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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Reel Bad Cinema: Night of the Lepus (1972) review


Stuart Whitman (Roy Bennett), Janet Leigh (Gerry Bennett), Rory Calhoun (Cole Hillman), DeForest Kelley (Elgin Clark), Paul Fix (Sheriff Cody), Melanie Fullerton (Amanda Bennett)

Directed by William F. Claxton

"Jud... calm down... the rabbit's gone."

The Short Version: Leapin' Lepus's! A movie about giant flesh-eating rabbits devouring the human population in a small Arizona town fails not only as a serious slice of environmental SciFi, but also as an unintentional comedy. It would take Monty Python to make rabbits legitimately hilarious a few years later. Shot like a western (Claxton directed lots of them), it plays like one more than it does a horror picture. Instead, it's just a horrible picture. Had they replaced the ridiculous rabbits with wild, rampaging buffalo, the film wouldn't work as western horror, either. Bert I. Gordon could've done more with this silly premise and made a genuine knee-slapper out of it. If you have THE GIANT CLAW (1957) handy, make it a double Terrible On the Rocks.

Two scientists, a local doctor and a rancher (sounds like the start of a joke... well, it is!) attempt to halt the rapid multiplyin' of rabbits on a Southwestern range land by injecting a few dozen problem hare's with a hormone. Instead of solving the problem, it magnifies it... literally. It isn't long before giant rabbits--having sworn off carrots--decide to take a bite out of man instead.

Despite the laughably vague trailer as to the nature of the "mutants" and "devil creatures", NIGHT OF THE LEPUS gives its killer kritters away during the first two minutes; prompting the audience to quickly decide whether they wish to stick it out or make for the exit and hope they'll get their money back. Based on the book, 'The Year of the Angry Rabbit' by Russell Braddon, the movie version deviates from the complexities of the source to settle for the usual killer animal style of 70s eco-horror. And therein lies LEPUS's biggest problem--there's nothing remotely scary about it... unless you put it in the context of just who in the hell thought this was a good idea.

If ever there was one movie I'd be most intrigued to learn every aspect of its making--from pitching the idea to the actual filming--it's NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972). How in the world this got the greenlight is a question that desperately needs answering; as well as knowing if the cast were in such dire straits to sign on to this pile of regurgitated kibble. Normally, when big name actor appear in foreign films that amass critical derision the excuse is always they wanted to take vacation there; that excuse cannot apply in the case of LEPUS since it was filmed at Old Tuscon Studios in Arizona.

How do you approach somebody like wild west star Rory Calhoun--who was appearing in his first genre picture--and say, "Look, Roy... we want you to do this movie.... it's about rampaging, killer rabbits." It's worth mentioning that it was just eight years later that Roy donned a severed pig's head and swung a mean chainsaw as rural cannibal cultivator Farmer Vincent in MOTEL HELL (1980). 

Back to the bunnies, the big pitch for LEPUS may have went something like this...

Producer: Okay, whaddaya got for me?

Pitchman: (slight pause) Giant.... flesh-eating rabbits... (clenches eyes tight as if in ecstasy) IT'LL BE GREAT!

Producer: (long pause) Have you been drinking?!

Pitchman: No, no, no, no... we make the rabbits BIG, see? Like those 50s movies with the giant bugs only we're gonna use bunnies! We make'em BIG and make'em mutants... at least we tell people they're mutants in the trailer; (with a look of optimism) unless... you guys wanna pony up extra money for makeup FX to make the rabbits scary lookin'.

Producer: (long pause) Are you sure you haven't been drinking? If there's problems at home....

Pitchman: Trust me! And we'll get some big names to do it!

Producer: (long pause) Why rabbits? I mean, all I can imagine is a pissed off Bugs Bunny. Bugs Bunny was even funnier when he was pissed off. Remember 'Rebel Rabbit'? Christ, that was hilarious. Nothing at all scary about that; nor do the words 'bunny' or 'rabbit' sound the least bit dangerous. Why not something more practical... like a big mutant bear?

Pitchman: (laughs) We won't sell'em as rabbits in the title, see... we'll use the Latin terminology of Lepus. We'll call it... (in a scary voice) 'Night... of the Lepus'...! (smiling while overcome with confidence) Yeah, that's it! (pause) A giant mutant bear? Naaah, that would never sell.

If only someone had been mindful of the shock and awe-ful of THE GIANT CLAW (1957) with its cracked-out turkey monster from outer space. That film was taken totally seriously by the actors as well; the difference being Jeff Morrow and Mara Corday didn't know what the monster looked like till the film wrapped. In LEPUS, everybody already knew it was an army of killer Easter Bunnies. Apparently the writing on the wall wasn't legible enough.

The same would apply to certain aspects of the script. Such as a peculiar sequence where Calhoun and Whitman attempt to bury the big bunnies in a mine shaft. It seemingly never dawns of them that rabbits do in fact dig burrows in the ground--so it isn't problematic for them to dig a hole out of it. Elsewhere, rifles seem to bring instant death to the hungry hare's yet when the military comes in and brings out the heavy artillery, machine gun fire doesn't slow them down at all. 

Some of the dialog in this hare-raisingly horror-ible movie makes you wonder if actors were given sedatives to maintain their composure when given lines like, "Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There's a herd of killer rabbits headed this way....!"

The special effects are a step up from any of your finer Bert I. Gordon macro-enlarged monster flicks. Actually, Gordon would've been able to instill a lot of charm had he been assigned to the project; his own style of then outdated special effects techniques would be recycled a few years later in FOOD OF THE GODS (1976) and EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977). Saying "plague of rabbits" just doesn't have the same ring as "plague of locusts".

The model work in LEPUS distinguishes itself nicely from the carnivorous bunnies that hop along through the toy sets. Unfortunately, as good as the miniature farms and town are, the rabbits refuse to strike fear in the audience; the growling sounds given them do not help. Even with their movements slowed down there's still no sense of gigantism. The close-ups of stuntmen in obvious rabbit suits viciously nibbling away at the cast derive more menace mainly because the editing is pulled off to efficiency.

Aside from the good acting and serious tone afforded a movie that didn't deserve it, the picture has a few shocking instances of gory violence toggling between real-life footage of farmers shooting dozens of rabbits; and fake violence of humans torn limb from limb by the least fearsome creatures imaginable. 

As for the actors, Stuart Whitman does come off the best as the lead Tough Guy, his shirt with the top couple buttons laid bare allowing his hairy chest to get its own closeup. Rory Calhoun does just fine, although he looks like he took a break from a western and on his way back, wandered onto the wrong set and just ran with it. Janet Leigh probably wishes she'd of died in a shower again; and DeForest Kelly was likely longing for the sick bay on STAR TREK.

A misfire on virtually every level, LEPUS goes limp almost immediately. A chore to get through, it warrants at least one viewing just so you can say you actually watched a movie about giant bunnies that eat people. If you can't get enough of flesh-ripping rabbits, see MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)--it's intentionally funny. Even so, it is said that anything is possible... anything that is, except making rabbits scary in this movie.

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers DVD. Specs and extras: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; original theatrical trailer; running time: 01:28:19


Douglas Johnson said...

I just watched this movie again last night, and I remembered all over again how much I love it. Not only is the bunny footage absurd, but there is a ton if it throughout the movie! Spielberg hid the shark when he realized how poorly it was working in JAWS, Claxton doubles-down. More, bunnies! MORE! Plus all the blood. Peckinpah films have less blood! Truly this is one of the most WTF? movies ever.

JMR777 said...

Night of the Lepus, The Giant Claw, add in The Killer Shrews and you have the trifecta in terrible.

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