To truly review a film, you should go in accepting its basic existence. Specifically, you should debate with the concept, make peace with it, and develop your critical faculties to move beyond criticisms of a film’s idea and toward criticism of the execution to fulfill that idea. You should go in accepting everything you could know about the movie simply by seeing the trailer or the poster, or else your criticism should be taken with a most sodium-infused grain of salt.
Night of the Lepus makes it extremely hard to cross that ridge and arrive at the oasis, or in this case, the arid soul-sucking hell on earth, lying on the other side. As many connoisseurs of bad cinema well know, the 1970s were the heyday of Nature Gone Amok films, seeing the likes of frogs and, eventually, sharks and whales, out to have their way with humankind for ruining the environment and turning the earth into the infertile plaything of the species. Now, there is nothing wrong with a little nature-vengeance, not by any means, but never was the go-for-broke cavalier spirit of “what animal can we kill humankind now?” ever more apparent than in Night of the Lepus.
Which, as any taxidermist or student of ecology probably knows, is roughly equivalent to “Night of the Rabbit”. Knowing this, and knowing that the film is a rather plain and open attempt to make furry bunnies out to be the stuff of nightmares, it is easy to posit why no one wanted to title the film “Night of the Rabbit”. Firstly, science words are scary. This we all know, and secondly, words that do not immediately impart their secrets upon us are innately more mysterious.
But mostly, the proper title of the film just allowed the production company to get people in the theater without spoiling the secret that it was all about killer rabbits. After all, a teenage couple on their first date wouldn’t well wander into “ Night of the Rabbit,” but if they arrive at the theater without an idea of what to see, or arrive finding that their initial film choice was unavailable, they might well wander in to “Night of the Lepus” accidentally, not knowing that it was a film about killer rabbits. The title was, in other words, a marketing decision, and it was the only reasonably intelligent decision involved with any aspect of the production.
It is thankful then that Night of the Lepus is not all concept. The concept tries terribly, heavingly hard to be the highlight of the film, but the real strength of the production, the singular fact of its existence that diffuses throughout the entirety of the film, is the unabashed, vigorous sobriety with which Night of the Lepus is treated by every single member of the production staff. With the basic concept about a small Arizona town now devoid of coyotes to hunt rabbits now experiencing a population overload of the furry adorable beasties, some basic silliness comes into play. With the furthering of that narrative when rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun), college president Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelley), and researchers Roy and Gerry Bennett (Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh) inject a rabbit with a serum that will supposedly stunt its reproduction, but which actually increases its reproduction AND turns these rabbits into a carnivorous, bloodthirsty pack of over-sized human predators, the wonders of the concept go through the roof. But in all of this, not for one second, does anyone clue into the insipidness of the idea and realize it is a movie they probably ought not be making. Rather, they double-down, hoping that if they take it seriously enough so will they audience. They were wrong, but the stoic, dementedly harried treatment of the idea is what saves the movie from the stockpile of middling ’70s schlock pics and raises it to the pantheon of ineptitude.
If one was to further distill the badness of Night of the Lepus into something specific and unadorned beyond the arch-seriousness of the material, you would seldom find an answer outside of the film’s haphazard, over-zealous treatment of the rabbits themselves. Depicted via a mixture of actual rabbits rummaging atop small scale models and, ahem, humans in rabbit costumes in the film’s most startlingly inspired attempt to critique the horrors of mankind, the semi-titular beasts are unbearably hokey. It is the way the film fetishizes them however, slo-moing group shots to establish their titanic collectivity rampaging across the lands of Arizona, that really sells the film’s commitment to exposing the derangement of these rabbits.
It is a common household movie-fanatic fact that, when making Jaws, Steven Spielberg decided against showing the shark for most of the film because of the questionable qualities of the puppet, and that it was this reliance on empty space and implication and secrecy that ultimately makes the shark terrifying. We focus, in other words, on the thought of the shark, letting our minds fill in the details, rather than the look of the shark. Apparently, the filmmakers who thunk up Night of the Lepus did not have this idea, for they adore rabbit shots. Staring rabbits, eating rabbits, prancing rabbits, dancing rabbits, throaty rabbits, rushing rabbits, rustling rabbits, hurtful rabbits, thirsty rabbits, politicking rabbits, rabbits doing their taxes.
All are present, and all are present in abundance. The film seems to believe that they are scary in every bone of its body, and that is a pleasure for any bad movie lover. Those who believe in the doctrine of “less is more” need not apply. Anyone who has seen the fellow 1972 anti-classic Frogs and witnessed the Satan’s parade of frog insert shots dotting just about every single solitary second of the film can sigh in relief; whatever was in the water for that film got into the air, and Night of the Lepus is positively drunk on shots of rabbits running around en masse to no where in particular. As for the climax, where the rabbits take on the military in full force and electricity gets involved somehow, I have absolutely no idea what the editing was doing for the final ten minutes of the film, other than inducing a seizure.
Do not fear though. It is not, despite what you might assume, just the rabbits. The characters, the dialogue, the staging, the leaden direction; all are infected with something nasty and driveling. Through all of this, one would assume something honest and plain would happen to befall the script like a disease simply by the logic of chance; surely, at least one line has to not reek of an uncomfortable audience being lectured to? But no, not a single line ever accidentally stumbles upon a human speech rhythm, in what must be some sort of record or medal-worthy time-capsule event for the ages. It plays likes a cornucopia of exploratory nonsense, the product of persons who simply live to unearth new and exciting ways to lower the bottom-rung of the cinematic ladder just a notch further, no matter how much the floor, or the fires of hell, resist. In the realm of caustically hopeless films about nature, Night of the Lepus attempts to expose mankind for playing god, and in doing so the film ends up playing with the devil in every possible way.
So how good is it really?: 1/5 (a special sort of bad; not technically incompetent at the level of functionality, but the idiocy of the concept and the inability of the execution to distract from it is a truly noteworthy achievement)
But how “good” is it?: 4.5/5 (really worth a look; the anti-ferocity of the rabbits and the film’s insistence of showing them every few seconds, lest someone fall asleep in the interim, is mind-boggling)