Night of the Lepus
Watch enough of the types of movies that regularly occupy the screens here at Teleport City, and at some point you will undoubtedly find yourself lifting your arms up into the air toward yon’ heavens and, in a booming and suitably epic film sounding voice, beseeching Jehovah himself. “O Lord!” you will cry, “O Lord, how in the name of all that is twisted and unholy did this film ever get made?” For the very existence of some films, if not exactly a pox ‘pon the very arse of Almighty God Himself, are at least perplexing in their existence. Who, you ask the hideous phantoms that haunt you whenever you are left too long by yourself (the phantoms look like Mick Jagger in Performance), in their right mind would have ever green-lighted this film? You are especially likely to ask yourself (and your inner demons) this question if, like me, you consider “go out with a hot chick and party and drink free booze with her and your pals” or “stay at home and watch made for Sci-Fi Channel original movies all night,” to be a legitimately difficult decision. A night of movies in which Stephen Baldwin saves humanity? OK, I think I’ll out to the party. But a night of movies in which Daniel Baldwin saves humanity? I might just have to stay home that night.
Sometimes, these “how did this ever get made” movies will end up being some of the worst you’ve ever seen. But not always. Sometimes, they are just really goddamned weird. Or colossally mundane. Selling a script isn’t easy, so it’s fair to wonder why so many truly crummy scripts and bad ideas get the go-ahead. I’m not talking about arty farty independent experimental video pieces — we already know how desperate those things are to be self-consciously weird. I mean studio films, things people actually thought other people would want to pay to see. Films where some fast-talking movie producer who calls people “babe” and drives a Corvette had to read the script and think, “Sweet! I’ll throw a couple million at it, babe.”
Back when I was in college, I took a script writing class as part of the film studies program I was dabbling in to augment my journalism degree and equip me with the proper intellectual background and tools I would eventually apply to writing about films like Gymkata. The class was lorded over by an unkempt, white-bearded hobo of a man in a rawhide vest. What his qualifications were to work as a professor at a major American university, I do not know. I do know that, for a while, he was homeless and slept on a surplus Army cot in his office. Odd, at least until you take into account that this was a department where Harry Crewes was also a professor and could occasionally be found passed out in the elevator with no pants on and an empty bottle of booze lying next to him.
This cat teaching my class had never had a script made into a film, or even purchased with the potential that it might one day become a film, and his primary function in class, aside from brandishing Syd Field’s The Screenplay, was telling us the same story over and over about helping his grandmother roll big fat joints on the front porch of their one-room backwoods shack in Georgia (sort of how I think I’ve told the same story about this professor in like half a dozen reviews at this point). I half expected during any given class session to be interrupted by a mousy guy in a tweed jacket and wire-rimmed glasses walking in and, shocked, screaming, “Who are you? What are you doing in my classroom???” to the wild-eyed Bohemian madman, who himself would promptly grab his checkered hobo bundle tied to a long stick, and chirp “Fare thee well, my good man!” in a gravel voice as he tipped his ragged hobo fedora at us and hopped out of the window and onto a passing box car.
Of course, I also half expected to go to this guy’s office and find the tweed jacket professor tied up in a closet, shouting, “He’s insane! I’ve been tied up in here since the beginning of the semester! For God’s sake, man, call the police!” And if I ever saw that, I would simply back out slowly, close the door behind me, and head down the hall to Harry Crewes’ office to see if there was anything left to drink in there.
Sadly, both of these scenarios are far better than any of the scripts I wrote for that bizarre circus of a class. It was 1992 or so, and I was writing with all the razor-sharp acumen of an idiotic 20-year-old punk rocker who had been watching too many John Woo films. On one occasion, we were charged with writing a different ending for The Silence of the Lambs, a new scene that would take place immediately after the scene that actually ends the movie with hungry hungry Hannibal boarding a plane bound for the tropics. My contention with the assignment was that it was — as I eloquently put it — dumb, and that the movie ended exactly where it was supposed to end. Any additional scene (or, as we would all learn, sequel) would just muck up a wickedly good ending. No dice with the argument, though, and I can’t even remember what sort of worthless junk I churned out an hour before it was due. I probably tried to work in a dude jumping through the air while firing two pistols.
