Night of the Lepus

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Night of the Lepus
In a darkened room, a woman is shown lying screaming in a bed bathed in light. On the wall overhead, the shadow of a larger, unnamed creature with large teeth is seen.
Original theatrical poster
Directed by William F. Claxton
Produced by A.C. Lyles
Screenplay by Don Holliday
Gene R. Kearney
Based on The Year of the Angry Rabbit 
by Russell Braddon
Starring Stuart Whitman
Janet Leigh
Rory Calhoun
DeForest Kelley
Music by Jimmie Haskell
Cinematography Ted Voigtlander
Editing by John McSweeney Jr.
Studio A.C. Lyles Productions
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Warner Home Video
Release dates
  • October 4, 1972 (1972-10-04)
Running time 88 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Night of the Lepus, also known as Rabbits, is a 1972 American science fiction horror film based on the 1964 science fiction novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit.

Released theatrically on October 4, 1972, it focuses on members of a small Arizona town who battle thousands of mutated, carnivorous killer rabbits. The film was the first science fiction work for producer A. C. Lyles and for director William F. Claxton, both of whom came from Western film backgrounds. Character actors from Westerns the pair had worked on were brought in to star in the Night of the Lepus, including Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, and DeForest Kelley.

Shot in Arizona, Night of the Lepus used domestic rabbits filmed against miniature models and actors dressed in rabbit costumes for the attack scenes.

Before its release, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) renamed the film from its original name of Rabbits and avoided including rabbits in most promotional materials to try to keep the featured mutant creatures a secret. However, the studio itself broke the secret by issuing rabbit's foot themed promotional materials before the release. Widely panned by critics for its premise, bad directing, stilted acting, and laughable special effects, the film's biggest failure was considered to be the inability to make the rabbits seem scary. Night of the Lepus has gained cult status for its badness and was released to home video for the first time in October 2005 when it was released to Region 1 DVD. It was also recently included in the lexicon of Rifftrax, the comedy troupe of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, former members of the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" ensemble.

Plot[edit]

Rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) seeks the help of college president Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelley) to combat thousands of rabbits that have invaded the area after their natural predators, coyotes, were killed off. Elgin asks for the assistance of researchers Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh) because they respect Cole's wish to avoid using cyanide to poison the rabbits. Roy proposes using hormones to disrupt the rabbits' breeding cycle and takes some rabbits for experimentation. One is injected with a new serum believed to cause birth defects. However, the Bennett's daughter Amanda (Melanie Fullerton) loves the injected rabbit, so she switches it with one from the control group. Amanda is then given the injected rabbit as a pet, but it soon escapes.

While inspecting the rabbits' old burrowing areas, Cole and the Bennets find a large, unusual animal track. Meanwhile, Cole's son Jackie (Chris Morrell) and Amanda go to a gold mine to visit Jackie's friend Billy but find him missing. Jackie finds more of the animal tracks in Billy's shed, while Amanda goes into the mine and runs into an enormous rabbit with blood on its face. Screaming in terror, she runs from the mine.

Mutilated bodies begin to crop up around town, including Billy, a truck driver, and a family of four. Elgin, the Bennets, Cole, and Cole's two ranch hands, Frank (Henry Wills) and Jud (Chuck Hayward), go to the mine to try to kill the rabbits with explosives. As Elgin and Cole set charges on top of the mine, Roy and Frank enter the shaft to get pictorial evidence. Outside, a rabbit surfaces and attacks Jud before Gerry can shoot it. Roy and Frank escape the rabbits in the mine and run outside as the explosives are detonated.

The explosives fail to kill the rabbits, and that night they attack Cole's ranch, killing Jud while Cole, Frank, Jackie, and Cole's housekeeper escape into the storm shelter. The rabbits make their way to the small town of Galanos, killing everyone they find before taking refuge in the buildings for the day. In the morning, Gerry and Amanda leave to avoid the coming press but get stuck along a sandy stretch of road. Roy and Elgin update Sheriff Cody (Paul Fix) on the situation and, after realizing the rabbits have escaped the mine, call in the National Guard. As night falls, the rabbits leave Galanos to continue making their way to the main town, Ajo, killing everything in sight. Cole proposes using a half-mile wide stretch of electrified railroad track as a fence to contain and kill the rabbits. They recruit a large group of people at a drive in theater to help herd the rabbits with their car lights, with assistance from the machine gun fire of the National Guard.

Thousands of rabbits make their way into the trap, where they are shot and electrocuted. At the end of the film, Cole tells Roy that normal rabbits, as well as coyotes, have returned to the ranch.

