Home Video Hovel: Night of the Lepus, by David Bax
If you’ve picked up a copy of giant rabbit creature feature Night of the Lepus, out now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, for your so-bad-it’s-good movie night, prepare yourself for disappointment. That’s not to imply that this is an actual good movie or some kind of undiscovered gem. But director William F. Claxton’s technical competence and his straight-faced approach to the material makes the movie more of a curio than a disaster. An early scene, for instance, lays out a convincing argument for the destructive properties of rabbits, using the ongoing overpopulation of the species in Australia as an example. But, just when you begin to take it seriously, you’re likely to remember, “Oh, yeah, but this movie’s about giant rabbits!”
Southwestern rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) has a problem with rabbits so, enlisting the help of his friend the college dean (DeForest Kelley is in this movie), he soon meets wildlife researchers Roy and Gerry Bennett (Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh). They begin some experiments but things get out of control when one of their hormonally manipulated test subject rabbits gets loose and mixes with the general population. Note that this only happens because Cole’s son is bullying the Bennetts’ daughter; every life lost to the giant rabbit scourge should be on this little shithead’s conscience. Anyway, yada yada yada, enormous rabbits flock across the countryside and small towns, killing people and destroying stuff.
Here’s the thing, though: Claxton stages the giant rabbit attacks about as effectively as you could possibly stage giant rabbit attacks with 1972 technology. The special effects and trick photography—mostly just regular rabbits with fake blood on their faces running over and around miniatures—actually sell the illusion more or less, with the help of some good-natured suspension of disbelief on the viewer’s part. Fast-paced editing in these sequences help enormously by both ramping up the chaos and not giving you enough time to linger on the phoniness. Add in the genuinely unsettling choice to have the rabbits’ breathing be loud, slow and heavy like a bunch of Tony Sopranos and portions of Night of the Lepus actually qualify as horrific.
But, still, this is a movie about hormone-crazed giant rabbits in which high, wide and handsome Rory Calhoun plays second fiddle to Whitman’s denim-clad nerd while Janet Leigh, introduced as a scientist in equal standing with her husband, quickly becomes a damsel in distress, beset on all sides by, again, giant rabbits. Also, DeForest Kelley is in this movie. It’s not bad enough to be funny but it’s ridiculous enough in its very existence that maybe it would have been better if it had actually tried to be comedic. Which serves as a reminder, should you need it, that Tremors is pretty much a perfect movie.
Shout!’s 2K scan and transfer are solid, with an extra hat tip to the color timing. Many of the rabbit-centric shots depend on the perfect amount of shadow in order to work and this Blu-ray gets it right. There are also practically no visible dirt or scratches. In addition, the stereo audio does great work in selling the rabbit terror, with the aforementioned heavy breathing rumbling low in the mix.
Special features include an audio commentary by Lee Gambin, who wrote a book about “natural horror” films; and an audio commentary by pop culture historian Russell Dyball.