|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(May 26, 2004)
NIGHT OF THE LEPUS
Alternate Title: RABBITS.
Pro Co: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Dir: William F. Claxton;
Pro: A.C. Lyles;
Wrs: Don Holliday, Gene R. Kearney.
Phot: Ted Voightlander;
Film Ed: John McSweeney;
Mus: Jimmie Haskell;
Pro Des/2nd Unit Dir: Stan Jolley;
Sound: Jerry Jost, Hal Watkins.
SFX: Howard A. Anderson Company.
Make-Up: Wes Dawn.
Animal Trainers: Lou Schumacher, Henry Cowal.
Cast: Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, De Forest Kelley, Paul Fix, Melanie Fullerton, Chris Morrell, Chuck Hayward, Henry Wills, Francesca Jarvis, William Elliot, Robert Hardy, Richard Jacome, Inez Perez, Evans Thornton, I. Stanford Jolley, Walter Kelley, Jerry Dunphy.
One of the most prominent themes in SF literature and cinema from the end of the 1960s onwards was the threat posed by ecological breakdown caused by mankind’s tampering with the environment.
Following the success of Daniel Mann’s killer rodent movie Willard (71), this general theme was combined with a more particular type of danger to form a subgenre within science fiction cinema popularly called “revenge of nature” movies. Here a variety of animals attacked humans en mass in retaliation for the destruction of their habitat, the effects of toxic waste or, sometimes, for reasons which were left unexplained. Among the titles that appeared as part of this cycle are George McCowan’s Frogs (72), Jeannot Szwarc’s Bug (75) and John “Bud” Cardos’ Kingdom of the Spiders (77).
While sharing the ecological concerns with most of it contemporaries from this era, William F. Claxton’s Night of the Lepus tends to stand out from them in that it has much more in common with an earlier period in science fiction filmmaking and comes from a producer strongly associated with another genre entirely.
A newscaster presents a special report on the implications to the environment posed by the massive explosion in the rabbit population in some parts of the world, including Australia and the American South-West, where crops and other wildlife have been devastated. In rural Arizona a rancher, Cole Hillman, has to shoot his horse after it falls down one of many rabbit holes and breaks its leg. Walking back to the ranch he gets phones the president of the local college, Elgin Clark, for help. To avoid causing any lasting environmental damage caused by eradicating the rabbit population, Elgin recommends that they approach a husband and wife team of scientists who are visiting the area on an exchange programme, Roy and Gerry Bennett. Elgin journeys to a remote desert area where the Bennetts are conducting experiments on control of bats using sound waves. Clark explains the rancher’s plight to them and they agree to help, even though dealing with rabbits is not really their specialist area. Together with their daughter, the scientists travel to Hillman’s ranch where they find the place overrun with rabbits and ranch workers trying to catch and kill, much to the distress of their daughter who has a fondness for the creatures. Examining the rabbits, Roy discovers them to be a hybrid between wild and domestic breeds. The rancher suggests that in a matter of weeks he may have to start using poison to eradicate the pest, something he is loath to do since it will probably seriously harm the rest of his business. The Bennetts decide to the best approach is to carry out a series of experiments on the creatures using a newly created batch of hormone serum and begins collecting samples for this purpose. As Hillman packs on of the rabbits away it attacks him. Back at the college laboratory, the serum is not proving not to be providing the required results, and is instead attacking the subjects’ Central Nervous System. An alternative, experimental and untested serum is provided by the college’s chief scientist, Professor Drikson. To determine its worth they inject it into a fresh rabbit, despite their daughter’s protests that she has chosen it as her favourite. When her parents are talking on the phone she swaps the creature with another. Later the family travels up to Hillman’s ranch, accompanied by the rabbit. There she gets into an argument with the rancher’s son, who considers rabbits to be vermin, and lets the animal escape into a nearby warren. Back at the lab, it discovered that other rabbits tested with the serum have grown dramatically in size. Meanwhile, Hillman decides to burn part of his land in order to starve out the marauding creatures. While surveying the burned area, Hillman and Roy Bennett discover the footprint of a very large, unknown creature next to a waterhole. The rancher’s son and Bennett’s daughter go on a ride to a visit a nearby gold prospector who is working an old mine. There they discover the prospector’s shack deserted and apparently ransacked. The girl is sent to search the mouth of the mine while the boy looks around outside. He discovers prints similar to those at the waterhole. Inside the mine, the daughter becomes frightened by glimpses of strange creatures lurking in the tunnel…
Night of the Lepus remains producer A.C. Lyles’ sole venture in to SF filmmaking and apparently his only theatrical production outside the auspices of Paramount Pictures, as studio he worked almost exclusively from the early 1930s, in various capacities, until very recently.
At Paramount, Lyles was best known for an eleven-strong series of low-budget westerns, made between 1963 and 1968, whose main distinguishing features were their determinedly old-fashioned nature and the presence of many former stars from Hollywood’s “Golden Age”. Considered to be in the twilight of their careers, these performers still had some marquee name value thanks to television revivals of their movies and regular appearances of popular teleseries of the time. Lyles regulars like Lon Chaney Jr, John Agar and Scott Brady also proved to still have drawing power in some US regional markets like the South-West and a surprising number of overseas territories.
