This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film was chosen by friend and stalwart printer at Coach House Books, Tony Glensk: the bonkers killer-rabbit tale, Night of the Lepus, directed by William F. Claxton (Half Past Midnight, Fangs of the Wild). All the pleasures of Night of the Lepus can be yours to behold on YouTube.
Trigger warnings: (fictional) animal cruelty.
Cinematic history’s greatest killer rabbit film, Night of the Lepus, opens with an informative newscast that works to establish the fact behind the fiction: population explosion is a real thing, both among humans and in the animal world. For instance, in 1954, a rabbit plague threatened Australia. And in more recent times, the American Southwest struggled with an exploding rabbit population that severely damaged food crops. “Rabbits,” the newscaster intones, “which seem so cuddly at first, become a menace.” So begins our film, which is allegedly based on a real novel by Russell Braddon, The Year of the Angry Rabbit.
A rider’s horse collapses when it steps into a rabbit hole. The rider, rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) realizing the horse has broken its leg, takes his rifle and ends its misery. Cole returns to his ranch and immediately calls Elgin Clark, the president of a local university, to set up a meeting as to how he might humanely rid himself of his rabbit infestation. They meet near campus the next day and Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelley) suggests Cole meet with an animal researcher couple who have been trying to reduce insect populations in a humane manner.
Roy Bennett (Stuart Whitman) and his wife, Gerry (Janet Leigh), are busy studying bat populations in a nearby cave, and they’ve brought their daughter, Amanda (Melanie Fullerton), with them. “Uncle Elgin” shows up and Gerry and Amanda greet him and his guest, Cole Hillman, while Roy attempts to record some bat sounds. Using the bats’ sonic expression of fear, he hopes to be able to divert bat flight patterns without the use of chemical sprays. Elgin explains to Roy and Gerry that Hillman is an important university donor, and the university would appreciate their help in solving his rabbit problem. After all, Cole is trying to do the right thing and avoid using poison, as he’s aware of the larger effects pesticides can have on the ecosystem.
The Bennetts take a drive to the Hillman Ranch, and see the rabbit population boom first-hand. (Amanda, for her part, is horrified by the cattle hands shooting and bagging various rabbits.) Roy offers a solution: they may be able to use hormones to disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle. They capture a dozen rabbits to run some tests on back at the lab. The hormone experiment proves inconclusive. Roy figures he should try out a new, untested serum sent by another researcher, Professor Dirkson. “Let’s hope it works,” Roy shouts, in a real scientific Hail Mary toss. However, their daughter, Amanda, insists she should be able to take one of the test rabbits home; the bunnies are just too cute. The parents relent and allow her to have a rabbit from the control group. But they’re unaware of the switcheroo Amanda has played on them: she secretly took one of the experimental rabbits! (I can’t imagine that could ever come back to bite them.)
The Bennetts return to scoop up some more rascally rabbits from the Hillman Ranch, and Amanda takes her new pet with her. But Jackie Hillman (Chris Morrell), Cole’s son, who is a bit older than Amanda, is so incensed by rabbits in general, he rashly grabs Amanda’s pet and tosses it to the ground. The insulted rabbit hops off to join its brethren. Back in the lab, Roy and Gerry notice the new serum is causing the rabbits to increase in size, but doesn’t seem to be curtailing their reproduction. But time is running out for Cole Hillman. He needs to do something soon or the rabbits will spread to other nearby ranches. In an act of self-sacrifice, Hillman opts to set fire to his pastures in order to starve the rabbits and, he hopes, save his neighbours’ land.
Roy, Gerry, and Cole go for a horseback ride and discover an unusually large footprint – like a rodent, but way too big. Meanwhile, Jackie convinces Amanda to accompany him to see his friend, old prospector Captain Billy, who owns an unsuccessful gold mine. (Sounds like a real winner.) When they arrive, Billy’s residence looks abandoned. Jackie searches the home and instructs Amanda to look for the Captain inside the mine. She is alarmed by what she finds in the dark tunnel: rabbits the size of bears and Captain Billy’s bloodied corpse. Jackie hears her scream and races into the tunnel to find her.
