There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, we just can’t be big about it. Nope.
Night of the Lepus (1972)
Director: William F. Claxton
There’s a grand tradition in genre filmmaking that involves making pictures about gigantic creatures that turn and terrorize us:
- Large apes, covered by the classic King Kong and its remakes and imitators
- Large reptiles in the memorable The Giant Gila Monster and the like
- Large birds soaring overhead thanks to The Giant Claw and such
- Large arachnids, thanks to the like of Tarantula and its ilk
All of which spawned other movies, enlarging members of the phyla depicted before.
And then, we have this one, the lone film on its enlarged subjects:
And the reason there’s only one of these? It’s because you really can’t make that scary a picture about…
For those who never sat through a Latin class, “lepus” is the name of the critters that the folks at MGM drew upon to hide the fact that their tale of ecological terror in the modern West involves enlarged creatures of gigantic size that cast not a single mote of terror into anyone’s heart.
The film opens with a newscaster who summarizes Australia’s bad history with rabbits as a lead-in to a story set in Arizona, mainly on the ranch of Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun), where them critters are just gettin’ the best of everyone. Hillman even loses a horse after his ride breaks a leg on a bunny burrow. Desperate to deal with the rabbits without resorting to poisons or other ecologically harmful tools, he goes to the local university president, Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelley) to see if he can put someone on his staff to work on a safe solution.
Imagine that, ranchers in open-sky country turning to science for help. Must. Resist. Obvious. Comment.
Clark hooks Hillman up with a married couple doing research on behavioral hacking of the wildlife, Roy Bennett (Stuart Whitman) and his wife Gerry (Janet Leigh). They interrupt their research on herding bats with terror cries (don’t ask) and get on the rabbit problem where they decide to introduce hormones and drugs to limit their libidos.
The Bennetts have a daughter, Amanda (Melanie Fullerton), who, during the lab trials to get the right combo, screws up the control group because she thinks one of the bunnies is cute and is able to introduce an unobserved juiced rabbit into the population.
Does nobody learn anything here? We had the daughter of Gail MacKenzie from The Monster that Challenged the World nearly kill off the cast of that movie when she messed around in the lab to save a bunny, and now this! Seriously, kids with attractions to rabbits just do not belong in labs in films! It’s almost its own distinct horror film trope, and if it ain’t it should be!
Well, the film gets hopping (#sorrynotsorry) when Cole decides to burn a patch of land, hoping to starve the varmint out, not realizing that the hopped-up rabbit is making like bunnies do, and (maybe way too) soon, we get rabbits that get hefty with a taste for blood. Worse, they bound across the prairie in big, hungry herds; just look at them go:
Now, there are some folks out there who are quick to point out that producer A. C. Lyles made some interesting choices in putting this together. Because Lyles was principally a maker of Westerns, having had a hand mainly in that genre from Rawhide to Deadwood, his approach to the project as though it were another Western makes it a curiosity.
Yes, the use of a director for whom four out of five of all his work were Westerns was going to give it a certain vibe you usually don’t see in monster films. And the fact that the only one principal actor didn’t do too many Westerns, Leigh, was going to impact the feel of the film. (DeForest Kelley is mainly known for Westerns, especially Death Valley Days and Bonanza.)
So, it probably makes sense that to a bunch of folks that do Westerns, something that ranchers consider a problem, a threat to their livelihood, would be a natural subject for a horror film.
And maybe if there were a budget for this picture that could afford to shoot rabbits in a way that could make them seem like a threat, they might have succeeded. To be honest, if they tried to do this today, they could probably do a decent job with scaled-up CGI jackrabbits with a few tweaks to make them a little more menacing. But these effects shots are so half-baked and the cut corners are too obvious; the scenes of the National Guard showing up were pulled from The War of the Worlds to show how cheap they got.
Sadly, the main problem is, there’s only so far you can go with what you got to work with. And there are no filmmakers out there who can just make a rabbit seem terrifying.
Well, maybe just one…
NEXT TIME: Are you ready for some football? If you are, that may not be enough to get you through this.