Thursday, October 25, 2012

This Is A Thing That Exists!: Night Of The Lepus

Do you remember the first time someone ever told you about the Star Wars Christmas Special, or those Ewok TV movies, or the Droids cartoon? Wow, come to think of it, Lucas has put the Star Wars name on a bunch of terrible shit. Did he have a hand in the Turkish one? You know what, never mind, not the point. The point is, something was being explained to you that no doubt sounded so strange and unworkable as to be almost unbelievable. And maybe you didn't believe it, that is until you saw if for yourself, and you realized that not only was this thing real, but it was just as weird and off putting as it had been described to you, if not more so. And beyond the thing itself, the fact that it was made, and that people thought it was a good idea long enough to make it, seems simply inconceivable.

It's the moment you find out that there are not one but two straight-to-video animated musical films based on the story of the Titanic, one featuring a rapping dog and the other magic dolphin tears respectively. It is the sort of realization that is to your internal sense of logic and reason what opening the Ark of the Covenant is to a Nazi's face. These are the moments this article series is designed to celebrate - the kind of discoveries that make your mind explode into your own ass, where you must simply bow to the absurd and acknowledge, whether you want to or not, that this... is a thing... that exists!

Okay, I promise I'm going to stop talking about Critters at some point, but I have to mention it in order to provide context for this thing. Okay, maybe I don't have to, but fuck you, it's my column. Anyway, when I was writing my Critters Retrospective, I noted that Critters 2 is one of the only horror films I knew of that took place during the holiday of Easter and used it as a central theme, which is sort of strange considering the prevalence of holiday horror movies. When I did a little research online to see if there were any other examples, I expected to find at least a few schlocky straight-to-video killer Easter Bunny movies, but instead, I only found one movie consistently mentioned. It was a little film starring Rory Calhoun and Janet Leigh called Night of the Lepus.

I think I vaguely recall hearing the title of this movie at some point before, probably in relation to DeForest Kelly because I'm such a big Star Trek fan, but because my two semesters of college Latin mostly consisted of our class watching the BBC miniseries I, Claudius while our teacher checked email, I never put it together that lepus is the Latin word for rabbit. Yes, if you haven't guessed it already, this is a horror movie about Giant Killer Bunny Rabbits. Now you're probably thinking to yourself, "That's not so strange. The 90's was a veritable cornucopia of absurd killer something movies, from leprechauns to evil snowmen. Hey, stop reading my thoughts!" Okay, fine, but that was the 90's. This movie was made in the freaking 70's! Remember, this was the era of the Nixon/Ford/Carter troika of sadness where everything was taken seriously and ironic meta self-awareness was only for jive suckas. And yet somehow, a movie about rabbits turned into giant monsters via experimental hormone therapy got made.

And you want to know the weird thing about it? It actually kind of works. If you can at least temporarily remove from your mind all of your preconceptions about rabbits as cute and cuddly and imagine what it would be like if this species, existing only to eat and multiply, were to grow to the size of wolves, you can't deny that the possibility is legitimately terrifying. The movie is often criticized on this point, that the fatal flaw that means it could not possibly be good is that rabbits just aren't scary. I would submit that these critics apparently missed out on the unmitigated horror that was Hop, but I digress. The director, William Claxton, and much of the cast is mostly known for their work in Westerns, and the sensibility definitely shows early on in the overall tone of the film's set up, rough cowboy-esque characters, and some genuinely beautiful shots of the desert. If anything, this movie does a lot to transform the image of this much maligned animal into something of a bad ass wild creature. After a mock news broadcast detailing the threat of introducing certain breeds of rabbits into uncommon ecosystems, the film proper opens with Rory Calhoun riding his horse, only to trip on a rabbit hole and have to do the manliest thing possible - shoot his crippled horse in the face, and it only gets more manly from there, which in a movie about bunnies is really saying something.

DeForest Kelly shows up as a college professor out to help Calhoun rid his ranch of the at first tiny rabbit infestation, and the first thing you might notice if all you've ever seen him in is Star Trek is what can only be described as possibly the sexiest mustache ever recorded in the history of film or mustaches (though admittedly, my two semesters of college Mustache History mostly consisted of our class watching Wilfred Brimley in Cocoon while our teacher combed his mustache, so my knowledge on the matter is a bit lacking). It's so sexy, I almost considered adding Kelly to my list of celebrities I'd go gay for, right after character actor and occasional gargoyle Keith David. Just as an aside, I'm curious; how long is your gay celebrity sex list allowed to be before you go from a straight guy, to just a very selective gay guy who only fucks famous dudes? I think one is completely legitimate but once you start adding more than that, it's kind of pushing it, no pun about Keith David fucking me intended. Well, maybe since Kelly is dead and barring time travel or necrophilia I don't really have a chance, I think it's okay. The whole cast shines simply for treating the material seriously and not phoning in their performances or giving in to the campiness of the premise, except perhaps for Stuart Whitman, who makes for something of a wimpy hero, especially next to Calhoun's kick ass Han Solo turn.

