Saturday, January 24, 2015

Night of the Lepus

The Z Files

By Ed Garea

Night of the Lepus (MGM, 1972) - Director: William F. Claxton. Writers: Don Holliday & Gene R. Kearney (s/p); Russell Braddon (novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit). Cast: Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley, Paul Fix, Melanie Fullerton, Chris Morrell, Chuck Hayward, Henry Wills, Francesca Jarvis, William Elliott, Jerry Dunphy, Frank Kennedy, & Bob Hardy. Color, 88 minutes.

Be vewwwy, vewwy quiet, we’re hunting wabbits. Actually, in Night of the Lepus, the wabbits are hunting us. And they’re not your usual garden-variety rabbits, either. No, these are giants, created supposedly through a scientist’s mistake, but in actuality, created through a combination of miniature sets, bad editing, and weird and confusing camerawork.

To get the audience in the right mood (we have to figure they’re already rolling their eyes before the movie even starts), the movie opens with a faux television news report. An anchorman (Dunphy), with a bright “special report” graphic on the screen behind him, begins with a rambling narrative about the environment and how man can upset its delicate balance. He then shows footage shot in Australia circa 1954 concerning the plague of rabbits there, which are still a threat. The footage shows farmers trying to round up herds of the fuzzy little bastards using fences and nets and hacking at their little carcasses with machetes. He tries to explain the rabbit plague as being introduced to the country as a new food source. We know that wasn’t the reason, but wait, there’s more. Dunphy then goes on to note that a new plague of rabbits has broken out in the American Southwest, “as shown in these color films just received from our news team in Arizona!” We then cut to some of the bunnies coming out of hole as the credits begin to roll; too bad, for the introduction is easily the scariest part of this movie.

Rancher Cole Hillman (Calhoun) has some serious wabbit twouble on his hands. The reason why he’s up to his navel in the little pests is because their natural enemies, the coyotes, were all killed off (or out hunting road runners). Cole turns to his friend, college president Elgin Clark (Kelley - Bones McCoy to you - in a bad orange turtleneck and some really tight pants) of Wattsamatta U., for help. Clark, in turn, passes the buck to his top scientists, the husband and wife team of Roy and Gerry Bennett (Whitman and Leigh), who suggest altering the rabbits’ breeding cycle, grabbing some rabbits off the ranch for experimentation.

We don’t know what’s scarier: Bones’ mustache, his tight pants, or the fact he’s the president of the college.

Now here’s where it gets silly. First off, the Bennetts are referred to several times in the film as “the young scientist couple.” Whitman was 44 when Lepus was filmed, and Leigh 45, and what’s more, they looked it. Of course they’re saddled with a young bratty daughter. This one is named Amanda (Fullerton) and she is from a long tradition of incredibly annoying children in sci-fi and horror movies. Not only does she whine and pout throughout the movie, but, like all other children of her ilk in sci-fi situations, she turns out to be the cause of the problem.

Roy and Gerry find this rabbit thing is not as easy as it looked. After considering and dismissing an idea to introduce a rabbit-specific disease to the area, they next try a hormonal approach, hoping to disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle. They work while Amanda runs around the laboratory playing with the rabbits, sort of a “bring your daughter to work” type of thing, we guess. However, be it as it may, the process is taking too long. The Bennetts are racing against time, as the other ranchers plan a mass poisoning if a solution is not found soon. So Roy turns to something completely experimental in the hopes that it will work. He comes up with a secret formula he obtained from a Professor Dirkson (Hardy) in the Public Health Department. The serum is supposed create genetic mutations that will disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle. Only one problem - it hasn’t been tested. But that’s no worry to old Roy. As he injects the serum into a test rabbit, Amanda whines “Not that one, Daddy! That’s my favorite!” Daddy ignores this heartfelt plea and injects the rabbit anyway, adding, “Gee, I wish I knew what the effects of this serum would be.” Is this meant to make us feel better? Maybe he could give them rabbititus.

Okay, that’s a bad idea on his part. But wait, it gets worse. While Roy and Gerry are on a teleconference with Cole, bratty Amanda switches the rabbit with another in a group not yet injected. After the conference is over, Roy notes that Cole said the rabbits are getting meaner and hungrier. It never occurs to our scientists that this could be a sign that their food supply is dwindling, and if left alone, the overpopulation will correct itself. (Nah, too easy.) Roy and Gerry return to the injected rabbits only to discover that Professor Dirkson’s magical, mystery serum is causing the rabbits to become larger.

