Entertainment Magazine

Night of the Lepus

Posted on the 12 June 2022 by Christopher Saunders
Night of the LepusEver since its release, Night of the Lepus (1972) has been one of Hollywood's greatest jokes. A horror movie about giant, killer rabbits is surely the silliest premise ever committed to celluloid, and no amount of special pleading can make it otherwise. 

Arizona is overrun by an usual surfeit of jackrabbits, causing a local rancher (Rory Calhoun) reaching out to a local scientist (DeForest Kelley) for help. Along with a husband-wife team of researchers (Janet Leigh and Stuart Whitman), they devise a chemical to eradicate the pesky mammals. But the chemical has the opposite effect; when released into the wild, it turns the rabbits into giant, man-eating monsters. As the rabbits threaten to overrun the countryside, the authorities must conjure a unique way to deal with the dastardly rodents. 

Night of the Lepus is nominally based on a satirical novel, Year of the Angry Rabbit, by Australian novelist-historian Russell Braddon. The book details a near-future Australia riddled with political corruption and overrun by rabbits, with an effort to exterminate said rabbits inadvertently creating a super-chemical that could. Australia's greedy politicians use their weapon to end the Cold War and assert Aussie dominion over the globe. All is well until the unwelcome side effect of the chemical appears...giant, flesh-eating bunnies who wreak havoc on the New World Order. It's no literary masterpiece, but it's an admirably weird black comedy that, with a few tweaks, might have made for a reasonably amusing spoof of the Mouse That Roared variety.

Lord knows how Paramount producer A.C. Lyles came across Braddon's book and decided to turn it into a straight horror tale. Night of the Lepus, as you can guess, borrows zilch from the above except the chemically swollen rabbit angle, becoming a particularly hokey example of '70s eco horror. The rabbits run amok, smirking comically at the camera with what ketchup smeared on their faces, while frantic editing tries to make it scary rather than absurd. When that doesn't suffice, we're treated to stuntmen in laughably unconvincing rabbit costumes mauling actors. When not munching on humans, they hang out in a farmstead chewing placidly on produce, looking for all the world like pet rabbits enjoying a break from the stress of movie making.

Director William F. Claxton, who worked primarily in television, seems hopelessly lost trying to make this material work. He stages several scenes of the bunnies stampeding through miniature sets in slow motion, with electronic warbling noises accompanying them on the soundtrack - a combination that generates belly laughs rather than chills. Playing the material straight does the cast no favors, either. Janet Leigh's disdain for the material shows through her performance as a scientist; Stuart Whitman, DeForest Kelly, Paul Fix and Rory Calhoun struggle mightily to maintain their dignity as they devise ways to outwit the outsized Leporidae. It all culminates in a massive rabbit fricassee that wins points for originality, if nothing else. 

There's nothing I could say about Night of the Lepus that does it justice. The movie is dumb, dumb, dumb...but the sheer audacity of its premise allows it to work in that weird Grade Z way. The movie has to be seen to be believed. You won't regret it, but you might wonder if someone slipped psychotropic drugs into your popcorn. 

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