Production[edit]

The script for Night of the Lepus was based on Australian author Russell Braddon's 1964 science fiction novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit.[1][2] A.C. Lyles, known primarily for producing western films, would make Night of the Lepus his first and only science fiction production.[3] To craft the film, he pulled together people he had worked with on other Westerns. Gene R. Kearney and Don Holliday were tasked with converting the novel to a screenplay. In doing so, they removed one aspect of the novel, in which the rabbits were viral plague carriers, and moved its setting from Australia to Arizona.[3] It was shot at the Old Tucson Studios in Tucson, Arizona, a site well known for its use in Western pictures.[2] Filming began at the end of January 1972 and concluded in early March.[4]

According to Turner Classic Movies' David Kalat, the film's director William F. Claxton also came from a Western film background. In directing Night of the Lepus, he applied the same techniques used in his other films and declined the use of "standard" horror effects that would have enhanced the atmosphere, such as "canted camera angles, dark shadows, [and] eerie music."[3] Rory Calhoun was cast as rancher Cole Hilman, whose ranch would be the start of the rabbit explosion. Well known for his western work, Night of the Lepus put him in unfamiliar territory as it was his first science fiction role,[3] however, he found familiarity in the Western film trappings and his role as a rancher.[2] Janet Leigh, who played Gerry Bennet, took the role because it was being filmed close to her own home, allowing her to travel home on weekends and allowing her family to visit her on the set.[3] Though she felt the script "read well",[3] she declined to allow her two children play minor roles as she did not want them to see or be part of any type of horror film.[5] She would later state the film lacked an "ideal director" to bring the script to life,[3] and the film failed, in part, because it was impossible to make a "bunny rabbit menacing."[2] Fellow The Rifleman actor Paul Fix was given the role of the sheriff of the town under siege, while DeForest Kelley, who frequently guest starred in Westerns, was cast as Elgin Clark, the college president who asked researchers to try to stop the rabbits.[3]

The domesticated rabbits used in the film differed greatly in appearance from the wild rabbits that were plaguing the southwest at the time. In Night of the Lepus, this was explained by stating that they were descended from recent rabbit farm escapees.[2] To depict the rabbit attacks, a combination of techniques were used. For some scenes, the rabbits were filmed in close-up stomping on miniature structures in slow motion.[6] For attack scenes, they had ketchup smeared on their faces.[1] For other scenes, human actors were shown wearing rabbit costumes.[1][2][6]

Originally titled Rabbits, production company MGM renamed the film, using the Latin name for "rabbit" in hopes of keeping the audience from presuming the animals would be non-menacing. To further prevent the audience from thinking of cuddly bunnies in relation to the film, the theatrical posters featured no rabbits, instead displaying only eyes and referencing unnamed "creatures". The trailers showed no critters, and the press releases only mentioned that the film had "mutants." The only clue given to the audience was the required acknowledgment on the poster to Braddon's novel. However, some Night of the Lepus promoters gave away the secret by sending out souvenirs decorated with rabbit's foot designs.[2]

Night of the Lepus was released theatrically on July 26, 1972.[4] Its home video release did not come until 33 years later, when Warner Home Video released an edited version to Region 1 DVD on October 4, 2005.[7]

Critical reception[edit]

Contemporary[edit]

In a July 1972 issue of The New York Times Vincent Canby wrote it was not an "especially memorable movie", that it was typical for the genre of science fiction horror, and that it failed because the rabbits, despite attempts to make them "appear huge and scary, still look like Easter bunnies".[8] In an October 1972 issue, fellow critic Roger Greenspun panned it for not "even reasonably try[ing]" to make the rabbits scary, its reliance on "tired clichés of monsterdom", "technical laziness" in its special effects, "stupid story", and "dumb direction that leaves the film in limbo" between a horror film and a fairy tale.[9] In the Monthly Film Bulletin, Tom Milne felt Night of the Lepus had a promising beginning before moving into a "well-worn horror groove", such as the effort to trap Gerry and Amanda alone in a deserted area for a last-minute rescue. Noting that the film had "a certain overall charm and several striking sequences", he felt the film would have been more successful if it "had the courage of its convictions – and its realism". As an example, he points to the scene following the attack on the Calhoun ranch, in which Roy is walking into town, and tourists refuse to stop and pick him up because he has a gun. The tourists then go to the small town where the rabbits have killed everyone and are hiding in the buildings. Rather than becoming the next victims, the family call it a ghost town and leave.[10] In the 1977 piece Dark Dreams 2.0: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film, Charles Derry compared it to the earlier successful works The Birds and Willard, particularly the former, noting that both featured a "loveable[sic] creature". Though he felt the special effects were poor, he felt Night of the Lepus successfully tied into ongoing fears of throwing ecology out of balance, with the rabbits serving as an appropriate metaphor for human fears about overpopulation.[11]

Retrospective[edit]

