“Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!”
Cinematic horror had come a long way since its primitive infancy as part of the 1920s German Expressionist movement. The 1930s Gothic comedies of James Whale, the art deco perversity of Edgar G.Ulmer, Tod Browning‘s outsiders, and the 1940s literary subtleties of Val Lewton represented the genre in its adolescence. Of course, we are assured that each preceding generation, especially its artists, are comparatively naive—akin to cave painters. So, it should be no surprise that the genre evolved, by leaps and bounds, beginning in the modern era of the 1950s, which brought us the atomic Deadly Mantis in 1958 and topped that within a mere fifteen years: killer bunnies, in a certified classic with “Star Trek”‘s Dr. McCoy starring in his version of the “Wrath of Donnie Darko.” Yes, it’s Night of the Lepus.
This opus of oversized, rabid jackrabbits is such an abomination that star DeForest Kelley (whose career began with 1947’s suspenseful noir Fear In the Night) never made another film outside of the Star Trek franchise. This was at least a guarantee of superior mediocrity. Actually, despite glued-on porn mustache accompanied by lamb chop sideburns and his polyester suit decorated with a necktie that threatens to swallow him whole long before the Jurassic hares escape the garden, Kelley embarrasses himself the least. Faring worse are former Hitchcock heroine Janet Leigh, “B” western star Rory Calhoun, Paul Fix, and Stuart Whitman. MGM (!?!) apparently never read the script, and later placed the entire blame on Director William F. Claxton, a veteran of anonymous westerns and television episodes (including the immortal “Love, American Style”). Unsurprisingly, Claxton never made another theatrical film after this ( the same fate met first and last time screenwriter Don Holliday).
As mind-numbing and unfathomable as it may seem, Claxton and the cast and crew play it straight, despite Saber-toothed domestic bunnies, grown men dressed as a Jason Vorhees version of a Chuck Jones toon, and lotza red corn syrup. Predictably, the four legged critters are the only ones who seem to get it, being clearly annoyed by the FX hacks squirting dyed molasses into their eyes.
There is a degree of charm to be found in something so ludicrous being made by such a large, clueless team. Unfortunately, there is no Vincent Price as Irontail to save it from being a crashing bore. The plot is based on the standard Hollywood idea of atomic mutation. A pair of scientists (Whitman and a bell-bottomed Leigh) are solicited by Calhoun. Apparently, Roger and Jessica Rabbit have been working overtime between the lettuce leafs. Calhoun is sick and tired “of them critters raiding my carrot patch.” Instead of calling Elmer Fudd, the scientists, with help from “Bones,” experiment with harmones! Their daughter (a good argument for birth control) releases the herd of photographically blown-up hares running in slow mo and…Strange things begin to happen at the Arizona Ranch indeed when “COTTONTAIL CANNIBALS” go a-stampeding. Outlining the plot further would only waste precious time.
It is not the yawn-inducing, pedestrian story, but rather the astoundingly slipshod execution (including woefully amateurish editing by John McSweeney) that makes it a movie that can only go well with store bought cardboard pizza. If only this film could have had a director and studio with a taste for rabbit pellets. One can only image what Ed Wood, Phil Tucker, or Coleman Francis could have done with this. Even more unforgivable than the film itself is the “special edition” DVD, which excised a classic scene of a victim engaged in a bit of sumo wrestling with an extra dressed in Ralphie’s Christmas suit.
The quoted dialogue in the opening above is delivered by a deputy sheriff to a crowd at the drive-in cinema watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. No one is surprised.
The only authentic surprise is the amount of gore: multifarious scenes of severed limbs doused in gallons of tinted Aunt Jemima and extreme close ups of old Peter Cottontail munching away (but it ain’t marshmallow stuck in his teeth).
Actually, Night of the Lepus is probably better suited for Easter than Halloween viewing. It could potentially enliven that hopelessly dull holiday far more than any of those sanctimonious Bible pics always being shown while all the rugrats are out looking for eggs (after the obligatory once-a-year church service). Predictably, Lepus wound up as a so-bad-it’s-good list perennial. While I could think of far better candidates (like any of the Friday the 13th movies), it at least established a slightly hipper tradition.