Night of the Lepus (1972) Directed by William F. Claxton
Bad movies are bad for all sorts of reasons but mostly they are bad for technical reasons. Bad acting, bad direction, cheap sets, lousy dialogue, laughable effects, plot holes, etc. Rarely is a film bad because of a bad concept. Oh bad ideas are common, but they’re usually part of a concept that would have broadly worked. Plan 9 from Outer Space is predicated on a secret alien invasion using our own dead against us, that’s kind of neat. It’s just every single thing that follows on from that premise that Ed wood and company get wrong.
No, the collaborative nature of film and the high cost of production means that most truly bad concepts die before they manage to jump through the many hoops needed to get a film financed, produced and distributed.
Which is what makes Night of the Lepus such a rare treat. This is a film, ladies and gentleman, predicated upon the high concept of giant mutant killer bunny rabbits.
Giant, mutant, killer bunny rabbits.
Let that sink in for a bit.
Multiple people heard that idea and thought, yup, that’ll work. There are 57 people credited with working on this film and at least 4 of those (the director, producer and two screenwriters, yes two of them!) are personally responsible for the thought process.
“Giant, mutant, killer, bunny rabbits. Why not?”
The mind, it boggles.
Now some of you bad movie aficionados are probably squirming uncomfortably now thinking, hang on Adam, this must be a piss take right? This is like 8 Legged Freaks or Slugs or something else patently ridiculous where it really is a satire or at least a parody of monster movies?
I don’t blame you for thinking that. In my experience when you come across a truly bad idea usually the creators know it and have done it on purpose. Also bolstering this argument is the fact that the novel it is based on is a satire with an anti-war message.
But if this is a joke then it is a work of deadpan genius to rival Andy Kauffman. Every single thing in this movie is played 100% down the line straight. Even better it is portrayed with a seriousness and gravitas unique to 70’s “message” films. This isn’t just a film about giant mutant killer bunny rabbits that takes itself seriously, this is a film about giant mutant killer bunny rabbits that thinks it is important!
Our film starts with Rory Calhoun (yes, that guy who is always walking and talking) murdering a horse.
Okay, in fairness it actually starts with Rory Calhoun riding a horse, the horse tripping on a rabbit hole and Calhoun euthanizing him with a rifle. I suspect this is intended to make us hate the rabbits because they caused the death of a horse but it doesn’t. It makes me think Rory Calhoun is some kind of emotionless human robot who kills horses without being even slightly broken up about having to do it.
And actually in further fairness I skipped the prologue which features news footage of people exterminating rabbits, mostly in Australia. The footage of hundreds of rabbits running panicked against rabbit proof fences being chased by men with sticks and guns is accompanied by frightening music and a voice over intoning how devastating ecologically rabbits have been in parts of the world.
Now intellectually I know this to be true and I have no moral opposition to the culling of rabbits to protect farmland. Hell I eat rabbits. But watching adorable little bunnies running for their fucking lives while giant, half-glimpsed human forms lunge at them with sticks menacingly does not make me scared of the rabbits.
Which is a problem the film never solves. They try, they try really hard. Over the course of this movie we get every horror trick in the book. We shoot rabbits from low angles, in the dark, with menacing strings. They even shoot close ups of the rabbits impressive front teeth that they’ve smeared with tomato ketchup. And all I can think is.
D’awwww, look at his widdle nose twitch.
So, human robot Rory Calhoun (sporting the full denim tuxedo) is upset that his farm is full of rabbits, as well he should be. He decides to exterminate them but not for human robot Rory Calhoun the ways of his father, just drop loads of cyanide down all over the place. No, human robot Rory Calhoun is going to try and do this in a more sensitive ecologically friendly manner. He calls in De Forrest Kelly (alright folks, everyone get your dammit I’m a doctor not a [blank] jokes ready) who hooks him up with Stuart Whitman, another old western star playing a scientist.
When we meet Whitman he continues this film’s trend of all of its heroes being bastards to animals by shaking a box full of bats. Why is he shaking a box full of bats? Well apparently he has isolated the noise bats make when distressed and he hopes to be able to use it to corral them away from crops and livestock using sound. Now the canny among you might be thinking; “A ha! This is clearly exposition for the thingy that will stop the giant mutant killer bunnys in the film’s climax.”
Nope, no this scene serves no purpose except to set up that Whitman is a man who will casually just shake a box of bats for the express purpose of pissing them off.
Our heroes ladies and gentlemen.
So Whitman sets about trying to come up with a solution to the rabbit problem. His idea is to breed a rabbit that is singularly uninterested in sex then introduce them to the native rabbit population where they will breed with the natives and pass on the gene for not wanting to breed.
You don’t have to be an expert in biology to spot the somewhat massive flaw in Whitman’s plan there.
However Whitman’s plan swiftly becomes irrelevant. Having not much luck with his asexual rabbits he decides to inject one of the rabbits with a mysterious vial of liquid. How mysterious is it? Well apparently even Whitman has no idea what it will do.
So the mechanics of how our mutant bunny escapes into the wild are thus (somewhat paraphrased)
Little girl who is not adorable: Daddy don’t inject that bunny with the mysterious liquid. He’s my favourite.
Bat torturer: Uh huh. (ignores his annoying daughter)
Little girl who is not adorable: *pouts*
Little girl who is not adorable: Mommy, can I have a rabbit?
Janet Leigh (yes, Janet Leigh who regrets being in this turd and boy can you tell from her performance. In the fine tradition of Famke Jannsen Leigh only agreed to star in this because it was near her house.
Janet Leigh: Bat torturer, can our annoying little girl have a rabbit?
Bat Torturer: Sure, just don’t take the one I injected with a mysterious liquid.
Little girl who is not adorable: Okay.
Little girl who is not adorable: *proceeds to take the injected rabbit, then take a random rabbit from elsewhere and put it in the cage marked, mysterious liquid rabbit*
THE VERY NEXT SCENE
Little girl who is not adorable: Whoops! (drops rabbit)
So then boring shit happens so we can build tension (giggle snort) until the giant mutant killer bunny reveal. Boring shit is interspersed with our first rabbit attack which is amazing in its lack of subtlety.
Here is my recreation. (again, somewhat paraphrased)
Truck driver: (stops truck, gets out) Boy I need to stop this truck right here in the middle of the desert. Yesiree bob, its time to stretch my legs. Whoooo. That feels nice. Well, I guess I better check that my cargo of carrots and cabbages is still all there (opens door of truck) Yup, all the carrots and cabbages are still in place. That’s right, boy I’d be in trouble if anything ever happened to my carrots and cabaaaaaaaaagh.
(man is eaten by rabbits)
So more boring shit happens and the next brilliant scene is where Bat torturer for some reason is attending the autopsy of the truck driver. (Or it might be a prospector, frankly I couldn’t give a shit). Said medical examiner is, refreshingly, black. Thus making him the only black person in the movie as well as the only person aged between 10 and 50. He is also the only actor who clearly realises this is a terrible idea and has decided to ham it up and have some fun. A particular highlight is his delivery of the line that he can’t rule out the possibility of a vampire attack!
More boring shit and then Bat torturer, human robot Rory Calhoun and Deforrest Kelly (dammit Jim, he’s a doctor not a rodent exterminator) set out to end the rabbit menace. Their plan is to find the cave they’ve been living in, collapse the cave entrance with dynamite and then go get some beers.
The plan is jeapordised a bit when Bat torturer decides he wants to have a look at the monsters before they go extinct and nearly gets himself eaten for his trouble. This gives us our first good luck at the rabbits and along with the special effects achieved by just shooting real rabbits that have been smothered in tomato sauce from a low angle we also learn that this film will feature men in bunny suits!
Sometimes the bad movie gods see fit to reward me.
So other than Bat torturer being kind of an idiot (although, yeah I’d be curious too) the plan goes off without a hitch.
The problem with the plan is that it didn’t really account for the fact that rabbits can burrow
Dun dun dunnnnn!
And at this point, about an hour into the film just turn it off. You have seen everything this movie has to offer both from an ironic “oh my god how dumb is this” aspect and from the perspective of the story itself. For the next half hour all we are treated to is endless slow motion footage of bunnies running around miniature sets interspersed with boring human robots reciting bland dialogue at each other. There is zero tension, zero movement in the plot, zero character development just rabbits, rabbits and more rabbits.
This footage is hilarious at first, the combination of old skool cheapo special effects with the just terrible idea to make cute rabbits scary is absurd. But the joke dies a swift death and yet the rabbits cavorting just keeps…on…happening.
Mercifully the film finally ends when the heroes concoct a plan to chase all the rabbits towards an electrified train track and shock them all to death. This happens in glorious close up for a loooong time during which every viewer is made supremely uncomfortable about how unhappy those bunnies appear and start wondering if a “no animals were harmed disclaimer” is going to appear.
It does not, which is the only scary thing about this abomination.