One of my classmates, however, took this assignment to heart and, in doing so, penned one of the most gloriously awful ideas I think I’ve ever encountered. In his new ending, we follow Jodi Foster down to whatever the hell tropical paradise Hannibal hightailed it to, and there’s like five pages of her walking around, just sort of looking for Hannibal. Kind of like those old black action movies where like two-thirds of the running time is just scenes of Jim Brown and Fred Williamson driving around looking bad-ass and listening to cool music. Only, this is Jodi foster, and not Jim Brown or Fred Williamson. I have nothing against Jodi Foster (except maybe that movie where her kid disappears on a plane), but face it: Jodi Foster is no Fred Williamson. Eventually, she walks into a boardwalk ice cream parlor and, without looking at the guy behind the counter, sits down and calls out an order for a scoop of rocky road. The camera, starting with the ice cream jockey’s back to it, slowly circles him to reveal the face of…wait for it…Hannibal Lecter! Grinning evilly, of course. He walks over to a cooler, opens it, and pulls out a big-ass machete. Jodi foster turns, sees him lunging toward her, and a look of horror flashes across her face as…
We cut to a small boy, laughing and running into the shop. “Una cone, por favor” he says in bad high school Spanish that was the best this scriptwriter could muster. And then the camera zooms slowly in on the back of Hannibal, who turns around and offers the young child a cone topped with the severed head of Jodi Foster. As the boy runs screaming back out to the street, Hannibal smiles wickedly and says, “Quid pro quo, Clarice.” Cut to black.
Now keep in mind that I was young and naive. We all were. The world did not yet know that the labored sequels to Silence of the Lambs would be so awful, or that they would turn Hannibal into a Freddy Krueger style quipster. Compared to the actual legitimate projects that got made under the banner of Silence of the Lambs, this guy’s classroom project — which I will remind you, was not meant to be funny or anything other than a jaw-dropping shocker of an ending — seems positively plausible, even preferable. But at the time, in a world still as yet unsullied by Hannibal or Red Dragon or Hannibal Rising, the class simply sat in stunned silence as the guy read enthusiastically through his masterpiece. As he wrapped it up, the wild-eyed professor calmly got up, walked over, picked up the script, and proceeded to tear it in half, throw it across the room, and then dash over and start dancing on top of the remains, singing an improvised little song with lyrics whose point seemed to be that this was, more or less, the single worst piece of shit he had ever read.
I tell you this story because there is an actual point here, believe or not. This guy’s script was horrible. And it deserved to be thrown across a room and danced upon. But so do a lot of other scripts, some of them even worse than Jodi Foster’s severed head on an ice cream cone (a gag I’m pretty certain was actually used a couple of years later in the Clint Howard tour de force Ice Cream Man, only not with Jodi’s head; I think the head might have been Small Paul’s, or that kid with the pillow shoved under his shirt because the casting director was apparently incapable of finding an actual fat kid to star in the movie), and those scripts still get made into movies. The entire point of our class, as I said, was to drum into your skull how unlikely it was that you would ever sell a script and see it made into a movie.
And yet such things continue to happen. And it’s not like our professor, mad as he may have been, was wrong. It is hard — really hard — to sell even a brilliant script. Hell, I wouldn’t even know where to send one if I was ever able to finish more than twenty pages. And while the rise of digital video and non-linear digital editing systems means it is probably easier than ever before to sell a script, because there are so many more production houses that can crank out junk on the ultra-cheap, that still doesn’t mean it’s easy. And still, Pterodactyl gets made. And Cabin By the Lake. And plenty of others. How does this happen? Man, have I ever mentioned how much I hate Cabin by the Lake?
A lot of these movies get made because someone involved in the scriptwriting has recently acquired creative carte blanche based on their success as a director or star. The vanity projects, as we know them. Even though being a successful director or actor or musical legend doesn’t mean squat when it comes to knowing how to write a script, these people can get by on the temporary shine from their star. That’s why Bob Dylan was allowed to write a movie. This phenomenon almost always involves actors, directors, and musicians. It is extremely rare that a writer is so successful that they are granted unlimited power to push through their own vanity projects. Writers just don’t get that kind of consideration, unless it’s the 1980s and you’re the guy who wrote Basic Instinct.