Amanda, for her part, is whining about letting them give her one from the safe group as a pet. They agree - anything to shut her up. So what rabbit does she choose? You guessed it - the one she just placed in the group. Now our only concern is how long it will take until that rabbit gets loose - and bigger. Would you believe it happens in the very next scene? While visiting the Hillman’s farm, Hillman’s son, Jackie (Morrell) knocks the pet out of her arms and it scampers into a nearby hole.

A short while later (it’s never made clear how much time has elapsed), Hillman and the Bennetts are inspecting the rabbit’s old burrowing areas, and find a giant footprint. While they're out, Amanda and Jackie go to visit a nutty old codger named Billy, who’s working an old gold mine. However, Billy doesn’t seem to be home. Jackie finds more giant prints in Billy’s shed while Amanda goes into the mine to look for him. Once in the mine, she comes face to face with a humongous rabbit that’s busy feasting on what’s left of Billy. What’s more, he has blood on his face (or red coloring)! Amanda freaks out, going mute (the best thing that’s happened yet in the film). Jackie runs into the mine, picks her up and carries her back to the ranch.

A doctor is called in and diagnoses Amanda’s condition as mild shock. Billy is questioned as to what happened, but he says that it all happened so fast that he didn’t see anything. Later that night, a truck is driving on the highway near the ranch when it pulls over. The driver gets out and opens the back door. Why? So we can see that the truck is loaded with boxes labeled “carrots,” that’s why. And, as Elmer Fudd has told us, “Wabbits wove cawwots, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.” Cut to a montage of rabbit faces. A low growling sound is heard. (Never mind the fact that rabbits have no vocal cords.) A rabbit (or the guy in the rabbit suit) leaps, the driver screams, we cut to the next morning, where the police find the truck, the empty boxes, and the dead driver. Enter Sheriff Cody (Fix). He has the trucker’s body removed for a postmortem to join the body of Billy, who was finally found in the mine.

The trucker’s body is sent to forensic scientist Dr. Leopold (Elliott), who finds that the damage was caused by something with a bite like a saber tooth tiger. Some help he is. Meanwhile, a radio call is received from a cop in a picnic ground. Seems a family of four has been killed and mutilated. Claxton pans slowly over the bodies, making sure we see the red paint on them.

Professor Dirkson reviews Leopold’s findings and concludes that one of the test rabbits must have escaped and spread himself among the general rabbit population. Clark (Kelley), worried about adverse publicity, suggests the rabbits be killed by any means necessary, so he, the Bennetts, and Cole, mosey on down to the mine, accompanied by Cole’s ranch hands, Jud and Frank. After checking for any other openings, they go into the mine to lay charges and to blow the mine’s entrance.

It’s then that Roy remembers something Dirkson said about getting one alive for study (another great idea), so he and Cole go down into the mine to see for themselves, and come upon the whole herd. We now see normal-sized rabbits jumping around on a miniature set. As Cole and Roy start to run, a guy in a bunny suit attacks Roy. Cole smacks the guy on the head with his rifle, and he and Roy just escape the mine before it blows.

But they’re not out of the woods, a short distance away, a giant rabbit burrows his way to the surface and looks around. (“I knew I should-a made that left turn at Albuquerque!”) He heads for the shack, where Jud is lunching on a sandwich. Gerry hears a scream and heads for the shack. It’s that guy in the bunny suit again, and he’s attacking Jud! Gerry starts shooting and the bunny-suited guy jumps out the window. Jud is bloodied, but alive.

A while later (we don’t know when as the filmmakers have a definite problem with time that occurs throughout the film), Roy, Gerry and Clark are examining the photos Roy took of the rabbits. (Why has no one asked how the infected rabbit got loose in the first place? Amanda isn’t talking.) They decide to tell the sheriff. (About time.) Roy has a brainstorm and tells Gerry to take the brat and get away to avoid the crowds, which will include hordes of the press. This leads to one of my favorite lines, as Gerry replies, “I suppose we’ll drive up to Wooddale and stay at the lodge.” I can almost hear her saying, “I know this little motel off the interstate run by some guy called Bates or something.”

