I saw a peanut stand, heard a rubber band, I saw a needle that winked its eye. But I think I will have seen everything, when I see a...herd of giant killer rabbits?! Directed by William F. Claxton ("Bonanza", "Love, American Style"), Night of the Lepus (1972) stars Stuart Whitman (Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Shatter), Rory Calhoun (Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, Revenge of Bigfoot), and Janet Leigh (Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate), in what probably isn't considered by most to be a highpoint in her cinematic career that spanned 50 years before she passed away in October of 2004...as far as Whitman is concerned, he was perfectly suited for this film. It's not that I hate the guy or anything, but I have been subjected to a number of stinkaroo projects in which he was prominently featured. Also appearing is DeForest "Dammit Jim, I'm a doctor!" Kelley (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan), Paul Fix ("The Rifleman"), and Melanie Fullerton ("The Gun and the Pulpit").
The film starts off with a special news report talking about population issues, specifically focusing on the dangers of introducing non-native wildlife to an unprepared ecosystem, to which we see footage of Australians battling a populous lepus aka rabbit scourge, initially brought in as a possible food source, but since have run amok due to their enthusiastic breeding and an insufficient predatory balance. We also learn a similar occurrence is happening in the American southwest...Cole Hillman (Calhoun) runs a cattle ranch, threatened by an ever increasing hare population, devouring his cattle's grazing lands (apparently he had a coyote problem prior, and the solution worked too well, leaving the rabbits without a natural balance). He turns to an acquaintance Elgin Clark (Kelley), who's president of a nearby university, for help, and Elgin hooks Cole up with the Bennett's, Roy (Whitman) and Gerry (Leigh), who are visiting researchers focused on safe (no poisons) and viable means to control pest populations. The husband and wife team are in the area, along with their annoying daughter Amanda (Fullerton), studying bats and how they might be used to control mosquito populations. The Bennett's agree to help, hoping to utilize an experimental hormone therapy serum, given to them by a colleague, to interrupt the rabbit's breeding cycle and halt their prodigiousness. But what happens when Amanda accidentally lets one of the test subjects loose? Well, it breeds with others, creating a ginormous, vociferous, ravenous army of nocturnal, floppy-eared varmints that eats everything (including people) in its path...oh the humanity...science...is there anything it can't (or won't) do? Say, what the hell was in that serum anyway?
I have to say, this was about the goofiest damn horror movie I've seen in awhile...I mean giant, killer rabbits? I will say the makers of this film stuck to their guns and really tried to make this a viable vehicle, but there is absolutely nothing horrifying about cute, cuddly, nose wrinkling bunny rabbits. Period. The construction of the film was solid, and had they inserted a different type of creature (roaches, spiders, dogs, marmosets, vernicious kanids, etc.), it probably would have worked, but they saddled themselves with rabbits, for better or worse...here's my favorite line from the film...near the end, a deputy heads to the drive-in to get the assistance of the patrons in some master plan to stop the impending invasion, and this is what he says on the bullhorn..." Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!" And everyone believed him! Oh bruther...I've never been a big fan of Whitman, even though he was a relatively solid actor who's career peaked in the 60s (he was nominated for a Oscar for his role in the 1961 film The Mark), as he generally brought so little to his later roles, here being no exception...and that girl that played his daughter...ugh! I wanted to throttle her for her crimes against the profession. She certainly wasn't the worst child actor I've ever seen, but her annoyance factor was very high. And I love how she was never held accountable or felt even the slightest pang of guilt for her actions within the story, especially since she was the one responsible for the tainted rabbit getting loose. In a perfect world, cinematically speaking, she would have been one of the first victims beset by the plague she introduced into the environment, one that claimed the lives of many. As far as Janet Leigh, I just felt sorry for her...here's a woman who has appeared in one of the most memorable and influential shockers of all time (Psycho), now reduced to playing a bit part in one of the most laughable horror films ever made. And another thing, both Whitman and Leigh seemed a bit long in the tooth to have a daughter as young as she was...anyway, like I said, there was some misguided effort put forth by the makers of this film to really try and make it scary, in terms of visual trickery. Miniature sets were constructed to make it appear the rabbits where huge, along with close ups, quick edits, and chroma key shots. There were a couple of scenes where the rabbits did indeed appear as large as they were meant to be, but hardly made them frightening, instead making them even more cuddly and lovable. My favorite shots involved the guys dressed in rabbit suits, attacking the various townspeople. The shots were very short, but it was still obvious they were men dressed up in bad rabbit suits, especially the one sequence where one hare gets hit in the head with an object by the person it's attacking, and the man in the suit instinctively raises his costumed hands to protect his costumed head.
The widescreen (1.85:1) anamorphic picture on this DVD looks very sharp and clean, and the Dolby Digital mono audio comes through very well. The only extra available is a theatrical trailer. The extras certainly are slight, but fans of bad movies will definitely rejoice at this film finally finding an official DVD release.
By the way, if you ever wanted to see DeForest Kelley in really bad polyester, here's your chance...also, if I learned anything from this film, its that people are not likely to stop and pick you up if you're hitchhiking down the road carrying a rifle...go figure...