Other times, the script is just so utterly baffling that the go-getter producer we mentioned before reads a couple of pages, realizes it’s completely incomprehensible, and then decides that it must be a work of genius, so why the hell not? I can think of no other way than this that John Boorman ever got Zardoz made. But the majority of times, at least in my opinion, it comes down to one of two things: it’s either who you know, or it’s plain, simple dumb luck. I’m sure, especially at a lot of the cheap production houses like Asylum, they buy based on the title and maybe a cursory glance at a page. Hell, I bet sometimes, they just randomly say, “Green light every tenth script in that pile.” All of this leads me to ask that one, simple question about the subject of this review, Night of the Lepus: how in the hell did this movie ever get green-lighted?
The screenplay is by a guy named Gene Kearney, based on a novel by Don Holliday. Kearney was not an inexperienced writer, but almost all of his credits are for TV shows, and I don’t think you get the sort of clout to push through a vanity project this absurd by penning episodes of Kojak. Similarly, it’s not like Kearney could have been friends with director William Claxton, who loved the script and used his pull as the director of some episodes of Love, American Style to push the film through production. And while stars like Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, Stuart Whitman, or DeForest Kelley may be recognizable names, I doubt even in 1972 any of them had enough marquee star power attached to their name to push through a script this incredibly goofy.
Thus, I am at a loss. Perhaps producer A.C. Lyles, who like his director and writer was experienced mainly with television westerns, thought the movie was supposed to be a comedy. Perhaps as a child, he was severely traumatized by a bunny rabbit. Because that’s what Night of the Lepus is about: bunny rabbits. Giant, killer bunny rabbits that terrorize the American west and lumber in slow motion across miniature sets, devouring all the humans in their path and, presumably, crapping all over the place. In the end, we’ll probably never know how this movie ever got made, and I suppose that, even though I would love to have my curiosity regarding the matter satiated, all that really matters is that it was made. Some way or another, someone convinced people to make a movie about ranchers battling giant slow motion bunnies, and the world is, without a doubt, a better place as a result.
Rory Calhoun plays Hillman, a struggling rancher who has seen his grazing lands ravaged by an explosion in the population of rabbits. A fake newsreel at the beginning of the film warns us of the dangers of such unchecked population booms, before cutting to the ominous credit sequence played over a still shot of the just da cootest wuddle bunny wunny you ever did see! Hillman wants the rabbits gone, but he’s hesitant to use poison like other ranchers for fear that it will contaminate his grazing lands and make him lose what little he has left. Seeking the advice of Star Trek’s Dr. Bones McCoy himself, who is suffering from a bizarre space illness that has caused him to grow one of the worst mustaches ever (perhaps he’s the evil, mirror universe Bones), Hillman meets up with a scientist played by Stuart Whitman, and his wife, played by Psycho’s Janet Leigh. They have a theory about using a hormone overdose to kill off the out of control rabbit populations, but they are unwilling to deploy the method until it has been properly tested. Wise science, for once, because it turns out that the treatment causes the rabbits to grow rapidly. If only their daughter hadn’t spirited her favowite cuddwy wuddwy wuddle bunny out of the lab and allowed it to get loose into the general rabbit population!
The movie science also doesn’t explain how the rabbits transform from carrot-loving herbivores to bloodthirsty meat lovers, but I reckon that to be a pretty dumb thing to be worrying about.
Before too long, miners and ranchers and folks who loiter around on front porches all day, are turning up all dead and mutilated. Night of the Lepus spends a few minutes pondering the possibility of the usual suspects — coyotes, mountain lions, desert-dwelling families of mutants, et cetera, before everyone shrugs their shoulders and says, “Son of a bitch, it’s giant rabbits.” And so begins a cavalcade of scenes in which we get slow-motions shots of bunnies cavorting across the aforementioned miniature sets while spooky music plays. From time to time, they attack a human, a horror which is realized by cutting to a close-up of a stunt man wearing a big furry paw smearing bright red paint on a victim. And every now and then, we get a shot of a bunny rearing up, it’s wiggling little button of a nose crusted in the blood of its human prey. This would be silly enough on its own, but the fact that this special effect is pulled off with shots of a hand puppet catapult the film into the realm of the sublime. Eventually, even though everyone pretends to be deathly terrified of the giant bunnies, someone decides to see how rabbits, even big ones, fare against electricity, bulldozers, trains, and a shitload of firepower.
