Here's a trivia question for you: Which came first, the man-eating rabbit in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" or the man-eating rabbits in "Night of the Lepus"?
OK, you're too smart for me. Yes, it was "Night of the Lepus," 1972, predating "The Holy Grail" by three full years! Too bad "Night of the Lepus" wasn't done tongue in cheek; it might have been pretty funny.
As it is, the movie is done completely straight, as though no one making the film thought the idea of hordes of ravenous six-foot rabbits was at all humorous. Now, understand, a good spoof should be done straight. But we also have to have a few clues that what we're seeing is not meant to be taken seriously. In "Night of the Lepus" we get no such clues. This is a dead-on earnest production from beginning to end. Which, I suppose, qualifies it for one of those "so-bad-it's-good" categories that allow us to laugh at how awful it is. This angle works for about two minutes of the movie's eighty-eight minute running time.
"Lepus," as you all know, is Latin for "hare." Or at least you do now that this dreadful horror movie so ingrains us with the idea. The one thing the word's got in its favor is that people can have fun playing with it. That's what Warner Bros. do on the keep case, claiming "Your hare will stand on end!" Cute. Unfortunately, that line is better than anything in the film. And what else could WB do but go along with a joke and admit up front that the film's a dud?
The movie begins in mock-documentary style, with an announcer telling us how much a nuisance rabbits have become in parts of the world, like Australia, for instance, and sections of the Western United States. He goes on to say, "Rabbits, that seem so cuddly as pets, can become a menace." Yep, they can serve as the underlying idea for a bad horror flick.
Based on the novel "The Year of the Angry Rabbit" by Russell Braddon, the movie starts with a silly premise and flies ever higher with it. The setting is somewhere out West on a cattle ranch, where the owner, Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun), finds himself knee-deep in rabbits. They're eating the grass on his range and tripping up his cattle with their burrows. They are too numerous to shoot and a detriment that apparently only science can solve. The scientists in question are Roy Bennett (Stuart Whitman) and his wife Gerry (Janet Leigh), who at this moment are in the area studying insects and bats and such.
When told of the rabbit problem, Bennett suggests getting rid of the furry little critters by feeding them hormones that will interrupt their breeding cycle. Within a few years, the rabbit population will dwindle down to nothing. Sounds good, but Bennett has to perfect the right hormone, and before he does so one of the rabbits from his control group gets away from the laboratory and infects the other rabbits in the region. A side effect of the hormone is that it makes the animals grow ten times their normal size and turns them ferocious.
Before we know it, there are hordes of gigantic, albeit cuddlesome, six-foot rabbits roaming the plains and feeding on the local populace. Moreover, the rabbits breed like, well, like rabbits, and there appears no end to what harm they can inflict on Mankind. One of the worst things is having to listen to the sound they make, sort of a combination of horses, cattle, and big cats all rolled into one.
The movie's leads are hardly unknowns: Stuart Whitman from "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines"; Janet Leigh, yes that Janet Leigh, from "Psycho"; and Rory Calhoun from about two hundred Westerns of the forties and fifties. Yet they're given nothing to say or do, and, thus, they behave accordingly. All of the actors seem stiff and uninvolved, just reading their lines and heading out the door as fast as possible for the payroll office. Not even DeForest Kelley as a college president can save the day, looking just as perplexed here as he always did on "Star Trek."
The movie moseys along like an old cowpoke and has all the earmarks of an old television horse opera, not surprising considering that the director, William F. Claxton, had done most of his previous work in old TV Westerns. All the locations look like the next--open range and more open range, interspersed with a couple of interior shots. The film seems to have had a budget about the size of a "Gunsmoke" episode, and its special effects look left over from an early "Hopalong Cassidy."
Every action by every character is a groaner, one of those "Oh, no, why is it doing that?" kind of things. Case in point: When Bennett and Hillman determine that gigantic killer rabbits are on the loose, what does Bennett decide to do? Walk with Hillman into an old mine shaft where they know the rabbits are breeding and try to bring one out alive for study. With one gun between them. Think about it.
Moreover, any time a little action does break out (which is seldom, by the way, and probably by accident), it's underlined by the corniest possible "action" music, almost like an old-time silent film; then, when the action stops, the music abruptly turns tranquil and serene. That's one of the few hoots in the picture right there.
You'll find a lot of empty chatter and a lot of walking around in the film, such filler being a sure sign that not much is happening in the way of motivation or plot. The only thing more lifeless than the corpses in "Night of the Lepus" is the movie itself.
Warner Bros. do their part to bring the film to DVD in the best manner possible, but you can't beat a dead rabbit. The transfer is widescreen, measuring about 1.75:1 across my television; it's anamorphic; and it's done up at a high bit rate. Nothing helps. Although the colors are bright and deep, they are most often too dark, causing flesh tones to appear orange or purplish. Additionally, almost every outdoor scene is accompanied by a faint but noticeable grain. Object delineation is good, but inner detailing is murky at best.
The sound quality is no better than the video, despite a remastering in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural. The good thing about it is that it's reasonably clear and clean, with almost no background noise. The bad things are that its midrange is slightly pinched and nasal and its dynamic range constricted. There's not much else to be said. The soundtrack functions adequately, if barely.
You get twenty-two scene selections, but, as usual with WB, no chapter insert; and a widescreen theatrical trailer. I thought the trailer was the best part of the package. The announcer is a kick, proclaiming in stentorian tones the importance of the story and its possible impact on society. I love this stuff. Can't say it's worth the price of a whole disc, though.
Rabbits have always held a curious position in the world. We either keep them as pets or we eat them. Can you think of any other animal that is so loved for so opposite reasons? What's more, rabbits are a lot more intelligent than most people give them credit, and I think it's about time we got a really good film treatment of these peculiar creatures. (Sorry, Tim; Bugs Bunny doesn't count, nor does Harvey, even though both of these rabbits are about a hundred times smarter than the humans in "Lepus.")
In the meantime, we do have "Night of the Lepus," which is not so much a horror movie as it is a horror of a movie. Oh, well....