Night of the Lepus, also known as Rabbits, is a 1972 American science fiction horror film based on the 1964 science fiction novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit. Released theatrically on October 4, 1972, it focuses on a group of people in a small Arizona town battling thousands of mutated, carnivorous killer rabbits. The film was the first science fiction work for both producer A.C. Lyles and director William F. Claxton, who both came from Western film backgrounds. Various character actors from Westerns the pair had worked on were brought in to star in the film, including Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, and DeForest Kelley. Shot in Arizona, Night of the Lepus used domestic rabbits filmed against miniature models and actors dressed in rabbit costumes for the various attack scenes.
Before its release, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) renamed the film from its original name of Rabbits, and avoided including rabbits in most promotional materials to try to keep the mutant creatures being featured a secret. However, the studio itself broke the secret by releasing rabbit foot themed promotional materials before the release. Widely panned by critics for its premise, bad directing, stilted acting, and laughable special effects, the film's biggest failure was considered to be the inability to make the rabbits seem scary. The film has gained cult status for its badness, and was released to home video for the first time in October 2005 when it was released to Region 1 DVD.
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Rancher Cole Hillman's (Rory Calhoun) seeks the help of college president Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelley) to combat the 10-15 thousand rabbits that have invaded the area after their natural predators, coyotes were killed off. Elgin asks Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh) to work on the problem, as they will respect Cole's wish to avoid cyanide poisoning and disrupting the natural cycle of life. Roy proposes using hormones to disrupt the rabbits' breeding cycle, and takes some rabbits for experimentation. One rabbit is injected with a new serum believed to cause birth defects. However, their daughter Amanda (Melanie Fullerton) loves the rabbit that was injected, so she switches it with one from the control group and then is given the infected rabbit as a pet. While at the Cole ranch later that day, the rabbit escapes when Cole's son Jackie (Chris Morrell) argues with Amanda about her bringing it along.
While inspecting the rabbits' old burrowing areas, Cole and the Bennets find a large, unusual animal track. Meanwhile, Jackie and Amanda go to a gold mine to visit Jackie's friend Billy. Jackie finds more of the animal tracks in the missing Billy's shed, while Amanda goes into the mine and runs into an enormous rabbit with blood on its face. Screaming in terror, she runs from the mine. Multiple mutilated bodies begin to crop up around town, including Billy, a truck driver, and a family of four. Elgin, the Bennets, Cole, and Cole's two ranch hands, Frank (Henry Wills) and Jud (Chuck Hayward), to go the mine to try to kill the rabbits with explosives. As Elgin and Cole set charges on top of the mine, Roy and Frank enter the shaft to get pictorial evidence. Outside, a rabbit surfaces behind the shed and attacks Jud before Gerry can shoot it and send it running off. Roy and Frank escape the rabbits in the mine and run outside and the explosives are detonated.
It fails to kill the rabbits, however, and that night they attack Cole's ranch, killing Jud. Cole, Frank, Jackie, and Cole's housekeeper escape into the storm shelter. The rabbits make their way to the small town of Galanos, killing everyone they find then taking refuge in the buildings for the day. In the morning, Gerry and Amanda leave to go to Woodale to avoid the coming press, but get stuck along a sandy stretch of road. Roy and Elgin update Sheriff Cody (Paul Fix) on the situation, and after realizing the rabbits have escaped the mine, they call in the national guard. At night fall, the rabbits leave Galanos to continue making their way to the main town, Ajo, killing everything in sight. Cole proposes using a half-mile wide stretch of electrified railroad track as a fence to contain and kill the rabbits. They recruit a large group of people at a drive in theater to help herd the rabbits with their car lights, along with machine gun fire from the national guard.
Thousands of rabbits make their way to the trap, where they are alternately shot and electrocuted. At the end of the film, Cole tells Roy that normal rabbits, as well as coyotes, have returned to the ranch.
The script for Night of the Lepus was based on Australian author Russell Braddon's 1964 science fiction novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit. A.C. Lyles, known primarily for producing western films, would make Night of the Lepus his first, and eventually his only science fiction production. To craft the film, he pulled together people he had worked with on other Westerns. Gene R. Kearney and Don Holliday were tasked with converting the novel to a screenplay. In doing so, they removed one aspect of the novel, in which the rabbits were viral plague carriers and moved its setting from Australia to Arizona. The film was shot at the Old Tucson Studios in Tucson, Arizona, a site well known for its use in various Western pictures. Filming began at the end of January 1972 and concluded in early March.
According to Turner Classic Movies' David Kalat, the film's director William F. Claxton also came from a Western film background. In directing Night of the Lepus, he applied the same techniques used in his other films, and declined the use of "standard" horror effects that would have enhanced the atmosphere, such as "canted camera angles, dark shadows, [and] eerie music." Rory Calhoun was cast as rancher Cole Hilman, whose ranch would be the start of the rabbit explosion. Well known for his western work, Night of the Lepus put him in unfamiliar territory as it was his first science fiction role. However, he stated found that the Western film trappings and his role as a rancher were familiar. Janet Leigh, who plays Gerry Bennet, stated that she took the role because of its being filmed so close to her own home, allowing her to travel back and forth between home on weekends and having her family come visit her. Though she felt the script "read well", she declined to allow her two children play minor roles in the film, as she did want to view or be part of any type of horror film. She would later know that she felt the film lacked an "ideal director" to bring the script to life, and the film failed, in part, because it was impossible to make a "bunny rabbit menacing." Fellow The Rifleman actor Paul Fix was given the role of the sheriff of the town under siege, while DeForest Kelley, who frequently guest starred in Westerns, was cast as Elgin Clark, the president would first ask the researchers to try to stop the rabbits.
