Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Here goes Peter Cottontail, hoppin' down the bunny trail! ...
kiddie song remembered from the 1950s
James Aubrey spent his tenure at MGM demolishing the studio infrastructure and obstructing the work of filmmakers great and small - Blake Edwards, Dan Curtis, Sam Peckinpah. But you will surely be overjoyed to learn that he allowed that sterling monument to good taste and fuzzy bunnies Night of the Lepus to be released uncut and unmolested.
Independent producer A.C. Lyles, generally regarded as a Paramount fixture as permanent as the iron in its Bronson Gate, put together some anemic Techniscope westerns in the 60s but really laid an egg with this giant monsters-overrun-desert-community movie. It wants to combine the siege aspect of Night of the Living Dead with the very real menace of rabbit plagues of the sort that Australia suffers now and then. Your average rabbit can deliver a nasty bite (much like moose), so imagine a herd of giant rabbits between eight and ten feet long! Lyles and his filmmaking crew did just that, but nobody seems to have realized how harmless and benign a bunny looks, no matter how big it gets.
Roy Bennett (Stuart Whitman) and his wife Gerry (Janet Leigh) interrupt their studies of bats to investigate odd phenomena in a desert ranching area. Rabbits are overbreeding like crazy, making grief for rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun). Unfortunately, the bunny-loving Bennett daughter Amanda (Melanie Fullerton) switches test animals involved in Roy's genetic experiment, and then lets one of them go. Before you know it, herds of oversized carrot-eaters are threatening livestock, ranches and any human they can catch!
Night of the Lepus is at its core a standard-issue 1950s monster script. Locals have a problem and science steps in. A dumb fumble with an experiment lets loose a mutation that causes a particular lab specimen to grow bigger than normal. Unlucky individuals fall victim to the horror and an entire community is threatened until the scientist solves the problem with a crazy extermination scheme.
Russell Braddon's script is by-the-numbers, and the seasoned cast -- A.C. Lyles always gathers competent names -- go through their paces. We can see why Stuart Whitman, Rory Calhoun and Star Trek's DeForest Kelley are doing monster duty; none of them was enjoying any kind of a career boost at the time. That probably holds true for Janet Leigh as well, but we still have to think she must have gotten involved as a favor to the producer.
There's nothing particularly wrong with the production, either. Camerawork is basically good and the editing does wonders with the less-than impressive footage available. The cutting-room material consists of: a) actors reacting to basically nothing, b) micro close-ups of ravening bunny incisors (with or without fake blood on them), c) fast-moving close-ups of somebody in a bunny suit striking at the camera or smashing through windows, and d) endless footage of dozens of rabbits stampeding across tabletop miniature models. John McSweeny Jr. saw all this footage and wisely cut the action quickly, with flash-frame bits of blurred teeth, bloody bodies and doors being rammed in. Not a frame is believable or effective. But it looks like a movie.
The reason it's not effective is immediately obvious. No matter how you photograph and light groups of bunny rabbits, they look cute, and not in the least bit threatening. There's a disconnect -- our heads know that a horde of hungry rabbits eight feet tall would surely be as dangerous as a pack of wolves, but it doesn't matter. This is a movie, and drive-in audiences are likely to greet the rampaging monsters with cries of, "What's up Doc?"
There are lots of scenes of people worrying, and minor characters massacred by the monsters. There' s the cowardly man, who by monster movie law can be predicted to die horribly. In one tepid scene Whitman and Calhoun go into a mineshaft to verify the monster menace and blow up the access tunnels. "We've buried them alive," someone happily says, but nobody stops to think of what good diggers rabbits are.
Night of the Lepus shares a trait common to vintage cheapies like Giant Gila Monster - actual human-monster contact is very slight. A few blurry paw swipes come from somebody in a suit, but there are only a couple of weak split screens putting humans together with bunnies. Some bunnies, in fact, appear to be traveling-matted into falling timbers in the mineshaft scene. More typical is the sight of Janet Leigh outside her trailer, supposedly holding off a host of unwelcome bunnies with a lit safety flare. The flare, Janet and giant bunny faces are furiously intercut - and never for a second do we think that they're there with her. Even Bert I. Gordon would have some wretched traveling matte or another to tie them together.
Whitman finally fries the entire herd with a trick involving high power lines and some railroad tracks. This makes for an appropriately noisy finale. "Hey, Fred, call the audio library and ask for the sound of a rabbit screaming as it's elecrocuted. Make that 500 rabbits." The sheriff lines up a bunch of automobiles to guide the bunny-hoppers into the trap. He simply gives some cars at a drive-in movie instructions to head off a plague of giant rabbits, and everybody quietly cooperates ... (yawn). There are plenty of optical effects with electrical discharges and spark explosions, but the movie only manages one brief cut of what's supposed to be a mass of dead bunnies. They look like Tribbles under smoke.
We hoped that scientist Whitman would thrash his daughter for causing all of this bloody havoc because she wanted to play with a lab bunny, but no such luck.
Local L.A. newscasting favorite Jerry Dunphy starts the show off with the requisite 'official' newscast. These kinds of reality aids were key to the old monster movies, like 1957's Kronos.
Warners' DVD of Night of the Lepus must have made the schedule to show how seriously studio disc divisions regard the monster fan base that constantly asks for the gauche and the gory. 1 The enhanced picture holds together quite well, even though the colors aren't the best-looking; this is basically a cheap early-70s independent picture. The only extra is a trailer that takes the entire premise as seriously as does the film itself. The disc cover art features paired eyes-in-the-dark that would seem to belong in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I wish I could have attended some rural screening of the movie with people expecting the tense chiller promised by the ads. I don't know whether they would have laughed their heads off, or revolted and started tearing up the theater!
Savant saw an early screening in 2002 of an attempt at this sort of thing called Eight Legged Freaks. It actually wasn't bad at all, for a movie with a completely unambitious concept. I'm told that people who want to really enjoy monster rabbits should see Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Night of the Lepus rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 15, 2005
1. Dibs on the great first novel title: The Gauche and the Gory.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson