The Bigger & Badder Halloween Top 13: #11 Night of the Lepus (1972)
Many people would say that rabbits are not vicious creatures. Instead, they think them merely herbivores who are fluffy, hop along, and wiggle their little cotton ball tail. First off all, ask any hunter with a speech impediment, and they will tell you that rabbits are rascally or, to be accurate, wascally. However, I think that the best source of information about the species can be found from your friendly local enchanter. Mine happens to be a fellow called Tim. You may have seen him in a movie once. Well he told me that, “That’s the most foul, cruel, bad tempered rodent you will ever see in your life.” Naturally I scoffed at that because seriously who is named Tim the Enchanter anyway. Though, when I watched today’s film, Night of the Lepus, his words sprang, or should I say hopped, right into my mind. As I sat there watching Janet Leigh, DeForest Kelley, and Stuart Whitman fight off an onslaught of enormous rabbits, the words of Time rang in my ears, “death awaits you all with nasty, big, pointy teeth.”
After a new report that tries to ground the film in reality by telling us of the woes of Australian farmers whose acreage was over-run by broods of rabbits, the film opens in earnest on the southwestern USA farm of Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) which, like the “news report” was bemoaning, is rife with the hopping plague. Searching for help, Cole turns to Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelley) at the local college who refers Cole to zoologist Roy Bennett (Stuart Whitman). Roy, his wife/assistant Gerry (Janet Leigh), and their precocious Amanda (Melanie Fullerton) trap several of Cole’s rabbits to study for a solution. Roy thinks a hormone to stunt their growth will do the trick, but when Amanda takes one of the experimental rabbits as a pet and loses it on Cole’s farm, the results are monstrous. Growing to be a couple hundred pounds and four feet tall, the rabbits are soon stampeding across the farm, and it’s not carrots they're looking for, it’s human flesh.
So exactly why a rabbit growing from normal size to huge would make it abandon the herbivore lifestyle that the species has long enjoyed is beyond me, but I'll tell you this, these critters are vicious…. viciously cute. It’s hard to take Night of the Lepus seriously, but I think that’s what I enjoy most about it. The cast is going through the motions with no sense of irony, and several of them actually turn in good performances. It’s just hard to be scared of rabbits even when they cut to them with fake blood all over their adorable pink twitchy noses. In fact, the original title of the movie was to be Rabbits, but the studio felt like no one would take it seriously and changed the name to Night of the Lepus. They also left the fuzzy cuties off the movie poster as well, going with a more amorphous shadowed shape or eyes peering from the darkness instead. That being said, Night of the Lepus gets inclusion on this list because of the seriousness taken with the silly material. Like Frogs, released the same year, the movie plays it straight, and in doing so comes off funnier than an intentional comedy made with the same theme. There are lots of giant monsters, quite a few giant apes and lizards, scads of huge aquatic life, but there is no other giant rabbit film because when you do it right the first time, there doesn’t have to be.
Of course none of this would have been possible without a solid cast. If any one of them had played their role with a wink, it just wouldn't have worked. Janet Leigh, mother of Jamie Lee Curtis and the star of Psycho, by her own admission took on the role because it shot close to her home giving her more free time. Disdainfully she said of Night of the Lepus, “I’ve forgotten as much as I could about that picture.”, but she played her role admirably and without a whiff of check collecting. So I have to give it to her for being a pro in the film despite her personal feelings on the material. Stuart Whitman, an Academy Award nominee for 1961’s The Mark, also performs solidly as her zoologist husband and the film’s default hero, but I do have to mention that they both read a bit old to have a 10 year old daughter. However, they were both in their early 50s. I think sometimes I’m just too used to how 50 year olds look in film now. DeForest Kelley, in his last feature that did not contain the words Trek or Star in it, doesn't show up much, but when he does, expect typical DeForest gruffness but marvel at the amazing ‘stache that he’s showing off. The only weak note for me was Rory Calhoun as Cole. It’s not that he was bad as much as I really wanted James Best to be playing the part. I don't know why other than Best makes everything better.
Night of the Lepus was directed by William F. Claxton, a journeyman director who had been in the business since the late 40s. Working in both features and television, Claxton clearly had a handle on how to form the movie, and even his use of miniature sets, coupled with a man in a rabbit costume for some scenes, exhibited a care to try and make the film believable. For me, that’s what works about Night of the Lepus. No matter how silly it is or how cute the fuzzy little critters are. The cast and the filmmaker took the material seriously enough to shoot straight and not wedge in tongue in cheek elements. The film already had that from the start. Night of the Lepus might not break open any new ground or be the best in its subgenre, but it entertains and amuses which is what I always look for in a flick. I don't know if I'll give a rabbit an extra wide berth if one crossed my path, but as Tim the Enchanter would say, “That rabbit’s got a vicious streak a mile wide. It’s a killer!” I think he may have issues. Well, don't you have issues coming back for more things Bigger and Badder, and make sure you scroll on down for another submitted monsters list.
I absolutely adore how over the top menacing the trailer tries to make this flick look,
Today's submitted list comes by way of one of my favorite readers, Greg Jaeger. Greg is always active on the LBL facebook and I always appreciate when he chimes in with his opinion. So check out his opinion on the best giant creatures, and I'll see you all back here tomorrow for more monster madness.
The krynoid giant plant monster from Doctor Who episode "Seeds of Doom"- not sure if you're doing anything from TV shows but I loved the hell out of this episode as a kid and an adult. It's like a slower English version of John Carpenter's "The Thing".
The "Cloverfield" creature
"Them" giant ants
"The Crawling Eye"
Thanks, Greg. You are truly a gentleman and a scholar, and thanks for being the loyal Lair-er that I know you are!