Better move fast, because the rabbits have found their way out of the mine and are, as they say, hopping mad. Heading toward the Hillman ranch, they stop to attack a herd of horses on the way, smearing them with red food coloring. Jud takes a truck and makes tracks (can’t blame him), but drives right into the rabbits. He turns around and heads back with the rabbits in pursuit. Meanwhile, Hillman is getting everyone into the cellar, but as he tries to call out, Jud conveniently runs the truck into a telephone pole and knocks out the phone service. He runs out of the truck and the rabbits pounce on him - so much for Jud. Hillman fires his rifle at the rabbit mob, but it’s no good, as he’s firing at a process shot. He runs into the cellar as the bunnies break into his house and raid the fridge. As the kitchen is right above them, Hillman and Frank shoot through the ceiling at the rabbits, oblivious to the fact they may be weakening the ceiling enough so the rabbits will fall in on them. 

The rabbits hit the road and head towards town, stopping at the general store on the way so they can kill Mildred (Jarvis), the owner. The guy in the bunny suit jumps on her and slathers her with red food coloring.

The next morning, Clark arrives to tell them that the sheriff is on his way back from the crime lab, where they finally determined that rabbits are doing the killing. Smart, all the way to the top. They meet the sheriff at the airport, where they have a confab. As both Kelley and Fix worked with William Shatner in Star Trek, they know all about creatures that chew huge amounts of scenery. They and Roy go up in a helicopter and head for the mine. Why? The rabbits have all left. When they arrive at the mine, they find - the rabbits have all left. Duh. The sheriff calls his office and asks for the National Guard. Hillman calls to tell the sheriff that the rabbits have killed Jud and Mildred, and are heading toward the sheriff, but only move at night.

Now they know there’s only one option left to them: kill the wabbits . . . kill the wabbits . . . kill the wabbits.

But how? Fighter-bombers? Call in Elmer Fudd? There’s not enough time for evacuation and they determine that the rabbits are moving in too wide a front for the Guardsmen to shoot them all. But Roy’s got an idea (uh-oh): they’ll moves the rabbits toward a stretch of railroad tracks connected to an electrical source, and when they get right in the middle, juice them. Why can’t they just shoot the beasts? Because it’s easier for the process shots to electrocute them, that’s why. But how do we get them there? Hmmm. A-ha! A solution. There’s a nearby drive-in crammed to the gills with cars. A cop pulls in and delivers not only the best line in this film, but one of the best lines in the history of bad movies: “Attention, attention. Ladies and gentlemen, attention. There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help.”

That no one laughs and everyone cooperates is one of the great mysteries in this film. The cop tells everyone to turn their headlights on and follow him. That they willingly do so is another mystery. Meanwhile, as Roy and the boys are running a power line to the tracks, Roy learns that Gerry and the brat never arrived at their destination. Roy grabs the helicopter and is off to the rescue. The cars from the drive-in arrive and are instructed to park in a straight line and shine their headlights. We cut to the rabbits, hopping around the miniature set that passes for the town. This shot will be used over and over again to save money.

Roy flies over to see that Gerry and the brat are stuck in the dirt and the rabbits are swarming all over. Gerry’s holding them off with a flare. Roy rescues the girls just in the nick of time as the rabbits swarm their RV. Whew. Roy flies back to see his plan in action, as the Guard fires on the rabbits and drives them towards the tracks. As they cross, the juice is turned on, and . . . hasenpfeffer is served!

Sometime later, when I don’t know, Hillman drops by the college to find Roy, Clark and the rest playing football. He tells Roy that he heard some coyotes, but the rabbits - normal sized this time, are still there, and invites Roy and the family out. As we fade to black, the brat and Jackie are playing as some normal-sized rabbits sit by and watch.


The original title of this turkey was “Rabbits,” but MGM figured that would scare no one, so they used the Latin name for Rabbit to make audiences think it was about something scary. Unfortunately, the publicity kits issued to theaters feature rabbits, and MGM obviously didn’t count on word-of-mouth.

After seeing this atrocity, you’re probably wondering why it was made in the first place. Lepus was the brainchild of producer A.C. Lyles, who toiled for many years at the same position for Paramount. In the ‘60s, he formed his own company and began producing a series of what were referred to as “geezer Westerns,” cheaply-shot Westerns using well-known actors who were now long in the tooth as stars. Lyles followed the same casting strategy for Lepus, using such faded stars as Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForrest Kelley, and Paul Fix, all of whom had seen better days - and movies.

