Posted by David Kalat on February 28, 2015
So—later this week, TCM will be running Night of the Lepus. It’s been on TCM before—but usually relegated to the late night TCM Underground slot. This Wednesday it’s on at 6pm Eastern where decent folk might stumble across it unawares. Which is awesome.
There are few films as mocked as Night of the Lepus. You only have to mention the premise (attack of the giant bunnies!) and the derision sets in on its own. It’s a wonder the whole genre of horror didn’t just curl up and die in embarrassment. Legions of film critics, genre fans, and innocent bystanders have set up their tents in the let’s-make-fun-of-the-dumb-bunnies camp—all sharing the assumption that the problem here was the choice of monster. How could killer rabbits ever be scary?
But if it is self-evidently obvious that rabbits can’t ever be a scary monster… then what would motivate a motion-picture institution run by responsible adults to invest in a thing like this? What were they thinking?
Come on—click the fold and find out. I know you want to. I promise the answer will surprise you.
Back when I lived in Virginia, I used to think of rabbits only in terms of cuddly pets. Then I moved to Chicago, and discovered what a scourge they can be as wild pests.
Consider the case of Australia, where rabbits were introduced in the mid-19th century by a British officer as a lark. He thought they were fun to look at, and a joy to shoot, so he imported a dozen wild rabbits and let them loose. Within ten years, the offshoots of that original dirty dozen numbered in the millions. And they destroyed the environment.
Rabbits were responsible for killing off one out of every eight mammalian species on the continent, and left untold devastation to the farmlands. It was nothing short of a natural apocalypse.
In desperation, the Australian government in the 1950s deliberately introduced myxomatosis and other viruses to curb the rabbit population. That’s right—they let loose deadly plagues on purpose to kill off some pesky wabbits. And if there’s one thing science fiction has taught us, it’s that doing stupid stuff like that will rebound back on you. Sure enough, natural selection created myxomatosis-resistant rabbits that survived the disease…
And since the people of Australia had clearly not been paying attention to science fiction when it came to solving this problem, science fiction decided to step in and offer some solutions of its own.
Which is where we arrive in 1964, with Australian satirist Russell Braddon’s speculative fantasy about the continued efforts of the Australian authorities to bio-engineer a more effective strain of myxomatosis to combat the rabbit’s growing natural resistance.
In the book, the new Super-Myx fails to kill the pests, but only makes them savage and carnivorous. However, it turns out that Super-Myx is fatal to humans, and so the power-mad Aussie Prime Minister seizes on the properties of his new biological weapon to conquer the world and establish a fascist Australian empire. As he builds his totalitarian state, the infected rabbits mutate into increasingly deadly monsters that ultimately bring his reign of terror to an end-and wipe out all human civilization to boot.
The Year of the Angry Rabbit is a riotous novel, a sort of literary Dr. Strangelove for the age of Rachel Carson. It is sharp and prickly and very wickedly funny. The killer rabbits figure only in a small part of the story, which reads more like a history of Nazi Germany as told by Oscar Wilde.
Now let’s jump forward another bunch of years to the early 1970s. Hollywood has been overrun by monster animals and Nature-vs-Man parables. And so in this environment, producer A.C. Lyles opted to oversee a filmic adaptation of Braddon’s novel. It was an anomaly, an aberration. Lyles had never done sci-fi before, and would never again.
Lyles had made his name making small-scale Westerns of an old-fashioned stripe, the sort of homespun oater that the followers of Sergio Leone destroyed. He trudged on regardless (although his recent work on Deadwood shows that Lyle could, if sufficiently prodded, move with the times). He assembled a team of fellow Westerners to write and star in this bunny-monster flick, which would be shot at Old Tucson, the location favored by so many period Westerns. Night of the Lepus was horror in name only-it looked, walked, and quacked like an old-school Western.
Lyle’s screenwriters Gene R. Kearney and Don Holliday threw out everything that made the book witty, clever, original, and entertaining—because all that stuff was also weird and political. All that was left was killer rabbits.
The script paid a brief homage to its source in an opening sequence set in Australia, but few readers of Braddon’s book would recognize Night of the Lepus as being at all connected. It would be as if a filmmaker set out to make a movie of The Bible but chose to use only the genealogical “begat” sequences from Genesis and skipped everything else.
In the book, the rabbits weren’t just violent and bloodthirsty; they were also plague-carriers. Let’s linger on that statement—the rabbits in the book weren’t giant monsters, they were scary because they were toxic. Now, just how much blind unreasoning panic did the ebola scare unleash last year? Viruses are terrifying. Way more scary than monsters. But the movie ditched the virus angle and was therefore obliged to depict its bunnies as physically threatening. This would be a big ask even in the best of circumstances, but the effects crew (Escape from the Planet of the Apes‘ Howard A. Anderson Company) proved themselves incapable of the task.
Making rabbits threatening is not an entirely insurmountable one in the right hands. Plenty of movies have managed to create menaces out of seemingly innocuous things: babies and children were effectively scary in the likes of Village of the Damned, The Exorcist, and The Omen. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds used ordinary wrens and seagulls as his monsters, instead of more obviously dangerous birds of prey. Long Weekend’s primary screen threat is a manatee-one of Nature’s most docile of animals-and not just any manatee, but a dead one. You can’t get much more unthreatening than that-unless maybe you’re making The Monolith Monsters, about killer rocks. Inanimate, immobile rocks. Or Charisma, about a killer tree. Again, it doesn’t even move.
These are all effective works of suspense, classics in their own right. What makes these other movies so powerful, though, is the careful creation of a suspenseful atmosphere, and the ratcheting up of drama between the human characters. Babies and rocks and trees are not in themselves scary, but careful filmmaking can make them seem so.
When asked later how she could have agreed to participate in such a debacle, Janet Leigh explained that the screenplay read well and that, on the page, Lepus seemed to fall happily in line with other not-ridiculous horror flicks like Willard. “No one twisted my arm and said I had to do it,” she said, “It didn’t dawn on anyone until-it took about four or five days before we realized we didn’t have the ideal director.”
William F. Claxton, the director assigned to Night of the Lepus, was an old hand at Westerns, some of them for Mr. Lyles, and all of them the kind of thing where simply having a cowboy on a horse passed for sufficient entertainment to an undemanding audience. In place of a spooky atmosphere, he set Night of the Lepus in the sunny expanses of an Arizona desert, populated by cowboys and gold mines and other refugees from old-school horse operas. Claxton never even bothered with any of the cinematic tricks that could artificially manufacture an ominous mood out of thin air-canted camera angles, dark shadows, eerie music… he seemed confident that the rabbits will all by themselves would do the job.
Meanwhile, the publicity team at MGM seemed to think they had a camp classic on their hands. They sent out to theaters a “Go Get ‘Em Fright Kit” which included, among other oddities, hundreds of “hi-camp, pop art Lepus foot buttons,” to quote from the promotional literature. These were to be distributed to “discotheques, teeny bops, college kids, and wacked-out theatre patrons” (sic, sic, and sic!) The kits also provided “ghastly posters” with which to “glut every available foot of wall space” at “campuses, record stores, discotheques, psychedelic clothing stores and shopping centers.” Although the trailer promised to be “the most stupefying, wacked-out glimpse of horror,” the ringer in the Fright Kit is clearly the attempt to get Top 40 radio stations to play a record containing no music, just five minutes (five minutes!!!) of the warbly Lepus sound effect.
If only the filmmakers had shown half the creativity and awareness of the audience as the publicity department, the film might have been worth the bally-hoo.
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