Amanda is safely reunited with her family. When the Bennetts ask Jackie to confirm their daughter’s story about giant rabbits, he can’t affirmatively say he saw anything, but Captain Billy has gone missing. Across town, the driver of a refrigerated truck pulls over to check his load. He hears the sounds of a nearing stampede in the dark, then we see a close-up of rabbit faces and the driver shrieks. The next day, a state trooper driving along the highway finds the abandoned truck. When he takes a closer look, he finds the driver’s body, cut into segments and drenched in blood. He radios Sheriff Cody (Paul Fix), who arrives to assess the gruesome scene. While investigating, the authorities receive another call: the body of Captain Billy has been found in a similar state, deep in the mine shaft.
The forensics expert Dr. Leopold (William Elliott) studies the cans and crates retrieved from the truck’s trailer and determines they’ve been gnawed and are covered with saliva. When the Sheriff asks his expert opinion on what caused the driver’s death, he says, “a sabre-toothed tiger.” While they discuss this preposterous notion, Officer Hightower (no relation to the Police Academy character, I assume) calls the station to report a family of four has been found hacked to pieces. Some monstrous animal is on the loose.
The Bennetts and Elgin Clark present Amanda’s idea of giant rabbits to the inventor of the serum, Prof. Dirkson (Bob Hardy). As a specialist in birth abnormalities, he doesn’t think it’s that far-fetched. The Bennetts plan to search the mine for evidence of these mutant rabbits. When they broach the subject of notifying the Sheriff’s Department, Elgin Clark quashes the idea: it would be bad publicity for the university. Dirkson makes a humble request that they bring back a large rabbit alive – for scientific purposes.
Roy and Gerry return to the Hillman Ranch with Elgin Clark and conscript a few ranch hands to blow up the old gold mine. Elgin scales the mine with cattle hand Frank (Henry Wills) to plant dynamite, while the others set TNT along the ground. Before they detonate the explosives. Roy wants to investigate the mine to see if he can get some good photographs of the massive creatures. Cole, unwilling to let Roy into the mine alone, accompanies him with his rifle. The two men find many bats, but neither hide nor hare (get it?) of a giant rabbit. Then, they see them: giant rabbits, gnashing their buckteeth. Roy snaps some photos, but the rabbits stir and begin to rush toward them.
Roy and Cole race for their lives through the twisty corridors of the mine, pursued by massive rabbits. One leaps upon Roy, but Cole handily pistol-whips the rabbit off him. The rest of the crew wait for the men to exit before they detonate the explosives. They’re so focused, they don’t notice as one of the rabbit monsters burrows out of the ground behind them. The rabbit sneaks up on cattle hand Jud (Chuck Hayward) and attacks him. But Gerry is quick with a rifle and shoots the bunny twice before it runs away. Jud is bloodied and very shaken, but escapes with his life. Finally, Roy and Cole emerge from the old mine and the dynamite is blown. The rabbits are crushed by a massive cave-in.
Roy and Gerry develop the photos for Dirkson to study. They decide they need to take the story public; they’ll bring the sheriff to the mine and tell him the unbelievable news. They can also make sure the cave-in did the job of killing the rabbits. Roy, concerned about the media circus that will inevitably follow mention of giant rabbits, suggests Gerry and Amanda take the camper van and drive to Woodale, to avoid journalists. But it’s not just the press they have to worry about. For that very night, the rabbits free themselves from the rockslide. The rabbits – angrier than ever – escape into the night. First they terrorize Cole Hillman’s stable of horses. Cole comes across the horses going wild; Jud and Frank struggle to keep control of them. But it’s futile; the horses smash through the fence and run away. Before long, they are ambushed by the giant rabbits, who leap upon them from a higher ridge.