Truth be told, Night of the Lepus is a challenging movie for me to review. On the one hand, it’s obviously custom-made for a site like Teleport City and a man like me. I mean, Stuart Whitman is battling giant rabbits, and it’s not a comedy. Aficionados of truly wretched film making should and often do drop down to their knees and praise Ol’ Gooseberry for the existence of this film.
On the other hand, picking on Night of the Lepus is sort of like kicking a puppy — keeping in mind that puppies, even Chihuahua puppies, still present a more legitimate scare than a rabbit (with the possible exception of those murderous bastards from Watership Down). Night of the Lepus presents the viewer with a smorgasborg so vast and seemingly inexhaustible that it nearly overwhelms you with the number of delectable choices. Surely a film this easy to take pot shots at should be left to a less experienced connoisseur than myself, freeing up my time to concentrate on a review that is really challenging. But I couldn’t really think of anything, so I decided that since this is my job (not really) and this is what I get paid to do (not at all), I would soldier on, even when my opponent is as soft and harmless as a snuggly little bunny rabbit.
So let’s begin with the positive. Some of the miniature sets across which the rabbits lope are nicely constructed.
Well, that didn’t take too long, did it? And no matter how nice your miniature sets may be, they will never be so nice that they could compensate for the slow-motion bunnies flopping lazily across them. I mean, maybe if they’d used jackalopes, Night of the Lepus would have been more successful. At least they have antlers and could potentially do something more to you than hop up and twitch their nose.
Seriously, though, there are more positive things than just the tiny little farm houses and fake ponds. On a completely personal level, Night of the Lepus will always have a special place in my heart that elevates it far above the status it deserves. The first time I saw Night of the Lepus — on a late night TV double bill with Killdozer, no less — I had a tremendous amount of fun. Buddies, chicks, and cheap distilled spirits were involved. It was summer in Gainesville, so it was about five thousand degrees and everyone was already on the verge of hallucinating from the heat. And if you are thinking to yourself that perhaps a young man, a young college man night twenty years old who, one hot Florida summer night finds himself in the company of hot, willing female company and cheap liquor, should have something better in mind than watching Killdozer and Night of the Lepus with them. Well, if that’s what you think, then I say good day to you, sir!
And some day maybe I’ll tell you again about the time I took a cute chick to see Wicked City. Or the time I invited a cute blonde skater chick over the first day I knew her and made her sit there and watch Black Devil Doll from Hell. That’s right bitch — now that you have smelled the foulness of my breath (or my taste in film), you may now taste the sweetness of my tongue!
Among the other positive things about Night of the Lepus — besides DeForest Kelley’s gay 70s porn star mustache — is that everyone involved pretends that this movie is really scary and serious. No one hams it up, and even though this movie definitely deserves to have actors sleepwalking through it, no one does. I mean, Stuart Whitman maybe kinda does, but that’s just Stuart Whitman for ya. The only thing missing from the cast is Michael Caine, but I guess he didn’t start acting in anything and everything until a few years later. And the movie is definitely made funnier by the lack of funniness. No one looks at the camera with a Dean Martin as Matt Helm style, “People, can ya believe this shit?” smirk. The veteran cast handles the entire thing with a heavy-handed gravity one would expect from a film about the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre, not a 1972 film about killer bunny rabbits and the lanky ranchers for whom they cause some trouble.
I also like that, as with many movies of the era, the main cast is composed of older people. Sure, there’s a kid, but she’s ancillary at best. The plot revolves around a group of people in their forties or older. I really don’t have a huge grudge against horror films that obsess about a cast of people in their teens or early twenties, but I much prefer to watch a gang of seasoned vets going about their business. Not only are they better actors — even when they’re bad actors — but it lends an extra air of believability even to a movie as absurd as this. Basically — a bunch of giant rabbits are eating people. Do I trust Elisha Cuthbert to deal with them, or Rory Calhoun and my Grandpa Harley?
Still, I’m sure Whitman and crew could have used the help of a group of teens who leave the sock hop at the barn, jump into their dune buggies, and come out to lend a hand.
Night of the Lepus is a throwback to the “giant animals” attack genre that so dominated science fiction for a period during the 1950s which saw mankind and his lands ravaged by everything from giant ants to giant gila monsters to giant tarantulas, locusts, scorpions, and bald men in big diapers. In the 1970s, the genre enjoyed a revival, although this time around, the animals were usually normal size (which is too bad — imagine how much more awesome Grizzly would have been if the grizzly in it was 150 feet tall — almost as awesome as if Silence of the Lambs had starred Fred Williamson instead of Jodi Foster), and the entire film was infused with 70s style ecological doomspeak. Meaning even the most ludicrous of scenarios — “most ludicrous meaning Night of the Lepus — handles itself with the no-nonsense self-importance of an Al Gore PowerPoint presentation about the environment. If only An Inconvenient Truth had featured a portion where Gore details how, as they struggle to cope with the devastation wrought by global climate change, the various species of the world would rise up and revolt, resulting in a plague of horrifying attacks by chinchillas, whose primary form of assault is to squish themselves as tightly as possible into the various nooks and crannies of the world, where they will sleep for twenty-three hours out of the day.
In true 1950s sci-fi movie fashion, Night of the Lepus kicks off with a fake newsreel — was anyone actually still producing newsreels by 1972 — about the ecological disaster caused by exploding populations of rabbits, although these rabbits do not actually explode. I’m sure there’s a different movie for that. The big difference between Night of the Lepus and its brethren from two decades earlier is that science isn’t able to solve its own crisis. The giant animal movies of the 1950s always boasted some degree of faith that the crisis could be rectified by some winning combination of two-fisted scientists, military muscle, and guitar-plucking teenagers in dune buggies. By 1972, however, America found itself pretty well disillusioned with military muscle, science, and government. You could almost believe that Fightin’ Ike would come out, guns a-blazing and the hot southwestern sun glinting off his bald head, and take care of these giant rabbits. But no one could see Nixon doing the same thing. And the nature of the crisis was different, too. A giant scorpion born of atomic tests? That you could deal with. But ecological disaster? The impact of that would span decades — as symbolized by the final shot of this movie, in which a “menacing” bunny rabbit is sitting on top of some dirt.
Luckily, though, Night of the Lepus remains true to its roots despite the disillusionment of the rest of the country. Night of the Lepus offers a troubled America a reassuring message: the President may be a disgusting crook, the country may be trapped in a South Asian quagmire, but have no fear: when it comes to dealing with a bunch of giant bunnies, the American military and a group of people from a drive-in movie theater will perform with adequate competence.
There was a time, not so long ago, when I still believed in the message some message movies tried to deliver. Even if I still felt the same way, I don’t think Night of the Lepus is a film “that really makes you think.” If there is a serious message to be delivered, its effective is pretty solidly undercut by the method of delivery. I’m sure you could make some “when nature goes awry, even the most harmless seeming of creatures can become deadly.” But then, you’d kind of be full of shit, too. Luckily, heavy-handed messages go down a lot easier, even if not more effectively, when they are delivered in a package this ridiculous.
As with many things this wonderfully awful, it ain’t all steak and onions. You gotta sit through a whole lot of slow, slow exposition about hormones and coyotes. The realization of the giant rabbit attacks — usually in the form of blood-smeared hand puppets and stuntmen wearing furry sleeves they use to swipe at people from mostly off-screen, leave a little to be desired. But then, it’s stuff like that, that makes Night of the Lepus really worth watching. I figure this is the sort of movie you know ahead of time if you’re going to love or hate. I love it, and I won’t pretend that I don’t try and force it on people any chance I get (though not as often as I do Streets of Fire). I can’t help — which is probably sad — think about how this movie would have been even more awesome if the small western town these rabbits attacked was the same town where Billy Jack lived. Or maybe Asylum Pictures will take me up on my offer to write and direct Lepus vs. Killdozer. I’ll follow it up with Hyrax Dawn. Until then, we’re left wondering how they managed to get this movie made. And if you ever get some crazed film studies professor ranting about how impossible it is to sell a script, bring I a copy of Night of the Lepus and ask him how in the hell he can explain its existence.
Release Year: 1972 | Country: United States | Starring: Rory Calhoun, Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, DeForest Kelly, Paul Fix, Melanie Fullerton, Chris Morrell, Chuck Hayward, Henry Wills, Francesca Jarvis, William Elliott | Screenplay: Don Holliday | Director: William Claxton | Cinematography: Ted Voigtlander | Music: Jimmie Haskell | Producer: A.C. Lyles