Domestic rabbits were used for the film, which differed greatly in appearance from the actual wild rabbits that plagued the southwest at the time of the film, though in the film this is explained by noting that the rabbits were descended from rabbits that escaped from a rabbit farm a few years before the start of the film's events. To depict the rabbit attacks, a combination of techniques were used. For some scenes, the rabbits were filmed in close-up while stomping on miniature structures in slow motion. For attack scenes, they had ketchup smeared on their faces. For other scenes, human actors were shown wearing rabbit costumes.
Originally titled Rabbits, production company MGM renamed the film to use the latin name for "rabbit" in hopes of keeping the audience from presuming the rabbits would be non-menancing. To further prevent the audience from thinking of cuddly bunnies in relation to the film, the theatrical posters featured no rabbits, instead displaying only eyes and referencing unnamed "creatures". The trailers also showed no critters, and the press releases only mentioned that the film had "mutants." The only clue given to the audience was the required acknowledgment on the poster to Braddon's novel. However, some of the film promoters gave away the secret by sending out various souvenirs decorated with rabbit foot's designs.
Night of the Lepus was released theatrically on July 26, 1972. Its home video release did not come until 33 years later, when Warner Home Video released an edited version to Region 1 DVD on October 4, 2005.
In a July 1972 issue of The New York Times Vincent Canby wrote it was not an "especially memorable movie" that it was typical for the genre science fiction horror, but that failed due to the rabbits, despite attempts to make them "appear huge and scary, still look like Easter bunnies." In an October issue, fellow critic Roger Greenspun panned the film for not "even reasonably try[ing]" to make the rabbits scary, its reliance on "tired cliché's of monsterdom", "technical laziness" in its special effects, "stupid story", and "dumb direction that leaves the film in limbo" between a horror film and a fairy tale. In the Monthly Film Bulletin, Tom Milne felt the film started out promising before moving into a "well-worn horror grove", such as the efforts to ensure that Gerry and Amanda are trapped alone in a deserted area for a last minute rescue. Noting that the film had "a certain overall charm and several striking sequences", he felt the film would have been more successful if it "had the courage of its convictions--and its realism". As an example, he points to the scene that follows the attack on the Calhoun ranch, in which Roy is walking into town and tourists refuse to stop to pick him up because he has a gun. The tourists then go to the small town where the rabbits have killed everyone and are hiding in the buildings, but rather than becoming the next victims, the family just see the torn up buildings, call it a ghost town and leave. In the 1977 piece Dark Dreams: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film, Charles Derry compared the film to the earlier successful works The Birds and Willard, particularly the former, noting that both featured a "loveable[sic] creature". Though he felt the special effects were poor, he felt the film successfully tied into ongoing fears of throwing ecology out of balance, with the rabbits serving as an appropriate metaphor for human fears about overpopulation.
Allmovie's Jeremy Wheeler felt the film was "all good, unintentionally campy fun" and "silly to its core." Noting that the special effects were "obvious", he criticized the "truly heinous dialogue" and remarked that Leigh "slums it" by appearing in the film. In Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature, Susan E. Davis and Margo DeMello considered the film an "entertaining romp", praising the "alarmingly realistic" circumstances behind the rabbit mutations, while criticizing the "notoriously badly done" special effects and the rabbits being made to "roar" during their attacks. Calling it "one of [the] worse career moves" for Kelly and Leigh, they criticized the ending of the film in which all the rabbits were killed, calling them "unwitting victims...of human attempts to control nature." In his book Videohound's Horror Show: 999 Hair-Raising, Hellish, and Humorous Movies, film critic Mike Mayo panned the film, calling the script "lame", the scenes of the rabbits "hopping around H0 scale sets in slow motion" humorous, and that rabbits were just not scary. He also criticized the principal performers, stating that the film featured a "group of so-so character actors", except Leigh who he considered a "star", and that all gave "wooden performances".
John J. Puccio of DVDTown.com felt the film would have been better had it been an intentionally humorous horror spoof, rather than a legitimate attempt at making a horror film with killer rabbits. Stating that it was in the "so-bad-it's-good" category for only two minutes of the film, he found the actors to be "stiff and uninvolved" in delivering their lines, and that the film seemed more like an "old television horse opera" than a horror film with more slow-paced filler than action sequences, and the few bits of action ruined by the "corniest possible 'action' music". AMC Film Critic's Christopher Null states that the film is famous as "one of the worst films ever made". He heavily criticizes Claxton, feeling that he "just seems wholly incapable of making the movie remotely frightening, or even of making much sense" and that the bad special effects "make the entire film a huge joke." Reviewing the title for Classic-Horror.com, Julia Merriam though the film attempted to be a "socially-conscious eco-horror" and that its overly slow pace, bad dialog, and characters performing actions that made little sense, such as the scene in which one character goes into a cave filled with the rabbits to take a picture of them. Additionally, she notes that the film was badly edited, with a heavy reliance on stock footage that did not appear to be from the same film, before stating that the film's biggest flaw was that "fluffy bunnies just aren't scary" and the obvious use of men in rabbit suits for attacks.
In Horror Films of the 1970s, John Kenneth Muir felt the film was one of "most ridiculous horror film[s] ever conceived" that was a poor blend of horror and environmental message that resulted in the film being more of a comedy than film, further hampered by the "primitive special effects" and badly done editing. He also notes that the rabbits and actors are rarely seen on screen together, and that only fake paws and men in rabbits suits were used in obvious fashion for the few scenes calling for human/rabbit interactions. Like most critics, he points out that the rabbits were "cute bunnies" rather than "fanged, disease-ridden mutated creatures" and found the dialog was laughable. He does offer some praise to the actors for doing the best they could with the material, and being able to "[keep] straight faces as they heroically stand against the onslaught of the bunnies."