Farmer Cole Hillman has a rabbit infestation on his ranch and they’re eating away the vegetation meant for his cattle. Enlisting the help of scientist couple Roy and Gerry Bennett, Hillman insists that he doesn’t want to use poison which would ruin the natural ecological balance of the area and so an alternative solution needs to be found. Roy suggests using a hormone that interrupts the breeding cycle of the rabbits and needs a bit of time to see how the drug works. However, his daughter unwittingly frees one of the test rabbits from the lab and the hormone has unforeseen side effects on the local rabbit population, turning them into giant man-eating monsters which then attack the town and threaten Phoenix.
Only in the 70s could something as cuddly and innocent as a fluffy rabbit be turned into a ferocious killing machine but this was the era in which nature ran amok and everything from frogs to insects and bears was portrayed as being out to get humanity for the way in which we were treating the planet. So your enjoyment of Night of the Lepus will depend on whether you can buy into the prospect of a bunch of giant rabbits terrorising Arizona. If you can’t, you’ll spend most of the running time giggling away at the silliness of everything (to be fair, even if you can buy into it, you’ll still be in hysterics).
To be fair to Night of the Lepus, and maybe unwisely, it plays everything straight. Kicking off with a documentary-style news report about nature and the delicate ecological balance of the planet that the plague of rabbits in Australia has threatened to disrupt, the film rarely pulls any punches and never once attempts to wink at the audience and say “this is stupid and we know it.” This is doom-and-gloom from the offset however the film never truly convinces of its intentions.
The fact of the matter is that it’s inherently dull. Though the rabbit attacks are reasonably lively, the bits in between with the humans droning on about how to stop them is tedious and disengaging to the extreme. They seem to take the threat of the killer rabbits in their stride as if it’s just another plague of locusts or rats. There’s no urgency at the fact that loads of people are being killed. Even when the army gets called in at the end, you never get the feeling that anyone here is that bothered at the sight of a giant rabbit. Plus there’s the issue that the rabbits only show up about a third of the way in, meaning you’ve got to slog through some tough scenes to get there. Pacing is a real issue.
Maybe they’re all so stoic and serious because the main characters knew that they were safe from the bunnies. At no point do any of them ever really get put in danger, though if you’re a supporting actor then I’d suggest you find a better agent because few of them make it out alive. For such an obscure film, there’s a cast full of names on hand and they all treat the material deadly seriously. DeForest Kelley, forever to be known as Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy from Star Trek is on hand for what was his last non-Star Trek feature film. Janet Leigh, from Psycho, gets a pointless role but top billing and Stuart Whitman and Rory Calhoun, with hundreds of film and television appearances between them, try to keep a straight face amongst the giant rabbits they’re forced to confront.
Most of the shots of the rabbits are real, they’re just parading around on miniature sets. If you see one slow-motion shot of the rabbits charging towards the camera along the set, you’ve seen them all…and there are a lot of shots of them doing that here! I guess the film does the best job it can of portraying them as a threat but when most of them just sit around on the miniature sets, looking like they’d rather be elsewhere, then you’ve got problems. One or two close-up shots of the rabbits have them gnarling their teeth to the camera with some blood smeared across their fluffy noses but even here you’re not likely to run behind the sofa.
Like the ridiculous giant monster films of Bert I. Gordon (such as Empire of the Ants), some of the rabbits have been enlarged and superimposed upon the film so that they can appear in the same shot as the actors and look to be the same size. When the rabbits do attack, it’s clearly obvious that there’s a guy dressed in a bunny suit wrestling around on the floor with the actors. But you know what, this adds a little old school to the film. Nowadays this would be done with CGI but here you just have to suspend your disbelief at how they used to make things work. It’s no surprise to find out that producers removed all evidence of the killer rabbits in the promotional material for the film.
Classic bad B-movie fare from the 1970s doesn’t get any cheesier than this. Night of the Lepus is notoriously obscure but it’s a pity because there are far worse entries in the killer animal genre. Having said that, Bugs Bunny dressed up as a girl would be infinitely scarier than these fluffy fiends.