Friday, February 4, 2011

Night of the Lepus (MGM, 1972)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Night of the Lepus, an appropriate movie for a San Diego Public Library “Schlockfest” showing if there ever was one (I don’t think Mystery Science Theatre 3000 ever gave it the “treatment,” though it would have been quite appropriate for it), a really strange 1972 horror movie from MGM (that’s right, it was actually made by MGM, not picked up from a merger with a cheesy studio like American International) based on a novel by Russell Braddon called The Year of the Angry Rabbit. It starts out with a series of clips that are either documentary footage or fairly credible fakes of the same to establish that in Australia, New Zealand and increasingly in the United States, rabbits are multiplying uncontrollably and forming huge herds that swoop through farmland and ranchland, eating everything in their path and reproducing at such rates (there’s a truth behind the old proverb, “they breed like rabbits”) that they become a plague on the land equivalent to the Biblical (or real) inundations of locusts.

The footage shows rabbits attacking farmers if they try to get in their way, and the narrator (real-life TV newscaster Jerry Dunphy) explains that there are precious few options available for farmers or ranchers to get rid of them: poisons might spread to the groundwater or kill off desirable species (this movie was made two years after the first Earth Day made the word “ecology” — the biological term for the interbalance of species on earth and the possibility of unpredictable and decidedly negative results if you get rid of one species and therefore allow another to breed uncontrollably — briefly fashionable, and there’s a mild but unmistakable strain of pro-environmentalist propaganda throughout), shooting them doesn’t work because there are already too many of them, and no one has come up with any scientific solution to the problem. The film then settles into the fictional groove it will maintain for most of its 88-minute running time as it lands in Arizona, where rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) is facing an inundation of rabbits because he previously poisoned their natural predators, coyotes.

Unwilling to risk another ecological assault on his land, Cole calls up the president of the local college, Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelley, known today almost exclusively as Dr. McCoy on the original Star Trek — this was his last movie that wasn’t set in the Star Trek universe — and wearing an embarrassingly bad toupee), to see if anyone on his faculty can help. Clark calls on husband-and-wife entomologists Roy and Gerry Bennett (Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh), who at first protest that rabbits are a bit out of their league but eventually sign on to the project — only they bring their obnoxiously cute daughter Amanda (Melanie Fullerton) with them. (Her existence is a bit of a mystery because Whitman and Leigh have such negative chemistry one wonders how they stand being in the same room, much less having sex with each other — and I can’t help but think that Leigh probably thought a lot during the shoot about how 12 years earlier she’d been in one of the greatest horror films ever made, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and now she was doing one of the worst.)

The Bennetts demand samples of the offending rabbits and take them back to their labs, where they run tests designed to figure out if there’s anything they can do to screw up their hormones so they stop having sex with each other and therefore die out. They get sent a serum another doctor has developed that’s supposed to do just that, only the guinea rabbit they choose to test it on is the one Amanda has picked out as the one her parents promised to let her keep as a pet. Amanda switches rabbits between the cages so she gets to keep the one she wants, and she takes the rabbit out onto the range while she’s on a date with Cole’s (actually genuinely cute but way too old for her) son Jackie (Chris Morrell), the rabbit gets away and before you can say, “What’s up, Doc?” the experiment has backfired big-time: instead of turning off the rabbits’ sex drive, the serum stimulates their glands so they become the size of wolves and start eating everything in their paths, including people. (Charles protested that real-life rabbits are strictly vegetarian, but if you can suspend disbelief long enough to accept the existence of 150-pound rabbits with both the dimensions and the killer instincts of wolves, you could assume that the serum was based on the blood of a meat-eating animal and therefore gave the monster rabbits a taste for flesh their real-life brethren and sistren don’t share.)

Night of the Lepus is one of those maddening movies in which scenes that at least have the potential for genuine fright exist cheek-by-jowl with scenes that are just plain stupid — and it doesn’t help that, though the monster rabbits (played by real rabbits with fake blood carefully dripped on their faces to tell us they’ve killed, and shot in slow motion to make them look appropriately ponderous) are actually fairly convincing, the process work is pretty tacky and the fake blood with which the rabbits’ victims are adorned is perhaps the most obviously phony such substance in the history of major-studio filmmaking. The film’s big problem, as Harry and Michael Medved put it in their book The Golden Turkey Awards, is that “rabbits, even when photographed in slow-motion close-ups to make them look huge and menacing, will inspire fear in absolutely no one.” MGM realized their problem almost as soon as director William F. Claxton, working from a script by Don Holliday (it seems like we need to beware of anybody named Holliday in Arizona!) and Gene R. Kearney, turned in his final cut, shot under the film’s working title, Rabbits. The MGM marketing department caught on that a species whose most famous film representative was Bugs Bunny wasn’t going to attract horror fans to theatres — Them! this was decidedly not — so they retitled the film in Latin (“lepus” is the Latin word for “rabbit”) and created a trailer that suggested the characters were going to be attacked (and some of them killed) by some really terrifying menace, but played coy and gave almost no idea of what the menace would be.

The film kind of blunders along to a climax at a drive-in theatre located next to a busy railway (a dumb development decision because it would be hard to hear the movie whenever a train went by), in which the town sheriff (Paul Fix) announces to a group of bored kids more interested in necking with each other than forming an anti-rabbit posse, “There’s a horde of killer rabbits heading this way!” Ultimately he succeeds in getting their attention and organizing them to drive their cars into an arc. The idea is that their headlights will attract the rabbits’ attention and drive the rabbits to cross the train tracks, which have been connected to power lines so they can be used to deliver a lethal dose of electricity to any rabbit (or other animal, including humans) who touch them — and just in case any rabbits escape electrocution, there’s a military company on the other side of the tracks with machine guns ready to take them out. Civilization in Arizona is saved and Cole’s ranch, though wiped out, is (he’s — and we’re — told) going to grow back in a year or so — but the final shot of the film is an ominous one of two (normal-sized) rabbits poking their heads out of a burrow hole, then quickly descending back down it, obviously getting ready to do their thing and make more rabbits.

Too dull and slowly-paced to be either scary or campily funny, Night of the Lepus just plods along to a predictable climax (if any of the characters had seen the 1951 film The Thing, they’d have figured out how to kill the rabbits well before they do) — the open-ended ending suggests a sequel which never materialized, even though the grosses and costs reported on (the film did $3,711,923 worldwide on an estimated cost of about $900,000) suggest it turned enough of a profit to make a Night of the Lepus 2 at least conceivable. As it is, Night of the Lepus is a good candidate for Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style mockery; Charles and I started singing the theme to Rawhide, with appropriately altered lyrics (“Movin’, movin’, movin’, keep those rabbits movin’”), during the long (and surprisingly effective) scenes of herds of giant rabbits marching together like cattle across the range, and at one point I thought of Elmer Fudd in the Bugs Bunny Wagner parody and started singing “Kill the wabbit!” to the tune of the “Ride of the Valkyries.”

And when one of the characters — a burned-out old cowboy living alone in a tumble-down shack who meets his untimely demise when the monster rabbits burrow under him — was shown in his closet, I joked, “He’s going to fondle the shirt his dead Gay lover was wearing when he was killed — oops, wrong movie.” The advertising slogan for the film read, “How many eyes does terror have? How many times will terror strike?” It could just have easily gone on, “How many moviegoers will ‘terror’ put to sleep?” At least it made an appropriate film choice for the eve of the Chinese New Year — which this year is, you guessed it, the Year of the Rabbit …