Format: Streaming video from Hulu Plus on the new internet machine.
There is a particular odd little subgenre of horror movies that involves taking small critters and making them giant and dangerous. This isn’t The Meg or Jaws, mind you. Sharks are plenty scary already, and making them bigger just makes them more of a threat. No, I’m talking about movies like Tarantula, Them! or The Deadly Mantis, where something small(ish) is suddenly made gigantic, and thus a threat. Within this subgenre, there exists a further collection of films where the critters in question are ones that aren’t even slightly threatening. Frogs or Black Sheep are good examples of this, but The Killer Shrews is maybe the most classic, that is, until you remember the existence of Night of the Lepus.
Our monsters in this case are giant rabbits, lagomorphs in the 100-150 pound range, human-sized, blood-thirsty bunnies that rampage across the Arizona desert. But clearly, I’m getting ahead of myself here. The source of the massive stampede of rabbits (technically, lepus is the Latin name for “hare”) is important here.
A rancher with the most rancher-y name of Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) is forced to shoot his horse when the animal steps in a rabbit hole and breaks its leg. Frustrated by the large population of rabbits on his ranch property, he goes to see Elgin Clarke (DeForest Kelley), president of the local university. Clarke recommends that Cole get in touch with a “young couple” doing research in the area. That couple is Roy and Gerry Bennett (Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh, both of whom were in their mid-40s). They are doing research on bats and taking care of their young daughter, Amanda (Melanie Fullerton).
Roy and Gerry decide that the best way to handle things is to genetically modify the rabbits so that they stop breeding, thus preventing the need for poison and destroying the property for years to come. But, because they decide to allow Amanda to have a rabbit, and she takes one from the experimental group rather than the control group, and because the rabbit escapes, suddenly the experimental population is in the wild. And, naturally, all of that genetic meddling has caused the affected rabbits to grow to their titanic size.
The rest of the movie is exactly what you think it’s going to be. People are put in danger by the giant rabbit horde, and many of them are killed by, if you’ll pardon my slipping into Holy Grail-speak for a moment, “nasty, big, pointy teeth.” We’ll get a few deaths of otherwise innocent people and a lot of stock footage of rabbits placed in scaled-down sets running in slow motion so that they look appropriately huge and ponderous. The special effects, frankly, aren’t. Most of the blood looks like it comes from the Dario Argento store of red paint. Additionally, for a plague that we are told over and over eats the people it attacks, our victims are almost always completely intact, albeit covered with Pantone 187-hued Sherwin-Williams.
There’s no way that anyone can, would, or should take this movie seriously. It’s not merely as ridiculous as you’re thinking it is right now, it’s far more so. The effects are dumb, the premise is dumb, and the science is dumb. I am dumber for having watched this movie all the way through.
At the same time, it’s almost impossible not to offer a certain amount of respect for it and for the people involved. They all play this entirely straight. Everyone on screen is completely serious when they talk about the giant rabbits or fight against them. Everyone who gets killed by them screams with the same conviction they would being attacked by a radioactive beast or a werewolf. I want to like this despite how ridiculous it is.
Of course, the only way to stop bad science is better science, so that’s where we’re going to go. I’d love to suggest that the devastated towns overrun by massive lagomorphs started up a cottage industry of rabbit meat and rabbit pelt blankets, but sadly that possibility goes beyond the scope of this movie.
I cannot really tell you the surreal joys of a soundtrack that includes rabbit squealing mixed with guttural growls. It boggles the mind just how much willing suspension of disbelief is needed to buy into any of this, and yet it’s impossible to completely dislike. I rather respect just how audacious and ridiculous it really is.
Why to watch Night of the Lepus: How could you not?
Why not to watch: It’s more ridiculous than you’re thinking right now.