Allmovie's Jeremy Wheeler felt the film was "all good, unintentionally campy fun" and "silly to its core". Noting that the special effects were "obvious", he criticized the "truly heinous dialogue" and remarked that Leigh "slums it" by appearing in the film.[6] In Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature, Susan E. Davis and Margo DeMello considered the film an "entertaining romp", praising the "alarmingly realistic" circumstances behind the rabbit mutations, while criticizing the "notoriously badly done" special effects and the rabbits being made to "roar" during their attacks. Calling it "one of [the] worse career moves" for Kelley and Leigh, they criticized the ending in which all the rabbits were killed, calling them "unwitting victims...of human attempts to control nature".[1] In his book Videohound's Horror Show: 999 Hair-Raising, Hellish, and Humorous Movies, critic Mike Mayo panned the film, calling the script "lame", the scenes of the rabbits "hopping around H0 scale sets in slow motion" humorous, and the rabbits just not scary. He also criticized the principal performers, stating that the film featured a "group of so-so character actors", except Leigh who he considered a "star", and that all gave "wooden performances".[12]

John J. Puccio of DVDTown.com felt Night of the Lepus would have been better had it been an intentionally humorous horror spoof, rather than a legitimate attempt at making a horror film with killer rabbits. Stating that it was in the "so-bad-it's-good" category for only two minutes, he found the actors to be "stiff and uninvolved" in delivering their lines, and that it seemed more like an "old television horse opera" than a horror film with more slow-paced filler than action sequences, and the few bits of action ruined by the "corniest possible 'action' music".[13] AMC Film Critic's Christopher Null states that it is famous as "one of the worst films ever made". He heavily criticizes Claxton, feeling that he "just seems wholly incapable of making the movie remotely frightening, or even of making much sense" and that the bad special effects "make the entire film a huge joke".[14] Reviewing the title for Classic-Horror.com, Julia Merriam gave Night of the Lepus credit for attempting to be a "socially-conscious eco-horror", but criticized the slow pacing, bad dialog, poor editing with a heavy reliance on stock footage that did not appear to be from the same film, and senseless character actions such as entering a rabbit-filled cave just to photograph them. She also criticized the film's obvious use of people in rabbit suits, but concluded its biggest flaw was that "fluffy bunnies just aren't scary".[15]

In Horror Films of the 1970s, John Kenneth Muir felt Night of the Lepus was one of the "most ridiculous horror film[s] ever conceived", with a poor blend of horror and environmentalism that resulted in it being more of a comedy. He criticized the "primitive special effects", badly done editing and laughable dialogue, and noted that while the rabbits and actors are rarely seen on screen together, the filmmakers used obviously fake rabbit paws and people in rabbit suits for the few scenes calling for human/rabbit interactions. Like most critics, he pointed out that the rabbits were "cute bunnies" rather than "fanged, disease-ridden mutated creatures", but he felt the actors did the best they could with the material, and praised them for "[keeping] straight faces as they heroically stand against the onslaught of the bunnies".[16]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Davis, Susan E.; DeMello, Margo (2003). "4. Trix Are for Kids!: The Rabbit as Contemporary Icon". Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature. New York, New York: Lantern Books. pp. 195–197. ISBN 1-59056-044-2. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Kalat, David. "Night of the Lepus: TCM Underground - Insider Info". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved January 3, 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Kalat, David. "Night of the Lepus: TCM Underground - In The Know". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved January 3, 2010. 
  4. ^ a b "Night of the Lepus (1972)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved January 4, 2010. 
  5. ^ O'Brian, Jack (May 16, 1972). "Callas' New Beau Dean At Juilliard". Sarasota Journal. p. 6-B. 
  6. ^ a b c Wheeler, Jeremy. "Night of the Lepus Review". Allmovie. Retrieved January 3, 2010. 
  7. ^ "Night of the Lepus (1972)". Amazon.com. Retrieved January 3, 2010. 
  8. ^ Canby, Vincent (July 16, 1972). "King Kong, Where Are You?". The New York Times. pp. D1, D5–D6. 
  9. ^ Greenspun, Peter (October 5, 1972). "Night of the Lepus Shoes Peter Rabbit's Other Side". The New York Times. p. 56. 
  10. ^ Milne, Tom (March 1973). Monthly Film Bulletin 40 (468/479). p. 55. ISSN 0027-0407. 
  11. ^ Derry, Charles (2009). Dark Dreams 2.0: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film. McFarland. p. 71. ISBN 978-0-7864-3397-1. 
  12. ^ Mayo, Mike (February 1, 1998). VideoHound's Horror Show: 999 Hair-Raising, Hellish and Humorous Movies. Detroit: Visible Ink Press. p. 257. ISBN 1-57859-047-7. OCLC 39052368. 
  13. ^ Puccio, John J. (October 9, 2005). "Night Of The Lepus - DVD review". DVDTown.com. Retrieved January 4, 2010. 
  14. ^ Null, Christopher (2005). "Night of the Lepus". AMC's Filmcritic.com. Retrieved January 4, 2010. 
  15. ^ Merriam, Julia (April 30, 2007). "Night of the Lepus (1972)". Classic-Horror.com. Retrieved January 4, 2010. 
  16. ^ Muir, John Kenneth (August 20, 2002). "1972: Night of the Lepus". Horror Films of the 1970s. McFarland & Company. pp. 216–219. ISBN 0-7864-1249-6. 

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