NIGHT OF THE LEPUS – The DVD Review
Review by Sam Moffitt
Bad movies have been a cult all their own at least since the publication of the Medved Brother’s book The 50 Worst Movies of All Time. Although my bet is that it started with the publication of Joe Dante’s article the 50 Worst Horror Movies of All Time (Or was it 25?) in Famous Monsters of Filmland in the 1960′s I had that issue and had seen some of those movies. I assumed Joe Dante was a grown man and found out years later he was about the same age as me when he submitted that article to Forry Ackerman. I loved reading Famous Monsters and Monster World but it never occurred to me to write an article and submit it as Joe Dante did (and Stephen King as Forry later told in interviews, although he made it a point not to publish fiction).
After the Medved’s book it became hip to admit to watching Ed Wood’s entire resume and quoting from Plan 9 and Glen or Glenda at parties. While I was in college at Webster University in the early 80′s some friends and I went to the Tivoli Theater for a triple feature of Plan 9 From Outer Space, Cocaine Fiends and The Creeping Terror. Seeing Plan 9 on the big screen was a surreal experience to say the least, especially hearing an almost full auditorium laugh and applaud their favorite bits of dialog. I’m a big boy now Johnnie!”, “Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and someone is responsible!”, “How about you and me balling it up in Albuquerque?”
Film fans started seeking out films from Phil Tucker (Robot Monster) Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs) and Jerry Warren (Frankenstein Island). This trend continued through the 70s and 80s on up to the present day when made for video schlock keeps finding an audience of viewers who will watch just about anything.
Which brings me finally to a movie so wrong headed as to defy belief. Night of the Lepus is a now legendary bad movie about – wait for it – giant killer rabbits! It gets better, Lepus not only stars four name actors it was produced by MGM! An A.C. Lyles production MGM released Night of the Lepus in 1972.
I have some personal, not so fond memories of this film. From 1975 to 1979 I was in the US Navy (you’ll see me refer back to those days in my reviews, for several reasons). Among other jobs I ran the ships’ TV station on board an aircraft carrier. Yes, they have TVon Navy ships, we ran TV series episodes and movies on 1′ reel to reel video tape and 16MM film, as well as doing a daily newscast from a tiny studio right underneath one of the launch catapults.
I considered it part of my job to see every movie I could when we were in our home port, Norfolk, Virginia, or any other port we happened to be in for liberty call. That way I could write reviews of the movies when we showed them on our station, WAMR. That and the fact that I had no social life to speak of, and loved movies anyway. Thus I saw more movies in theaters during that four year period than I ever would again. And this was during part of the now legendary grind house era that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez immortalized in their double feature Grindhouse. I went to see anything and everything and at one Norfolk drive-in I saw a triple feature of Island of Dr. Moreau (the 70′s remake of Island of Lost Souls), Food of the Gods (One of Bert Gordon’s giant animals movies) and , yes, Night of the Lepus. It was that night, while watching Marjoe Gortner in Food of the Gods being attacked by a giant chicken that I pondered the fact that this was the best I could do on a Saturday night in Norfolk. It sounds funny now but at the time I was ready to cut my own throat. But I digress.
Night of the Lepus tells the tale of rancher and eco friendly guy Cole Hillman played by Rory Calhoun. He is being over run with rabbits now that their natural predators, wolves and coyotes have all been killed off. He looks for help from University President Elgin Clark played by DeForest Kelley. President Clark in turn asks for help from entomologists (huh?) Roy and Gerry Bennett played by Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh. Roy Bennett (being an expert on insects) decides that some genetic tampering with rabbits will end their ceaseless breeding habits. And then the trouble starts.
Seemingly overnight the bunnies grow to the size of cross town buses and develop a taste for flesh, human, cattle and horse. The quartet of heroes, and the local sheriff played by Paul Fix (who played more sheriff’s than just about any actor) and finally the National Guard deal with the monstrous bunny rabbits in true B-movie fashion. The problem, of course with all this is, rabbits, even blown up to giant size and with a taste for flesh are NOT scary.