Jud gets thoroughly spooked and takes the truck to skip town. But the highway is blocked by more massive rabbits! Cole hides his family in the storm cellar and calls Mildred (Francesca Jarvis) at the General Store to warn her of the approaching menace. But just as their phone lines connect, Jud comes careening back to the ranch, smashing the phone box and totalling the truck. He escapes the wreck but is swarmed by a pack of rabbits and killed. With the telephone line (and Jud) dead, Cole flees into the storm cellar with his wife, Jackie, and Frank. When the rabbits begin to scratch at the cellar door, he fires through the cracks. Frank and Cole shoot their rifles through the ceiling at the rabbits running wild in the kitchen, causing grievous, bloody injury to some.
Back at the General Store, Mildred bids adieu to her last two customers. But it isn’t long before a herd of rabbits thunder down the street. Mildred walks to the store’s front window to see what the commotion is, and is killed by a rabbit smashing though the glass. One of her customers is likewise killed, though he tries to fight back against the bunnies with a wooden chair.
Morning comes and Cole emerges from the storm cellar. He tells Frank to stay with his family as he travels into town for help. Gerry and Amanda, meanwhile, pack their caravan and head to Woodale. And Roy and Elgin meet with Sheriff Cody at the airport. The sheriff is very willing to accept the idea of giant rabbits, as the crime lab has already identified rabbits as the culprits behind two heinous murders. They take a helicopter to investigate Captain Billy’s mine.
With the truck totalled and his horses gone, Cole Hillman tries to hitchhike his way into town, but there are few takers – probably because he’s carrying a shotgun with him. Cole finally reaches the General Store and finds Meredith and her husband dead, and dozens of giant rabbits just chilling out for the day. He sneaks away and continues into town. Gerry, meanwhile, drives the camper van into a rut on the way to Woodale and is forced to dig the van out. And the Sheriff, Elgin, and Roy visit the mine and somehow determine (a) the rabbits have all fled, and (b) the rabbits are nocturnal. (Are rabbits nocturnal?) Realizing the gravity of the situation, the Sheriff calls the Governor and requests use of the National Guard. Permission is immediately granted. Literally no questions are asked.
A priest finally picks Cole up and takes him into town. He calls Sheriff Cody from a pay phone and warns him that rabbits have killed Mildred and her husband, and are currently sequestered in a General Store in Golanas. The Sheriff feels they need to evacuate the area and then hit it with explosives, but they probably don’t have time before night falls. The sun disappears and the rabbit pack exits the store, hurtling toward more populated areas. Emergency services and the National Guard spring into action and begin a very unusual evacuation procedure.
With the rabbits just 40 minutes from downtown and the National Guard unable to combat all the rabbits, they devise an ingenious solution: lead the rabbits toward the train tracks, then run power through the tracks to turn it into a massive electrical fence. They contact the railroad to explain the plan, but there’s a problem: a slow-moving freight train that must clear the track first!
A police officer screeches into the local drive-in and barks orders over a megaphone (in what is probably supposed to be a clever meta-textual moment). The National Guard and police direct the evacuees to set up their cars in a certain way and turn on their headlights. The lights will, in theory, guide the rabbits right into their trap. As he waits for the freight train to clear the track, Roy Bennett frets about his wife and kids. He still hasn’t heard from Gerry or Amanda that they reached Woodale. He requests use of the helicopter to check on them, and the Sheriff grants it.
Gerry and Amanda are, somehow, still attempting to dig out their van from the rut (though it’s been several hours). They do their best to remain quiet as a couple of rabbits approach, though they seem to be calm. Gerry locks her daughter inside the caravan and takes some flares from the glove box. As the rabbits creep nearer, she lights the flares and begins to set bunnies on fire as necessary. Luckily, she only has to use a couple flares before the chopper arrives and scares the rabbits away. Roy emerges to cheers of “Daddy’s here,” and the family escapes with the pilot in the helicopter.
