Silly Rabbits

Rabbits. Why did it have to be rabbits?

1972’s Night of the Lepus is one of the last stalwarts of a grand storytelling tradition, all too rare in our decadent, expertise-skeptical times–a tradition that dares to preface the feature with a dry, informative lecture. No time to thread exposition into character-revealing events and dialogue; we begin with a direct appeal to Authority. In the case of Lepus, the lecture takes the form of a news anchorman’s sober reporting on “a plague of rabbits,” as seen in Australia, where the species was introduced in the 19th century for sport only to become an invasive, crop-wrecking nuisance. From there, the anchorman warns of similar issues across the American southwest, joining wild-eyed fiction to loosely-interpreted fact at least twenty years before the History Channel would make it an art form. Even if you take the presentation at face value,* with unexpurgated footage of real rabbit cullings in Australia, the makers of Night of the Lepus still leave little room to be anything going in but Team Bunny.

And so, Arizonan ranchers are beset with the aforesaid plague of bunnies. The rancher we are most concerned with is Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun), and the first thing we see him do is shotgun a horse who got a broken leg from stepping in a rabbit hole. Clever play, movie, using our natural sympathy for the horse to try to get us to be mad at the rabbits. But surprisingly, frustrated as he is with the rabbits, Cole is different from his fellow ranchers and doesn’t want to bomb his property with pesticides to kill them off. So, he contacts his friend Elgin, the president at the local college, for help. (Elgin is a pretty superfluous character, but we’re okay with it because he’s played by DeForest Kelley and mustached Bones in Velma Dinkley turtlenecks is one of the unimpeachable highlights of Lepus.) So, Cole’s friend Elgin contacts his friends Roy and Gerry Bennett (Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh). The Bennetts, researchers innovating more environmentally-conscious ways for humans to impose their will on nature, are all-purpose mad scientists as far as the movie is concerned, quickly switching gears from capturing bats with netting to genetic engineering bunnies. Do you want giant carnivorous rabbits? Because that’s how you get giant carnivorous rabbits. Apparently.

(I mean, I know it would be insufferable, but I would kind of love for Neil Degrasse Tyson or Richard Dawkins to livetweet this thing one day. Actually, for a serum-introduced genetic mutation in a single rabbit to become dominant in the wild rabbit population, you would need at least 2800 generations, even if there were no interfering concomitant mutations, which there would be, by the way…)

The genetic flaw jiffed up by the Bennetts is only meant to interrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle, and it does do a lot, but it doesn’t do that. Before they can discover this, the mutation escapes into the wild bunny population courtesy of their daughter, naturally Team Bunny as all children must be, stealing a test rabbit named Romeo and linking arms with circumstance. Almost instantly, the runaway rabbit population is huge and hungry for humans. As side-effects, they also hop in slow-motion and make horsey sounds. It is horrific and hilarious and the main reason this movie has become a cult classic, arguably eclipsing better-executed examples of the Nature Gone Amok and Giant Nature Gone Amok subgenres like Them! (1954), The Beginning of the End (1957), The Killer Shrews (1959), The Birds (1963), Frogs (1972), Squirm (1976), Kingdom of the Spiders (1976), Food of the Gods (1976), and many more. All of these are objectively better movies than Night of the Lepus. But do they have victims ripped apart by rabbits except they’re not ripped apart so much as smeared with red paint? Do they have herds of cattle frantically stampeding away from herds of bunnies? Do they have DeForest Kelley with a mustache? They do not.

Lepus has certainly eclipsed its source material entirely. Australian sci-fi author Russell Braddon penned The Year of the Angry Rabbit, the slim novel on which Lepus is based, mainly as a joke. Its satirical story of Australian politicians weaponizing a failed rabbit pesticide against humans only to be terrorized by the rabbits they failed to kill is more Joseph Heller than Bert I. Gordon, although these rabbits do end up supersized, too. It is telling that in this intentionally comic novel, the mechanism of the eventual giant killer rabbit plague is still more complex than what Night of the Lepus presents, having rapaciousness conferred by the bum pesticide and then giant bunny syndrome from a failed plan to nuke the killer rabbits. And this goes to why Night of the Lepus, humorless as it is, is probably funnier than The Year of the Angry Rabbit, too. The refusal to embrace the absurdity of the situation only throws the technical deficits of Night of the Lepus–purported massacres that just look like someone burst a ketchup packet, the supposedly frenzied rabbits loitering benignly around obvious doll furniture–into sharper relief. It’s the kind of film seemingly made only to be pulled apart, a movie so absurd on its forced perspective, twitchy bunny-nosed face, who could ever have imagined it as a serious horror movie? Only the people making it, apparently, if them. Would it be scarier if it embraced how funny it is, more on the order of something like Tremors (1990)? Maybe? It certainly couldn’t be funnier.

