Hello and welcome back to the NOFS Video Vault. I have missed you all. Things can get pretty lonely between visits and my mind, as sound and it is, does tend to wander. Sometimes it can wander into some pretty strange places, too. Like, just prior to you arriving, it wandered right through an entire bag of Doritos. (Cool Ranch, of course.)
Personal gripes aside, I have another treat for you this month. It’s on par with the upcoming Easter holiday but not so on the nose as to be, oh how do the hipster kids put it? Basic. No, this frightful flick is just enough off-center to appease those who love their holiday horror and those who pretend to hate it. This month’s pick is Night of the Lepus (1972).
So sit back with your favorite snacks a get ready for a tale of nasty ranchers, Doc McCoy, giant mutant bunnies, Janet Leigh brandishing shotguns, road flares, and all the best JC Penney fashions the wardrobe department had to offer.
BACK OF THE BOX OVERVIEW
Night of the whaaaa, you say? Lepus. It’s Latin for hare. Night of the Lepus is about a rancher who is befuddled by a massive drove of said hare on his land. He calls on a local college president to help him resolve the matter humanely. In order to do so, the egghead dean brings in a couple of animal activist researchers who inject the rabbits with chemicals to slow down their breeding cycle. However, they fail to anticipate the consequences of their actions and a breed of giant mutant rabbits emerges, killing every human in sight.
CAST OF CARROT-ERS
Stuart Whitman (Eaten Alive) and Janet Leigh (Psycho) star as Roy and Gerry Bennett, the researchers who haplessly unleashes a plague of giant bunnies on a small Arizona town. Rory Calhoun (Motel Hell) plays Cole Hillman, the rancher beleaguer by a nest of overly amorous cottontails. DeForest Kelley (Star Trek,1979) is Elgin Clark, the college president who rancher, Hillman employs to help with his lagomorph problem. Paul Fix (Ghost Breakers) is the local law enforcement as Sheriff Cody, who quite honestly don’t do much in the face of, oh I don’t know, GIANT FREAKIN RABBITS RAMPAGING THROUGH HIS TOWN! But I digress.
Rounding out the cast, both in their only feature film appearances, is Melanie Fullerton as Amanda Bennett, Roy and Gerry’s daughter, and Chris Morrell plays Jackie Hillman, the rancher’s son… So you can see where that story arch is going. Chuck Hayward (The Swarm) and Henry Wills (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) play Jud and Frank respectively, rabbit fodder… errrm, ranch hands that fall victim to the killer bunnies. More victims of the hare-y horde are Mildred played by Francesca Jarvis (Gunsmoke), William Elliott (Night Gallery) as Dr. Leopold, Robert Hardy (The Animals) as Professor Dirkson, Richard Jacome (Petrocelli) as Deputy Jason, Evans Thornton (The Trial of Billy Jack) as Major White, Robert Gooden (Maximum Overdrive) as Leslie, and Don Starr (V: The Final Battle) as Cutler. Fun Fact: Deforest Kelley and Paul Fix had both played the same role of Chief Medical Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise on Star Trek.
THE MAKING OF… A WESTERN?
The script for Night of the Lepus was based on Australian author Russell Braddon’s sci/fi novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit (1964). The film was produced by A. C. Lyles, who was primarily known for producing westerns. In fact, he employed many of the crew and actors from his western films. Even the writers charged with adapting the screenplay from the novel worked on his prior westerns and in turn, many of the novel’s sci/fi elements were removed for the film. Instead of the action taking place in Australia, where the novel is set, the location was changed to Arizona. A major plot point involving the Australians achieving world dominance by using the giant rabbits as a superweapon was completely removed and the story localized to Arizona, specifically the Old Tucson Studios where many-a-western was filmed.
Even director William F. Claxton came from the Western film world. He had pretty much only directed westerns and he applied those same techniques to Night of the Lepus instead of using the “standard” horror approach such as dark atmosphere, canted camera angles, eerie shadows, and creepy music.
When it came to the film’s creatures, the domesticated rabbits the filmmakers used differed greatly from the wild rabbits that were to be plaguing rancher’s land. This was explained as the bunnies being rabbit farm escapees. Attack scenes were shot using a number of different methods. Close-ups of the rabbits stomping on miniature structures in slow-motion, ketchup smeared on their faces for kills scenes, and for other more physically demanding scenes, actors were shot dressed in rabbit costumes.
Janet Leigh, who was one of the only actors outside of producer Lyles’ western circle, took the role because it was being shot close to her home. This afforded her the opportunity to travel home on weekends and have her family pay set visits. She didn’t have any objections to the script and in fact found it to be quite a good read. But she did, however, declined to have her two children (Jamie Lee and Kelly Curtis) playing minor roles in the film when offered. She did not want them to be associated with any type of horror film. If she only knew what was to come!
EVERYONE’S A CRITIC!
Shot between January and March of 1972, Night of the Lepus saw its theatrical release on July 26, 1972. The critical and audience reception was not kind and it was all because of the rabbits. Maybe Roy was right. Maybe rabbits weren’t anyone’s bag. The consensus was they just weren’t scary, despite attempts to make them so. The New York Times Vincent Canby wrote that it wasn’t an “especially memorable movie”, and that it failed because of the filmmaker’s attempts to make the rabbits “appear huge and scary, still look like Easter bunnies.”
Not surprisingly, the film sat in its hutch for 33 years later before being released on home video. Warner Home Video released an edited version on DVD October 4, 2005, thus skipping the VHS-era altogether. In June of 2018 Scream Factory released the film on Blu-ray.
CULT OF THE COLONY
As with most b-movies, at one point or another somewhere down the road, a group of fans embraces a film for its good and bad qualities, engendering it as a cult classic. Like other “natural horror” films such as Frogs (1972), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), Squirm (1976) and Day of the Animals (1977), Night of the Lepus is no exception. In recent years it has been regarded successful in depicting the fears of an off-kilter ecology, using the rabbits as a metaphor for human overpopulation, which one can only assume, was the original point of the movie. It is also celebrated for another missed point, perhaps the most glaring of them all. The film is an adaptation of a satirical novel. The fact that anyone would take this film seriously could have been beyond the filmmaker’s own comprehension and perhaps even they missed the point when translating the source material. This lends credence to the newfound appreciation for the film. After all, the movie is 47 years old now and that’s a lot of time to digest and “get” the intended assertion.
So there you have it. A producer and director completely out of their element? Two big stars who would have rather been anywhere else but on that set? A herd of adorable capon more suited for a Disney film than anything remotely horrible? A film that despite a certain overall charm and several interesting sequences, just couldn’t out-hop its a misbegotten premise and the displaced criticism that followed? Perhaps. But it might also be just a simple movie about giant killer bunnies. Either way, for the horror nut, there’s something in there for everyone.
And that’s all I have for you this month. As I said before, loneliness takes the mind to strange places and well, this month’s pick might help prove that. Care for a bag of Doritos to go with your rental? Oh, don’t forget to check out the NOFS Community Board before you leave. There you’ll find all of the latest and greatest in the world of horror. You can follow on the official Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit pages. Until we meet again, happy hippity hoppity!