It’s rabbits but not as we know them…
We’re off to Arizona for a horror of a horror film with Star Trek’s Deforest Kelley, Janet Leigh and some killer bunnies.
Night of the Lepus (Trailer), warnerarchive
The rabbits in Night of the Lepus (1972) seem like the inspiration for the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, a deadly homicidal killer in the Monty Python movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). However, instead of a wee cute looking bunny who randomly decapitates people in the latter movie, Night of the Lepus is about a whole pack of wee cute bunnies, but in close up to make them look bigger, on a killer rampage.
This film was directed by William F. Claxton and produced by A. C. Lyles, who did many Western movies. This movie was filmed at the Old Tucson Studios in Arizona. The Old Tucson Studios are close to the Tucson Mountains and the western side of the Saguaro National Park. The crew even hosted a special movie night with a viewing of this movie there. As well as being a movie set, it has also been a theme park.
If this film set looks familiar to you, it was also the setting for many Western films including Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and TV Series including Little House on the Prairie (1974-83) and The High Chaparral (1967-71). Other non-Western films and TV series were also filmed at this location such as a Hart to Hart (1979-84) TV episode and The Cannonball Run (1981).
Night of the Lepus could have easily been added to the so bad it’s good genre. But I believe that this is an undisputed gem of a horror film. It’s also unintentionally a comedy due to those endearing special effects and crazy plot. These pre-CGI effects, have life-size rabbits hop around a miniature model village set (complete with cars, campervans and bridges), to make you believe they are larger than real life. Adding to the “ambience” you’ll spot many repeated rabbit scenes and actors in dual roles.
As for the horror elements, there are gratuitous bloody scenes of death and destruction from the
hands of grown adults in bunny costumes. Think Empire of the Ants (1977) where Joan Collins was (I assume) attacked by a man in an ant costume and you’ll get the idea. And don’t worry about the blood on the rabbits’ faces, I read tomato ketchup was used to convincing (?) effects.
So what’s this film about? It starts with a mansplanation of the background to the plot, as a newscaster (Jerry Dunphy) tells about a rabbit infestation first in Australia which has since spread to the good old’ West of America. Cue Rory Calhoun as Arizonan rancher Cole Hillman – complete with stetson – who rides into view, then his horse breaks a leg in a rabbit hole. The horse is shot, and he carries his saddle home.
Hillman then enlists the help of the groovily dressed, College President Elgin Clark (Deforest Kelley) from the local university to recommend some help in reducing the rabbit problem. Hillman insists on not using poison to stop this rabbit infestation (because he is kind that way). Clark recommends the help from the husband and wife research team of Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry (Janet Leigh) Bennett.
Roy suggests using hormones to alter the rabbits’ breeding abilities. This science bit was all explained by Gerry quite clinically (and basically) to their wee daughter, Amanda (and the audience). But the serum doesn’t work on the trial rabbit, who also happens to be Amanda’s favourite bunny.
Amanda swaps this serum injected rabbit with another one in the control group when her parents are otherwise occupied. Then Amanda begs to keep a rabbit and chooses the serum injected one. Her parents allow her to have this bunny as a pet believing it was the other rabbit, not knowing the awful truth, the fools. (Are you still with me?)
Later Amanda hangs out with Hillman’s son Jackie and the pair play with this bunny on the Hillman ranch. Then the kids get into a tussle and she drops the rabbit and the rabbit escapes… what could possibly go wrong??? Quite a lot, naturally. Soon after, Hillman and the Bennett parents find a large animal track when examining the rabbits’ habitats.
Then as Amanda and Jackie go looking for their friend, Billy, the kids spot more of these huge animal tracks. Amanda enters Billy’s shed and to her horror, she comes across a
fucking huge rabbit with ketchup blood on its face…
Then it’s mayhem as many random Tucson residents are killed by this pack (?) of giant carnivorous rabbits who travel by night in groups. It seems no one is safe… cue cliches, predictable scenes and dialogue and a ropey ending that includes more Tucson townspeople.
The plot was based on a 1964 novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit written by Russell Braddon. Domestic rabbits were used during filming. This was nattily explained in this movie, which claimed that the rabbits were descendants of an escaped pet.
The cast found the rabbits, an odd choice for a horror film predator. Janet Leigh reportedly stated: “How can you make a bunny rabbit menacing?”. With the directors trying to convince her (and us) with dramatic squealing and chilling music, close-ups of bunnies hopping in slow motion and the gratuitous use of ketchup.
I did enjoy this movie, despite its silliness but I agree with Red Letter Media’s appraisal that it needed more backstory for the characters. I believe this may have made it feel more like a disaster movie crossed with a horror film. But it would have certainly made the characters less one dimensional and you would possibly care about them more as people rather than.. er.. rabbit food.
I would have loved this plot to go full-tilt disaster film with the inclusion of an all-star cast. If they’d done this for example by adding a drunken wife (played by a pre Earthquake (1974) Ava Gardner or Airport 77 (1977) Lee Grant) character who stumbles home after a sneaky drink with her toyboy (Martin Sheen) then gets chomped by a rabbit.
The addition of a few of those more predictable disaster movie characters and tropes would have certainly made it more fun and campy but in a good way. Then it would be more of a homage to this genre, than this film. The film’s ending is also kinda predictably ropey as man beats “nature” in a really grim way.
But let’s say it didn’t give me nightmares compared with that cartoon rabbit movie, Watership Down (1978). But I still would like to think no rabbits (or horses) were harmed in the making of this movie. It was one of many films around this time with a theme where nature went berserk, be it frogs, piranhas, bees or sharks.
Interestingly, Night of the Lepus starred both Janet Leigh and Rory Calhoun, in the year before that they starred in that Circle of Fear (1973) TV episode. In this episode, the pair were having an extramarital fling, and then she was terrorised by her dead husband that she murdered (to be with Calhoun), who had returned from the dead as a killer moth but with his head… So by 1975, both were kinda used to supersized horrors. But I’ll end here with some advice, if you are ever asked to help out with a big rabbit problem, just tell them to hop it.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦😦😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂/10
Celluloid Road Trip Blogathon 2020 No 29
This post was added to Hometowns to Hollywood’s Celluloid Road Trip Blogathon representing Arizona. Stuart Whitman starred in Murder She Wrote, Knots Landing, Hotel, Fantasy Island, Knight Rider and Circle of Fear. Rory Calhoun and Janet Leigh both starred in an episode of Circle of Fear HERE. Janet Leigh also starred in The Fog, The Manchurian Candidate, The Love Boat, Murder She Wrote, Columbo and The Man from UNCLE. Rory Calhoun starred in Hart to Hart and Fantasy Island. DeForest Kelley starred in Star Trek and Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country.