A large part of the problem with the film is that the cast plays it straight; evidently laboring under the delusion they’re in a real movie. Whitman is the least charismatic sci-fi hero since Richard Travis in Missile to the Moon back in 1958. Leigh, who gave one of her reasons for appearing in this turkey being that it was shot close to home, is also wasted, playing a character that harkens back to the ‘50s, when women were looked upon as an unwanted novelty in sci-fi. In an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, she said, “How can you make a bunny rabbit menacing, what can you do? It just didn't work." She also admitted that, "No one twisted my arm and said I had to do it. It didn't dawn on anyone until - it took about four or five days before we realized we didn't have the ideal director. I've forgotten as much as I could about that picture." Kelley and Calhoun were also wasted in their roles, playing underwritten parts that allowed neither the opportunity to do or say something interesting. Last - and certainly least, Melanie Fullerton as Amanda is supposed to be 10-years old, but plays her part as if she were half that age and no one ever fixed it. What is interesting about the performances is that we can see the resentment of the stars as the picture goes on, as if they realize they’ve been played.

William Claxton, the director, besides working for Lyles, worked mainly in television, usually in Western television series, which is why Night of the Lepus plays like a made-for-television movie. Claxton is also a devotee of Replaying The Same Shot Over and Over Again technique, giving the film an eerie feeling of watching in slow motion, and doing absolutely nothing for the fright factor. However, the laugh factor is another story entirely.

In March 1972, AIP released Frogs, a nature-goes-wild-and-gets-revenge film. Made for a pittance, the film did quite well at the box office and inspired a series of “eco-horror” films, all made cheaply and none of which did as well at the box office. Looking for material for a similar vehicle, someone at Lyles’ office came across a novel titled The Year of the Angry Rabbit, written by Australian satirist Russell Braddon in 1964.

Like most good satires, Braddon based his work on historical fact. A British officer brought rabbits to Australia in the mid-19th century thinking they would make for good shooting. Because he didn’t get them all, the survivors bred, and within 10 years, the rabbit population numbered in the millions. As the rabbits didn’t have natural enemies in their new land, they ran amok, wiping out other mammalian species and devastating farmland.

To fight this natural apocalypse, the Australian government introduced a virus called myxomatosis, among other viral plagues, to combat the furry invaders. Though successful at first, those rabbits that didn’t succumb bred generations of rabbits immune to the virus. Braddon’s novel takes the government’s eradication process one step further. Scientists bio-engineer a new strain of myxomatosis, called Super-Myx, to combat the rabbit plague. However, the new virus fails to kill the pests, instead turning them into savage and carnivorous predators. What Super-Myx does kill is humans and the power-mad Australian prime minister uses this new weapon to conquer the world and establish a new totalitarian Australian empire. But as he builds his new state, the infected rabbits mutate into deadly monsters that not only bring down his empire, but wipes out human civilization as well. (The novel is great reading, but out-of-print and difficult to obtain. Try the local library; that’s where I obtained my copy years ago.)

Writers Holliday and Kearney took this inspired tale and converted it into one of the silliest films ever made because there was no way, given the time constraint and budget, Lyles could make the novel into a film. He took the easy way out, constructing it along the usual eco-horror route and hoping that a plague of killer bunnies would somehow make for a suspenseful thriller. And it might have had a small chance if he had been able to use wild rabbits and had more money in the kitty. But most of his estimated $900,000 budget went toward the stars, and his production staff brought in domesticated rabbits, the cute little buggers kids love to have for pets. Those couldn’t scare anyone. Another bad decision was to play it completely seriously. The rabbits destroyed any chance the film had to be taken seriously. 

As the gang from Rifftrax noted, “That Cadbury commercial where the rabbit clucks like a chicken is infinitely scarier. So is the mustache that DeForest Kelley sports in this movie.” I couldn’t agree more.

The good news about Night of the Lepus is that it’s only 88 minutes long. The bad news is that it’s 88 minutes you’ll never get back again.

- Edited by Steve Herte, rabbit lover (He says they’re delicious.)


  1. I ate diced rabbit at a Chinese restaurant in Washington in the '70s, and it indeed did taste like chicken. (However, in this film -- among the most unintentionally funny movies ever made -- the taste more resembles turkey.)