Late in The Night of the Lepus, a police officer stands in front of a drive-in movie audience and addresses them through a megaphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, attention. There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way, and we desperately need your help. Roll up your windows, turn on your lights, and follow the police car at the entrance of this theater. Please keep calm and cooperate with the authorities.” Everyone honks their horns and rolls out.
This is not the most unbelievable scene in the movie, but it is pretty darn close. We now know that this would be met with hoots of derision and shouts of outrage. “How dare you tell us to roll up our windows,” people would shout. “We will not be imprisoned by fear in our own cars!”
Night of the Lepus is based on Russell Braddon’s novel The Year of the Angry Rabbits. An invasive species of rabbits are destroying Cole Hillman’s ranch. Hillman is no dummy. He knows poisoning the rabbits with cyanide will kill everything on his property. So he ignores the pleas of his fellow ranchers and seeks help from a pair of zoologists, Roy and Gerry Bennett (Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh). They suggest using an experimental rabbit birth control. Roy and Gerry intend to monitor the results in their lab. Unfortunately, they run afoul of a classic experimental protocol error: they turn their back on a young child.
Young Amanda promptly releases one of the experimental rabbits. By the time the researchers discover the hormone treatment just causes aggressive gigantism, it’s too late. The super bunnies have bred and gone on a murderous rampage, threatening the nearby towns. Although it takes a while for the news to trickle in because no one remembers what phones are for.
The miracle of modern telephony is the ability to communicate information nearly instantly across terrestrial distances. No one in Lepus understands this. Instead, they use the phone for summoning spells. “Sherriff, we’re going to need you to come over here.” What for? “Well, you better see for yourself.” Maybe a little hint? Should I bring a weapon larger than a breadbox?
The Year of the Angry Rabbit was a comic horror novel, but Night of the Lepus scrubbed it of any humor. Whether it’s Elgin (DeForest Kelley) frowning at holes in the ground or Gerry desperately trying to ward off rampaging rabbits with a road-flare, everyone plays their bit with dreadful straight faces. Director William Claxton, far more comfortable with westerns, even eschews familiar horror movie beats. Night of the Lepus plays out more like a somber disaster film than a monster movie. I guess, maybe, that’s what it was in his head.
We need to talk a little bit about young Amanda, clearly a sociopath in the making. She’s elementary school age, but she’s got two scientists for parents and seems to understand the difference between “experimental” and “control” groups. Her concern is not for the rabbits in general but for one rabbit in particular. When Roy picks it up to inject it with serum, she protests. “That’s my favorite!” When everyone’s backs are turned, she swaps the freshly-injected rabbit for one from the control set, knowing her mom Gerry will let her adopt one of those. When the rabbit inevitably gets loose, she’s more than happy to lie about it. Everyone’s blood is on her little third-grade hands, and she never takes even the slightest bit of responsibility.
There’s one last thing before I can let this movie go. They called it Night of the Lepus to obfuscate the critter during the marketing. “What is the terrifying mutant that strikes from beyond the shroud of night?” intones movie-trailer-voiceover guy. (He pronounces mutant “mute ant.”) Well, it’s a bunny. Domesticated bunnies. In fact, ones that are so tame that Gerry has no problem letting Amanda grab one with her grungy little fingers. One side of the marketing team really didn’t want to spill the beans. Still, there must have been a miscommunication somewhere because the studio started handing out lucky rabbit feet as promotional items. I wonder what the marketing status meeting was like after that particular snafu.
But that’s not what I’m sore about. Domestic bunnies are not leporēs. “Lepus” refers to hares, not rabbits. Rabbits and hares may look similar, but they are quite different animals. If you try to give one a cuddle you will regret it immediately. Horror host Joe Bob Briggs explained that pretty clearly in his MonsterVision intro. Domesticated rabbits are Oryctolagus cuniculus, which (you will note) does not have the word “lepus” in there anywhere. This is perhaps the film’s biggest insult. We are promised wild hares, and we get tame bunnies instead. Not only is it false advertising. It’s also a waste of an opportunity to instruct people in the magical world of lagomorphs.
Also, at no point does DeForest Kelley say “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a cuniculturalist.” Which is a crying shame.