From the first post-credits panoramic shot of Rory Calhoun riding his horse across the Arizona landscape, it becomes apparent that the Western genre strongly favours Night of the Lepus.
This impression is underlined by the presence of a number of western motifs such as the ranch, horse stampedes and deserted goldmines. Also the production was based at the theme park/filmmaking facility Old Tucson that provided an economical Old west period setting for many productions such as Ron Joy’s The Animals (70), Martin Goldman’s The Legend of Nigger Charley (72) and Larry G. Spangler’s A Knife for the Ladies (74). So prevalent are the Western trappings at times it is almost disconcerting to see such modern trappings as motor cars, telephones and laboratories in some scenes.
The movie is also littered with actors strongly associated with horse operas. These include Rory Calhoun, as rancher Cole Hillman, Paul Fix as the Sheriff and De Forest Kelley. Calhoun’s career in Westerns (including performing writing and producing chores) goes back to the 1940s, but he really came to the fore in the 1950s when his work included roles in George Sherman’s The Treasure of Pancho Villa (53) and Ray Nazarro’s The Domino Kid (57), while Fix’s earliest appearances date to the last days of the silent era and, like Calhoun, a recurring fixture in oaters (some of which he co-wrote) including George Waggner’s The Fighting Kentuckian (49), Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (54) and Henry Hathaway’s Nevada Smith (66).
While forever associated with the role of Dr “Bones” McCoy in the teleseries Star Trek, and its subsequent six-strong series of spin-offs, beginning with Robert Wise’s Star Trek-The Motion Picture (79), he became best known as a stalwart performer in Western movies and TV (often at Paramount) such as John Sturges’ Gunfight at the OK Corral (57) and Edward Dmytryck’s Warlock (59). Kelley was still making guest appearances in television episodes of horse operas as late as the mid-1970s. Like Calhoun and Fix, he worked on A.C. Lyes productions during the 1960s.
The link to the Western genre is further underlined by the presence of director William F. Claxton. Former film editor Claxton earned a living as a journeyman director of support features throughout the 1950s and 1960s, typified by the likes of Stagecoach to Fury (56), The Quiet Gun (57) and Young Jessie James (60). He is best known as a prolific director of episodic television beginning in the late 1950s. Although his credits includes episodes of the original The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff’s Thriller, he is most associated with “domesticated” Old West sagas along the lines Bonanza, The High Chaparral and Little House on the Prairie. In addition, he worked for A.C. Lyles on two productions in 1964, Law of the Lawless and Stage to Thunder Rock.
On his 1960s productions, in addition to his clutch of dependable character players, Lyles usually employed one of two lead actors who, despite their careers sometimes being seen as being in decline, were still considered a bigger draw than the other cast members. Such was the case with Night of the Lepus, where the producer managed to secure the services of Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh.
Although he had some leading roles in 1960s American and British films like Michael Curtiz’s The Comancheros (61) and Ken Annakin’s Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (65), Whitman became best known as a regular on prime time television shows like the contemporary western teleseries Cimarron Strip, which he co-produced, featuring some of the personnel involved in this production. The prolific Whitman is also one of the most widely travelled of Hollywood actors, appearing in such diverse locations as Mexico, Italy and Hong Kong. Several of his films, among them Cy Endfield’s Sands of the Kalihari (65), Alberto De Martino’s Una Magnum Special per Tony Saitta (76) and Alfredo Zacarias’ Demonoid (80), as well as the one under discussion here, have attracted a strong and vocal cult following as has the actor himself.
Co-star Janet Leigh, a former MGM starlet had previously worked for such heavyweight talents as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and John Frankenheimer. By the time she agreed to appear in Night of the Lepus, she was a regular performer in telemovies and guest artiste on many popular prime-time television series. Because of her work for the directors mentioned previously, especially Hitchcock (Psycho 60) and Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate 62) and the fact that she is the mother of former “scream queen” Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween 78), Leigh has also attracted something of a cult following, which was only enhanced by her appearance here.
While the influence of the Western genre permeates the whole enterprise, certainly in terms of the way the film looks, Night of the Lepus is primarily a monster movie whose roots lie back in the 1950s.
Unlike its contemporaries in the ecological horror subgenre, in which hordes of normal sized animals of various description descended on mankind, Claxton’s film instead adopts Gordon Douglas’s giant insect classic Them! (54) as its model.
The film follows this model (which has been frequently imitated over the decades) closely for much of its length, where a series of bizarre deaths and other strange phenomena, such as the discovery of the empty prospector’s shack, the deaths of the truck driver and later an entire father, together with the appearance of strange footprints and large holes burrowed into a mineshaft, combine to suggest that some terrible force has been unleashed.
The use of a desert location (well-photographed by Claxton’s regular collaborator Ted Voightlander) also echoes a similar choice of venue for the action to occur in the 1954 work.
The reason for the titular creatures’ rapid increase in size, an experimental hormonal serum, echoes the plot of another classic giant bug movie, Jack Arnold’s Tarantula! (55).
