Friday, November 8, 2013

Night of the Lepus

Night of the Lepus
William F. Claxton

Night of the Lepus is a perfect gateway film to a couple of my favorite things: As a campy monster movie, you couldn’t do better than giant carnivorous killers on the loose. As an example of 1970’s environmental horror, it hits all the notes: man destroying his environment and the extreme repercussions.  The one thing standing in its way, is the obvious,  outside of Donnie Darko (2001), Joe Dante’s sequence in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983),and maybe Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), rabbits aren’t remotely scary. Well there is also that rabbit mask in the Wicker Man (1973), and everything in Watership Down (1978)... you know what? Maybe rabbits are scary.

Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) finds his farm overrun with rabbits and turns to science to solve his problems.   Roy and Gerry Bennett (Rory Calhoun and Janet Leigh) are a husband and wife science team who try to help using hormone treatments on the unsuspecting bunnies. What they don’t count on, is their obnoxious daughter swapping out a control rabbit for a juiced one. What their obnoxious daughter doesn’t count on, is Cole’s awful son letting the thing loose into the wild rabbit population.  Within weeks wolf sized bunny rabbits are rampaging across the countryside devouring everything they can get their adorable giant paws on.

Night of the Lepus is probably the king of “Who Thought This Would Be a Good Idea?” movies.  It does everything in its power to try and be an evocative eco-horror film.  Every role is played straight, there is a simple but consistent message throughout the film, there’s plenty of gore and an unsettling score.  It just can’t make real rabbits scary. Sure they show actual footage of rabbit plagues and spend the opening telling you how destructive they can be, but rabbit on display aren’t rangy diseased wild things. They are cute and fat and no matter how much fake blood you dump on them, it doesn’t translate into deadly predator.

One of the more interesting things about the film is the fact there are no real villains. No one is deliberately spoiling the land; in fact Cole goes to Roy and Gerry specifically to avoid using poisons. The whole debacle happens because they are all unobservant parents, not evil scientists and profiteers. Although this is a refreshing turn, it does make the third act rather impersonal as our main characters have to step aside for the Nation Guard to wage war against the bunny horde.

Despite the fact that I think it is a far more competent film than it is given credit for, there are some very silly moments that completely undermine any tension. There are several shots of a man in a bunny suit lurking in the darkness and leaping on people.  It’s shot in  rapid cuts, but that does very little to hide the fact that it looks like a slightly more scary shopping mall Easter Bunny. 

The miniatures are lit well and very detailed, but once live rabbits are placed amongst them, fail to convince you they are real. The rabbits are supposed to be about the size of wolves, but aside from a few scenes with the bunny suit, we never see actors in the same shot, so it’s very difficult to get an accurate comparison.

Night of Lepus is a deeply flawed movie, but it so earnestly tries to play everything for real, it wins me over every time. Besides, any movie that can have a character say, “Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!” and everybody involved manages to keep a straight face deserves at least a little of your respect.

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