Sunday, October 09, 2005

Rabbit test(y): Night of the Lepus on DVD



It's the early seventies. Audiences everywhere have been galvanized by a whole new generation of filmmakers pushing envelopes and boundaries undreamt of by the contract employees laboring under the old Hollywood studio system. And no topic, no approach is off-limits. Hell, in this era an X-rated movie (Midnight Cowboy) even wins the Best Picture Oscar.

Most of the horror and science-fiction films that see release in the first third of the decade stare audiences square in the eyes, daring them to flinch. Whether they're meditations on violence (A Clockwork Orange), the loss of individuality (THX-1138), or man's lack of control over disease (The Andromeda Strain), these genre flicks force viewers to confront fears that are, at equal turns, contemporary and elementally universal.

So how does 1972-era MGM--one of Hollywood's biggest film studios--compete with this vogue for ecologically-and-socially-aware thrillers? Simple. It releases a horror film--Night of the Lepus--showcasing the world's first swarm of giant, mutated, flesh-eating killer...

Rabbits.

I swear to God.

Historical context aside, Night of the Lepus has inspired hushed, slack-jawed awe amongst true fans of cinematic schlock for decades. And now, Warner Home Video has unleashed this gloriously misbegotten bastard child of 50's B Flick and 70's Eco-Horror Treatise upon the world in spanking new DVD form. Unlike most trash flicks that promise more unintended yocks than they deliver, Night of the Lepus really is all that and a bag of chips. Or perhaps better put, it's all that and a bag of crunchy carrots. It literally must be seen to be believed.

Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh play Roy and Gerri Bennett, married scientists hired by rancher Rory Calhoun to come up with a humane way to eradicate the rabbits currently overrunning Calhoun's property. Roy decides to use hormones in an attempt to stave off the little buggers' tendency to, well, screw like bunnies. The Bennetts' monobrowed little daugher Amanda (Melanie Fullerton), meanwhile, takes a shine to one hormone-stoked rabbit and rescues him from the lab. When the hormonally-hopped-up hare escapes to breed with others of his kind, the cuddly little critters suddenly become cuddly big critters with a yen for human flesh.

Sure, the premise is absurd as hell, but what really makes Night of the Lepus so mind-boggling is the complete sobriety with which it's all delivered. This is important and terrifying stuff, dammit, written with the stolid solemnity of an Ibsen-penned public service announcement and acted with grave seriousness. You truly have not lived until you hear town sheriff Paul Fix, with nary a whit of self-awareness or humor, warn drive-in patrons that there's a herd of killer rabbits coming their way. Star Trek fans will also rejoice to see Dr. McCoy himself, DeForest Kelley, on hand as the concerned country doctor, keeping a straight face (no mean feat here) as he throws rocks into holes listening for the chattering of maneating bunnies.

Director William F. Claxton fights valiantly to inject maximum foreboding into every suspense scene. Only one minor detail musses things up; these are all suspense scenes involving killer rabbits, for Pete's sake. Real-live bunnies (frolicking amongst crude miniatures, no less) portray Peter Cottontail's ravenous cousins in the long shots. These fluffy li'l scamps never stop being cute, even when they're shot from below, in the dark, in slow motion, with their gutteral growls (?!) filling the soundtrack. No amount of fake blood on their cuddly widdle faces can make them the least bit scary, either.

God, I love this movie.

The Warner DVD runs 88 minutes, and the crisp print contains footage (including some pretty gruesome mutilated corpses) excised from the original version. The disc's lone extra, the fairly scary original coming-attractions trailer, makes no mention of the fact that the titular monsters are actually rabbits. I can't imagine why.

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JennyB. said...

You MUST see Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the WereRabbit.

I think you will love the homage to an early cinematic classic toward the end. I was the only person in the theatre howling with laughter at one point.

Admittedly it starts a bit slow, but the roughly handled exposition at the beginning is well worth the payoff. Plus there are plenty of sly jokes, the voice of Ralph Fiennes as the villian and Helena Bonham Carter as the heroine (honestly I rather think I prefer her as a voice-over artist. I've never been a great fan...).

Hopefully you'll get to see it!

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