The rabbits, meanwhile, have attacked an innocent herd of cattle, but the headlight scheme appears to be working. They’re slowly being drawn toward the train tracks. The helicopter drops Roy off with the Sheriff and others, who have set up a barricade just beyond the train tracks. The interminably slow freight train finally clears the track and the power company throws on the juice. As soon as the rabbits thunder toward the barricade, the National Guard opens fire on them, assailing the rabbits with machine guns and flamethrowers. The assault kills some of them, but most of them continue on toward the train tracks and are electrocuted.
The rabbits leap backward in sparks! It’s complete lagomorphic mayhem. Before long, the smoking corpses of giant rabbits begin to pile up. By the end of the night, they’ve all been killed.
Some time later, Cole Hillman interrupts a pick-up game of football to chat with Roy Bennett. Roy asks how the ranch is, and Cole reports that everything seems to be returning to normal. He invites Roy, Gerry, and Amanda to visit the ranch for dinner some day, and Roy agrees that would be a swell idea. The final shot features Amanda and Jackie, the two children of the families, riding on horseback through fields. The camera lingers on a hole in the earth, and zooms in on the creature that made it: a regularly sized rabbit.
- Night of the Lepus takes the genre of monster-animal attacks or invasion to its logical, but ludicrous end. What makes rabbits any less plausible or scary than ants or Gila monsters or worms? Make something large enough, and it becomes pretty intimidating. Think of Hitchcock’s The Birds. There are few animals less intimidating than ones that regularly kill themselves by flying into glass windows. But in the right hands (whether that’s Daphne Du Maurier or Alfred Hitchcock), the ridiculous concept becomes sublime – and genuinely unsettling. Unfortunately, Night of the Lepus was not in the right hands. But it looks like the filmmakers probably had a lot of fun smashing ketchup on domesticated rabbits.
- Though the film is hard to take seriously, there is some fact behind this fiction, as its intro takes great pains to emphasize. Namely: that animal overpopulation is a concern, and oftentimes, scientific solutions – no matter how well-intentioned – can make the problem even worse. Take, for instance, Asian carp, which were introduced into North American streams to eat pond scum, but soon destroyed the habitats of countless species throughout America’s waterways. As many characters warn, over and over, nature is a delicate balance. In Night of the Lepus, the Bennetts foolishly just inject a mysterious, untested serum into some rabbits to see what might happen. (Though one could argue this is more a cautionary tale about the undue influence of university donors.) But even that error in judgment would have been harmless if they had not let their daughter take one of the lab rabbits as a pet. The real moral of Night of the Lepus is to never let children interfere with your important biological research. Scientists should just forbid Take Your Kid to Work Day.
Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: If you like slow-motion shots of rabbits leaping about obvious miniatures of towns, you will find a lot to love in Night of the Lepus. This is not a scary film, but it’s entertainingly horrid.
Best outfit: Janet Leigh’s Gerry should win some sort of fashion award for that moiré-patterned top she wears in one scene.
Best line: “Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way, and we desperately need your help!” – lines you don’t expect to hear over the Emergency Broadcast System
Best kill: Mildred’s sudden bloody death when a giant rabbit comes crashing through the front window of her General Store is certainly memorable.
Unexpected cameo: It’s so much more than a cameo, but it was nice to see ‘Bones’ himself, DeForest Kelley, in a principal non-Star Trek role. Additionally, Paul Fix, who plays Sheriff Cody, was also Judge Taylor in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Unexpected lesson learned: After looking it up, I learned that rabbits are not nocturnal, but “crepuscular,” meaning they’re active during twilight hours, like sunrise and sunset. That’s because it’s safest for them (as prey for so many predators) when the light is dim and weird. Zoology!
Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Captain Billy.
Next up: Tales from the Hood (1995).