09 April 2011

Killer Cute Bunnies: Night of the Lepus

Night of the Lepus (1972)
Directed by William F. Claxton. Starring Stuart Whitman, Rory Calhoun, Janet Leigh, Paul Fix, DeForest Kelley.

The Star Trek trivia for this movie must be disclosed up-front: Night of the Lepus stars both Paul Fix and DeForest Kelley. Paul Fix played the Enterprise’s Dr. Mark Piper in the show’s second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and DeForest Kelley replaced him as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy for the rest of the TV show and original film series. Two Enterprise doctors in one movie! And they share scenes together! And none of them are interesting!

Sigh… I should love this movie. I should adore it. But it won’t let me. It won’t let me laugh at it. It won’t let me admire it. It won’t entertain me on any level. A Western-set monster flick from the ‘70s about huge flesh-eating rabbits failing to entertain me. It makes me wish I had Tremors on Blu-ray so I could feel better afterwards.

I lay many of the faults of Night of the Lepus, a.k.a. “The Giant Killer Bunnies Movie,” to when it was made. The timing for this sort of picture was off. The movie falls between two eras when it might have made for a fun Creature Feature. If produced in the 1950s, among the slew of rampaging giant mutant films, it would have had a solid cast of B-actors, handsome lab-coated scientists arguing with gun-happy military types, and perhaps some cool stop-motion animation effects. If produced post-Jaws in 1975, it would have been a crazy Jaws-ripoff with loony hicks carrying too much firepower, a corrupt sheriff, an environmental scientist screaming about how they’ve got to stop these rabbits before they destroy the world, and a bloodthirsty hunter wanting to mount one of those humongous hares over his mantle.

But, made lazily in 1972, when giant monsters weren’t trending, and with a producer and director accustomed to shooting sedate Westerns, Night of the Lepus ended up lacking fun in all departments. Dammit, a giant killer bunny movie should be a hoot! But aside from provoking few chuckles early on at its impoverished effects, the film seems determined to elicit no response at all from viewers.

For the first few minutes of the movie, which present a serious newscaster covering the serious concern about the serious burgeoning rabbit population threatening the serious ecosystems in Australia and New Zealand, Night of the Lepus poises itself for apocalyptic mayhem. Then it never happens. An Arizona rancher (Rory Calhoun) calls in a husband-and-wife scientist team (Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh) to help him control the rabbits overrunning his land before he resorts to the environmentally damaging use of poison. A college president (DeForest Kelley) serves as the intermediary between the rancher and the scientists. The scientists decided to intervene in the rabbits’ breeding cycle with hormones, but then their foolish little daughter releases one the test subjects into the wild. Boom! Only days later, stampedes of 150 lb. wolf-sized bunnies start flooding over Arizona during the night. The hormone injections have also turned them into meat-eaters, for some reason. I guess because they’re the size of wolves, they now have wolf appetites? I dunno.

And no, that the daughter released the rabbit will never get mentioned again, or figure into the story. She doesn’t even get sent to her room for it.

Looking at this interesting cast and the weird premise, it is astonishing the film is as dull as it is. The main problem is that none of the characters act more than nonplussed at the rabbit invasion. A few people get chomped up, but nobody else gets riled up. There’s no urgency, no fear, and almost no threat toward any of the main characters. The one exception is when Janet Leigh and her daughter get trapped in a stuck camper when the rabbit stampede comes by, but the poor editing and Leigh’s indifference about the whole event never makes it feel like they’re at risk at all.

In fact, the movie never gives the viewer any sense that its main characters are in danger of getting killed. A key element for this sort of horror to work is the sense that anyone in the main cast might get munched before the end. But Night of the Lepus plays it safe from the beginning, feeding only the bit parts to the crazy bunnies. This is especially ironic considering that Janet Leigh is one of the leads, the same actress who shocked the world in 1960 when her main character abruptly got slashes to ribbons halfway through Psycho.

Compounding the characters’ nonchalance and immunity from harm is that everybody is just so gosh-darn agreeable about everything. No one has any disagreements with any one else in the film: they simply follow instructions that point toward the end credits. Tension between characters? Hah, we don’t have time for that nonsense. The Sheriff (Paul Fix) makes a casual announcement about evacuating a town, and then Stuart Whitman’s scientist modestly devises a nutty scheme that everybody instantly goes along with. This plan requires that deputies head out to a drive-in theater and tell the patrons in their cars that they need to follow along to help halt an attack of giant rabbits. And the theatergoers agree to do it, without one word of protest, or even asking, “What are you smoking, deputy? Can I have some?” Aren’t all these drive-in folks too busy making out or toking up to understand this silly plan to herd super-rabbits onto an electrified train track?

A film like Night of the Lepus might still get past its uninteresting human cast with some creative visual effects for the monsters. However, the “Lepi” are lame. Not “funny” lame, except perhaps at first glance. Just lame. The Lepi are achieved through the boring process of shooting domestic (and well-groomed and well-behaved) rabbits running around under-detailed models. High-speed photography is the standard for monster movies using suit-mation and models, since it adds a sense of weight to the creatures and the buildings they knock down. But when used with real animals like rabbits, the illusion fades and it looks like just what it is: slow-motion. Repeated shots of cute rabbits running in slo-mo hardly makes for terror.

To try to up the horror quotient, the film sometimes cuts to close-ups of blood-smeared rabbit mouths. The only genuine laughs come from these shots. A few opticals crop up to put humans and rabbits in the same shot, and this is the process the VFX crew should have focused on instead of the rabbit-model shots. The actors almost never get in the same frame with the Lepi. When an actor gets mauled, the effect is done with a stuntman wearing what appears to be an old bear rug.

I now understand why Night of the Lepus has never gained as much love as other cult B-horror movies. It’s neither good enough to respect, nor crazy-bad enough to be fun. It plays the rabbit attacks with a straight-face, but a bored straight face, and that undermines the potential ludicrousness of it. As exploitation monster-fare, it all feels lazy and uninvolved. It’s no marvel that MGM took thirty-three years to release the movie on home video. The 2005 DVD does present the movie in as good a picture quality as it is likely to receive; a Blu-ray Disc will probably have to wait another thirty-three years, and I can’t imagine a crisper picture will make the film any better.

What is most strange about all this is that SyFy has yet to pick up Night of the Lepus for a straight-to-cable re-make. This is a situation where they could produce something better than the original. And Lepus vs. Sharktopus is begging to get made.

Seriously, if you want to watch Night of the Lepus, place a label across your DVD or Blu-ray of Tremors, write “Night of the Lepus” on the label, and then put it in your player. You’ll be glad you did.