The effects are another area that is often criticized but in a way that makes me think a lot of people have written reviews about this movie without actually seeing it, just jumping on board a snarky bandwagon. Granted they're not the greatest I've ever seen, even for a 70's movie, but they're not nearly as bad as people say, and they are generally effective at establishing the idea being presented. It's mostly done with real rabbits and miniature sets, and I actually think this was a good move, especially given the alternative. The few shots where they do use people in suits are the only ones that border on laughable, but they are shot so quickly to hide the fact that it doesn't ultimately take away from those scenes. The way they show very little of the rabbits once they start attacking at first is actually done very well and builds suspense leading up to the final reveal as they begin to stampede across the countryside. At first, the creatures themselves are barely seen, only their aftermath, chewed up bodies of truckers and later whole families, until the titular night when they are unleashed in their full glory. Everywhere they go they are accompanied by an odd repetitive sound that I would hesitate to call a musical sting, just an eerie bubbling, percolating noise that again is used very well, to the point that I might even rank it up there with the repeated notes associated with Jaws or Michael Myers. There's also a scene where Rory Calhoun's character discovers the rabbits holed up in a general store, having killed and eaten the proprietor, and he just sees them sitting there, crowding every available space. Bunnies or no, anybody in that situation would almost immediately shit themselves, which now that I think about it would most likely seal their fate as the pack of giant bunnies would smell him and attack, only making the whole scenario that much more terrifying.

If the movie has one major flaw, it's that perhaps the world created by this film and the characters within it treat the situation almost too seriously. As much as I applaud the film for its deliberate attempt to stay away from the obvious potential for cheesy parody, I find it strange that no one in this town ever seems to question the plausibility of this giant rabbit outbreak. As soon as it happens, nobody points out how ridiculous the whole thing is, or how insane their predicament is compared to the normal hazards of rural life. They just jump right into problem solving mode. What? There's killer bunnies coming? Good, no more information needed, what's the plan to stop this killer bunny menace and move on with our lives? There's even a scene where the sheriff goes to a drive-in to help evacuate the town and doesn't even bother coming up with a more reasonable explanation for why they all should leave. He literally comes right out and says there are killer bunnies on the loose, and the people just go with him without anyone getting out of their cars or being skeptical in anyway. I would guess that it is probably more of the Western sensibility coming through, as you never see anyone in those movies questioning a threat to their way of life; they always just circle the wagons instinctively. I don't know if I would have wanted more people to point out the silly nature of it all, and I am inclined to think that part of the reason I enjoyed the movie as much as I did is because the movie succeeds in not descending into self aware camp, but just in terms of the narrative, it is extremely weird. This serious tone is even stranger in light of the fact that apparently the book the film was based on, The Year of the Angry Rabbit by Russell Braddon, was actually written as a satire (though to be fair it's also Australian, and pretty much everything associated with that country is satirical).

Actually, I think the biggest problem surrounding the movie is its release date. The movie came out in 1972, five years too early to be a prequel or sequel to the classic 1977 film Kingdom of the Spiders. The two movies share similar themes of man against nature and our environment becoming the enemy, and all through the movie, the only thing I could think of was how much better it would be if Whitman's character had been replaced by Shatner's action veterinarian Rack Hanson. It could have been a Die Hard 2-esque, "How's the same kind of thing happen to the same guy twice" moment, and could have set up a series of Shatner vs. nature movies where he conquers the wilds of our own planet as he has conquered space (perhaps sexually, to continue the Star Trek theme). Plus, it would have reunited Shatner and Kelly, perhaps as Kirk and Bones, sent to a parallel reality by the Guardian of Forever with their memories erased so that they could protect the Earth from the menace of itself! Then they'd team up and fight nature related crime with a talking monkey sidekick named Sulu, whom Shatner then conquers sexually. Speaking of Kingdom of the Spiders, another thing Lepus lacks that would have made the film so much better is a more strident, apocalyptic ending. Instead, the day is saved and we just get a shot of the now normal sized rabbits returning to the area. It doesn't ruin the film but it is a major missed opportunity. Also, did you know that tarantulas are cannibals and their fur is used to make itching powder? Man, the Kingdom of the Spiders Wikipedia entry is a wealth of knowledge.

Overall, if you've never heard of this movie before now, or did and dismissed it out of hand because you thought the concept was too silly, I would suggest that it at least merits another look. I'm not the kind of movie viewer that likes bad movies just because they're bad and can be made fun of, but if that's your thing, maybe you can get some jokes out of it too, even if you can't become invested in the movie and accept the premise long enough to appreciate it without irony. That's the beauty of this movie; it works on both levels. If you're like me and can suspend your disbelief as far as Night of the Lepus asks you too, its a fun and sometimes tense experience, and if you're one of those people with no soul who lost their sense of child-like wonder long ago and can only watch movies cynically, there's room on the Lepus bus for you too. It's good clean fun for the whole family. unless of course your family is the one in the movie who was eaten by rabbits, in which case re-living the experience probably would not be that much fun for you, and I would not recommend this film. Otherwise, go see it, or rent it, or buy it, or whatever you do to get movies nowadays.

Thanks for reading and I'll be back with one of these again soon, probably with something puppet related. Bye now.
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