Night of the Lepus does, of course, belong to an even greater storytelling tradition than the documentary-foregrounded creature feature. It’s the tradition that pits man against nature, an inexhaustible well of conflict human beings have been dredging stories from cave drawings all the way to Cocaine Bear. Part of the absurdity of Lepus is that man, in his hubris, has made this herbivorous rodent an apex predator, and that is the only really operant horror in Lepus, too, the matter-of-fact disposability of the wild rabbit population, even to a rancher like Cole who is portrayed as unusually farsighted in his stewardship of his land. He’s tried killing indiscriminately before, thoroughly clearing his property of coyotes, and now, voila, he has too many rabbits. “There’s a balance to these things,” he tells Elgin. This environmental conscientiousness is a frequent theme in man vs. nature horror from the 1970s, reflecting the zeitgeist, but in Lepus, it’s coldly pragmatic. For viewers who live the day-to-day reality of being up close and personal with the food chain, such sentiments may land differently, but most of the people watching Night of the Lepus, especially forty years after it was first released, will not have this context. In this way, the harshest hits in a movie where more than a few human beings are mauled to death (okay, “mauled”) will still be the unsympathetic treatment of the rabbits leading up to the main event, whether it be watching Cole’s fellow ranchers hunt them with dogs and shotguns or the eco-conscious Bennetts dump their sample rabbits into a trash can. In the end, of course, pesticides plus far more lethal means will have to be brought to bear against the rabbits, suggesting that poison might have been the best avenue in the first place. As the anchorman in the beginning assures us, “Rabbit drives and roundups have been called barbarous and cruel, but some way must be found to curb their invasion.” 

I do love this movie, but I will freely admit it’s mostly for the wrong reasons, silliness and 70s fashions mostly. I could wear anything Janet Leigh or DeForest Kelley wears any day of the week. Style icons. Yet there are beautiful moments in this film sometimes. I love the eerie isolation in the shot of Cole being forced to walk back to town. I love the underground view of Elgin and a rancher through an eye-shaped rabbit hole. Overall, the forced perspective is pretty terrible and I would love to see what the movie would be like with different foley ideas for the rabbits than canned audio from Rawhide, but for all the bad bunny footage, the sequence where Janet Leigh defends her daughter with a flare impresses me. Bunnies to approaching helicopter to Janet Leigh brandishing a flare and back, contracting the space, keeping it tense. But mostly it’s a big silly time, and part of me grieves that honestly, because I can see that some people did genuinely work hard on this thing only for it to be a joke in the end. 

That said, Night of the Lepus is a widely-available cult classic forty years after it was released. You can’t say that about many of those “better” films I rattled off.  And Year of the Angry Rabbit, which was well received in its day, is all but impossible to find, and no one would even look for it except that they’ve seen this movie. And it may not be scary or particularly meaningful, but it is a fun time. That’s enough to ask of a 70s B-movie, isn’t it? That’s enough to ask of any movie, isn’t it? Silly rabbits?

*Yes, technically, animals were harmed in the making of Night of the Lepus.


Speaking of source material that has been overshadowed, Angela would love to recommend the original short story “The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier. It’s great and hits really differently than Hitchcock’s movie.

3 replies »

  1. Just seeing Janet Leigh and DeForest Kelley in the same sentence makes me smile. I am fairly certain I saw this film as a boy, one of a handful of similar films I saw in the early-to-mid 70s. Probably on the Sunday night movie or some such. We were constantly being attacked by animals of unusual size.


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