The rabbit’s are filmed in extreme close-up and in very slow motion on sets made to look like farms, stores and a drive in movie theatre. Which provides the biggest laugh in the movie, one of the deputies has the bizarre task of interrupting the patrons at the local drive-in (called The Miracle and showing Every Little Crook and Nanny, an MGM release naturally!) with his bull horn to announce that “A herd of killer rabbits is headed this way, we have to evacuate this theatre!”. And all the patrons comply! At the drive-ins we used to go to that deputy would have been laughed out to the street!
And, the giant slow moving bunnies are never seen to really interact with human actors. No, for that they actually put a guy in a bunny suit, I am not making this up! In any scene where an actor has to be seen being attacked by one of these fluffy marauders a guy in a bunny suit gets the miserable task of trying to look threatening and “scary!!”
I am hard pressed to think of any animal that would be less threatening if blown up to giant size, I don’t know, kitty cats? No, cats are natural predators, in giant size they would see us as just another mouse. Check out the classic The Incredible Shrinking Man when Snowball comes after him in his little doll house in the living room! Maybe the giant chicken that tried to eat Marjoe Gortner in Food of the Gods?
This movie is so wrong it continues to boggle my mind and fascinate me years after it was released. Directed by William F Claxton, about whom I know nothing, and written by Don Holliday and Gene R Kearney. Now, consider that, just for a moment, somebody picked up a pay check for writing this movie! And it gets better! Night of the Lepus was based on a novel! Year of the Angry Rabbit by Russell Brolen! I’d love to read that if a copy can be found. And another wonderful factoid, according to the imbd Lepus cost only $900,000 to make and grossed over 3 million! This movie turned a good profit for MGM when they were not doing very well, what if it had spawned a franchise?! Ultimately though this movie is not really much fun, it has not been given the MST3K treatment, to my knowledge although it begs to be held up to ridicule. Now watching this again after all these years I only felt a deep sadness. Here are four actors who were highly thought of at one time.
Stuart Whitman, at one time, was promoted as a new James Dean! Don’t believe me? Watch the trailer for a movie called The Mark in which he played a confused child molester, if you can find it. I distinctly recall seeing it on television years ago. Whitman was in many movies and TV shows, was the star of a pretty good western series called Cimarron Strip which I never missed when I was a kid. Each episode was 90 minutes, in effect a series of made of made for TV movies. Whitman played the local sheriff with hundreds of miles to cover, the Cimarron Strip of the title. In one excellent episode, written by Harlan Ellison he had to deal with Jack the Ripper! A horror episode of a western series! And it worked!
And Janet Leigh! Here was an actress who worked with both Orson Welles (on Touch of Evil) and Hitchcock (do I really have to name the movie?, she was the woman in the shower in probably the most famous scene in any movie in cinema history!) Janet Leigh also worked with Vincent Minnelli (Two Tickets to Broadway) and John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate!) and was in many other movies and TV shows as well as stage productions. And here she is dealing with – giant rabbits?
Rory Calhoun was in many westerns, both movies and television. Calhoun also had his own series The Texan. He seemed comfortable with genre films, his part in Motel Hell is a career highlight as far as I am concerned. And DeForest Kelley? A member of the original Star Trek crew he never quite got out from under the shadow of that space ship. In point of fact this was his last non-Star Trek movie role for the rest of his career. Please don’t think he couldn’t act, check out a film noir from the 40s, if you can find it, called Nightmare. He had the chops, he just did not get the opportunity to prove it very often, as happens to far too many actors.
It is just very sad to see any of these actors in this mess, you can see what they are thinking in almost every scene: ” I’m going to kill my agent if I ever get my hands on him!”
Warner’s DVD release is bare bones with only the theatrical trailer and a French language option. This version is now out of print but the same transfer is available through Warner’s Archive DVD-R program.