this type of picture was off. The movie falls between two eras when it might have made for a fun creature feature. If produced in the 1950s among the slew of rampaging giant mutant films, it would have had a solid cast of B-actors, handsome lab-coated scientists arguing with gun-happy military types, and perhaps some cool stop-motion animation effects. If produced in the late ‘70s, it would have been a nutty Jaws ripoff with loony hicks carrying too much firepower, a corrupt sheriff, an environmental scientist screaming about how they’ve got to stop these rabbits before they destroy the world, and a bloodthirsty hunter wanting to mount one of those humongous hares over his mantle.
Made lazily in 1972, when giant monsters weren’t trending, and with a producer and director accustomed to shooting sedate Westerns, Night of the Lepus ended up lacking fun in all departments. Dammit, a giant killer bunny movie should be a hoot! But aside from provoking few chuckles early on at its impoverished visual effects, the film seems determined to elicit no response from viewers.
For the first few minutes of the movie, which present a serious newscaster covering the serious concern about the burgeoning rabbit population threatening the ecosystems in Australia and New Zealand, Night of the Lepus poises itself for apocalyptic mayhem. It never happens. An Arizona rancher (Rory Calhoun) calls in a husband-and-wife scientist team (Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh) to help control the rabbits overrunning his land before he resorts to the environmentally damaging use of poison. A college president (DeForest Kelley) serves as the intermediary between the rancher and the scientists. The scientists decide to intervene in the rabbits’ breeding cycle with hormones, but then their foolish little daughter releases one of the test subjects into the wild. Boom! Only days later, stampedes of 150-pound wolf-sized bunnies start flooding Arizona during the night. The hormone injections have also turned them into meat-eaters for some reason. I guess because they’re the size of wolves, they now have wolf appetites? I dunno.
And no, that the daughter released the rabbit will never get mentioned again, or figure into the story. She doesn’t even get sent to her room for it.
Looking at this interesting cast and the weird premise, it is astonishing the film is as dull as it is. The main problem is none of the characters act more than nonplussed at the rabbit invasion. A few people get chomped, but nobody else gets riled up. There’s no urgency, no fear, and almost no threat toward any of the main characters. The one exception is when Janet Leigh and her daughter are trapped in a stuck camper when the rabbit stampede comes by, but the poor editing and Leigh’s indifference about the event never make it feel like they’re at any risk.
In fact, the movie never gives the viewer a sense its main characters are ever in danger of getting killed. A key element for this sort of horror to work is the fear that anyone in the main cast might get munched before the end. But Night of the Lepus plays it safe from the beginning, feeding only the bit part characters to the crazy bunnies. This is especially ironic considering Janet Leigh is one of the leads, the same actress who shocked the world in 1960 when her main character got slashed to ribbons halfway through Psycho, breaking the mold on who was allowed to survive these movies.
Compounding the characters’ nonchalance and immunity from harm is that everybody is just so gosh-darn agreeable. No one has any disagreements with anyone else: they simply follow instructions that point toward the end credits. Tension between characters? Hah, no time for that nonsense. The Sheriff (Paul Fix) makes a casual announcement about evacuating a town, and then Stuart Whitman’s scientist modestly devises a nutty scheme that everybody instantly goes along with. This plan requires the deputies head out to a drive-in theater and tell the patrons in their cars that they need to follow along to help halt an attack of giant rabbits. And the theatergoers agree to do it, without one word of protest, or even a crack like, “What are you smoking, deputy? Can I have some?” Aren’t all these drive-in folks too busy making out or toking up to understand a silly plan to herd super-rabbits onto an electrified train track?
A film like Night of the Lepus might still get past its uninteresting human cast with some creative visual monster effects. However, the “Lepi” are lame. Not “funny” lame, except perhaps at first glance. Just lame. The Lepi are achieved through the boring process of shooting domestic (and well-groomed and well-behaved) rabbits running around models. High-speed photography is the standard for monster movies using suitmation and models, since it adds a sense of weight to the creatures and the buildings they knock down. But when used with real animals like rabbits, the illusion fades and it looks like just what it is: slow-motion. Repeated shots of cute rabbits running in slo-mo hardly make for terror.
To inflate the horror quotient, the film sometimes cuts to close-ups of blood-smeared rabbit mouths. The only genuine laughs I get come from these shots. A few opticals crop up to put humans and rabbits in the same shots, and this is the process the VFX crew should have focused on instead of the rabbit-model shots. The actors almost never get in the same frame with the Lepi. When an actor gets mauled, the effect is done with a stuntman wearing what appears to be a bear rug.
It makes sense why Night of the Lepus has never gained as much love as other cult B-horror movies. It’s neither good enough to respect, nor crazy-bad enough to enjoy. It plays the rabbit attacks with a straight face, but a bored straight face, and this undermines the potential ludicrousness of the enterprise. As exploitation monster-fare, it feels lazy and uninvolved. It’s no marvel MGM took thirty-three years to release it on home video. The current Blu-ray presents the movie in as good a picture quality as it is likely to receive.
What’s most strange about all this is that SyFy has yet to pick up Night of the Lepus for a straight-to-cable remake. This is a situation where they could produce something better than the original. And Lepus vs. Sharktopus is begging to get made. (No, wait, I take that back. It would be horrible.)
If you want to watch Night of the Lepus, place a label across your DVD or Blu-ray of Tremors, write “Night of the Lepus” on the label, and then put it in your player. You’ll be glad you did.