Another work that may have influenced Claxton’s production is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (63), arguably the father of the “revenge of nature” cycle of films, although made some time before that actually began.
One of the basic elements that the more creative and aware filmmakers learns while work on low-budget genre items is that, if your budget or resources are simply not up to the task, or indeed if your monster is likely to have serious credibility problems when presented to a paying audience, it is advisable to restrict the appearance of the monster to body parts, or suggest its presence with shadows, until the climax of the film. This is an approach that even big-budget projects are sometimes compelled to adopt, as shown by Steven Spielberg’s much-troubled Jaws (75) where, unable to get the mechanical star of the film to perform in time, the director did a masterful job of working around the problem and turning it to its advantage.
Unfortunately this approach is not employed in Night of the Lepus.
Instead, the giant rabbits that are hinted at in earlier scenes, are revealed in all their glory at the end of the first act, the attempts at obscuring them with shadows and dust failing miserably.
With the appearance of the title characters, the film’s credibility has now been seriously compromised, something from which it never recovers, despite the efforts of long-established special effects house Howard A. Anderson Company (Escape From Planet of the Apes 71), who do provide some decent process and miniature work. It is highly doubtful whether anyone could ever make a 20-foot rabbit, even splattered with stage blood and accompanied by some very bizarre sound effects courtesy of Jerry Jost and Hal Watkins (Wicked Wicked 73), remotely scary. Another major problem for the production is the fact that the rabbits used in the film are common-or-garden domestic bunnies, rather than the reportedly more vicious jackrabbit found in the American South-West.
In retrospect, it may be have proved a better idea if Night of the Lepus had followed the lead of other movies in this subgenre, with tens of thousands of rabbits threatening to inundate the Arizona landscape by sheer weight of numbers, their presence being menacing in a bizarre manner. The danger posed by the rabbits could have been underlined by their symbolic link with pagan and other esoteric, or perhaps the herald of a far wider malaise.
The novel on which the screenplay by Don Holliday (Games 67) and Gene R. Kearney is based, Russell Braddon’s “The Year of the Angry Rabbit”, was a satirical work set in Australia (alluded to in the movie’s pre-credit sequence). Here the satirical elements are abandoned in favour of a straightforward dramatisation.
The cast and crew on Night of the Lepus all take the whole enterprise very seriously, particularly the leads and especially Whitman and Leigh, who makes a feisty heroine, not averse to picking up a gun or a flare to protect herself and her family. In other circumstances, this would be considered something laudable, but in the case of this production only serves to highlight how absurd the whole enterprise is, lending the work an undeserved reputation as being camp.
Part of the reason why the film does not really work on any level, is the direction by William F. Claxton, which displays a complete lack of empathy with the material itself or the conventions of the genre. Thanks to Claxton’s background as an editor, together with his own cutter, John McSweeney (Christina 74), the film does at least move at a reasonably quick pace overall, but there is no real sense of excitement felt while watching the picture. Also the director misses a number of obvious opportunities to create some real tension such where Janet Leigh and daughter are hemmed in by rabbits at their broken down mobile home, Whitman and Calhoun investigating the rabbits’ nest in the old goldmine and the attack on the town post office.
Claxton does manage to bring off the odd shock effect such as the discover of the bloodied corpse of a truck driver, shown against the piercing sound of a police car siren, and a tracking shot revealing the extent of the devastating attack on the family camp site. Unfortunately, the actual attacks on humans remain absurd rather than horrifying or exciting, despite the lashings of gore and enthusiastic playing by excellent character actors like Chuck Hayward (The Clonus Horror 78) and Francesca Jarvis.
There is also the problem that the screenplay does not really possess any dramatic conflict, since everyone sees each other’s point of view, with the potential confrontation between the more environmentally aware Calhoun and his neighbours being quickly resolved. In fact the relationship between the various characters in the film could be best described as “folksy”.
At a time when filmmakers were showing a much more ambiguous, and sometimes completely hostile as in the case of George A. Romero’s The Crazies (73), attitude to the military, Night of the Lepus harks back to the simpler values of the 1950s with the scientists and the army, represented by Evans Thornton as both paternalistic and efficient, colluding to conquer a common enemy. Looking a lot like found footage from the 1950s, the Army use machine guns and flame throwers to despatch the rabbits.
The film finally descends into complete silliness at the climax that sees the army asking the patrons of a drive-in to turn on their car headlights, in an attempt to drive the rabbits, who are now thundering through town, towards an electrified railway line. This sequence may have been inspired by another 50s cult SF hit Edward L. Cahn’s Invasion of the Saucer Men (57).
Since its initial release in 1972 and subsequent showings on late night television, Night of the Lepus has attracted a serious following among aficionados of “bad” or “trash” movies to the extent that at the end of the 1980s/beginning of the 1990s, Janet Leigh was reportedly offered a part in a remake/sequel which has so far yet to appear.
Footage from Night of the Lepus turns up on a TV screen during a key scene in the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix (99).
©Iain McLachlan 2003
Chroma-Noize cult movie reviews: www.geocities.com/bigfatpav2000