NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972)
Director: William F. Laxton
Warner Home Video

Of all the incredible horror and sci-fi library titles in Warner Brothers’ vault, the 1972 killer bunny epic NIGHT OF THE LEPUS is one that fans never expected to see on DVD. Produced by MGM when they were falling apart and being destroyed by rival studios and independent films at the box office, this is a skeleton in their closet that was pretty much forgotten for years. Frequent cable airings and a mythos surrounding the actual existence of this dud brought it back into the spotlight, and it was often listed when fans were asked to think of Warner titles which the company would never have the cajones to release on the digital format. It just goes to show that there are always some surprises up the sleeves of the major studios, as LEPUS makes its home video debut to enthrall every viewer who has dreamt of seeing this monstrosity.

Scientist couple Roy and Gerry Bennett is trying to solve the current epidemic of massive bunny herds eating all the crops of local ranchers. However, their experiments with hormones don’t seem to be working. Their young daughter accidentally lets one of the rabbits escape, and only then do the hormones begin to take effect. Somehow this bunny mates like crazy, grows to mutant proportions, and its entire family begins to wreak havoc on the small desert town.

Yes, that’s right: killer bunnies. Giant mutant bunnies with long teeth, sharp claws and a fierce growl to send chills down your spine. There are few experiences as sublime as watching NIGHT OF THE LEPUS unfold on the screen. It’s a one-of-a-kind motion picture which tanked at the box office and was wisely pushed under the carpet by MGM after its abysmal theatrical run. Who thought that making a movie about killer rabbits would be successful? Director William F. Laxton, producer A.C. Lyles, and screenwriters Don Holliday and Gene Kearney, that’s who. Technically speaking, LEPUS is a pretty well-made affair, with nice camerawork and good editing. But all credibility flies out the window within the first 20 minutes, when the first bloodthirsty rabbits appear. Laxton and Lyles were more accustomed to westerns (TV’s “Bonanza” for Laxton, and low-budget big-screen cowboy operas for Lyles), so at least they seem to feel at home in the desert locales.

Not all of LEPUS is fodder for jeers and jokes. The Mondo-esque newsreel footage of farmers madly slaughtering rampaging bunny herds all over their ranches and farms is pretty disturbing. There’s also a surprising amount of grisly gore effects in the film, which seem really out of place in a PG film. But then again, this is 1972, when the ratings system was a shambles. Startling scenes of a dismembered truck driver strewn all over the side of the road, a butchered family of four decorating a campground, close-ups of viscera and guts hanging from rabbits’ mouths, and various other blood-spurting deaths mix the ridiculous with the horrifying. Additionally, scenes of a guy in a rabbit’s suit tackling the actors, more close-ups of rabbits’ teeth with a lion’s roar dubbed in, and slow-motion photography of bunnies hopping through the countryside seeking their next meal have no rival in screen goofiness. The scariest thing about the film: no “No Animals Were Hurt During the Making of This Film” disclaimer! Think about that during one scene where a rabbit is set on fire!

Examine the big names in this film: Rory Calhoun, Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, DeForest Kelley. Even though most were B-list actors by 1972, it’s an amazing feat that the head honchos at MGM were able to entice them into their killer rabbit film. What could have possibly been this cast’s motivation in taking this project, other than the quick paycheck? All four would sink lower in the depths of exploitation, save perhaps Leigh who usually steered clear of trash like this, but it’s nice to think of this as their first dip into the pool of exploitation. Melanie Fullerton gives one of the most cloyingly sweet child performances in horror film history, and Paul Fix is the local sheriff. Everyone involved takes the material so deathly serious that the camp level goes through the roof. Until Irwin Allen’s THE SWARM seven years later, this was hands-down the most embarrassing nature-strikes-back film of the decade. And it’s based on a book to boot, The Year of the Angry Rabbit! Try finding a copy today.

For its official home video debut, Warner Brothers has done a fabulous job with restoring NIGHT OF THE LEPUS, presenting 1.85:1 widescreen and anamorphic. It actually looks like they care about this little bastard child of a movie! While there are a number of grainy spots, usually during outdoor scenes, the skin tones are accurate, colors bold and vivid, and the black levels are deep. All those cute little killer bunnies look great on the digital format, with nice detail and a bright clean image throughout the presentation. The mono audio is a little quiet during dialogue scenes, but the screaming bunnies and bombastic musical score is delivered nicely.

The sole extra is the theatrical trailer, which wisely avoids showing any footage of the film’s monsters. A few brief shots of a rabbit’s nose erupting from the ground and close-ups of bunny eyes are the only hints that the horrifying “Lepus” of the title could be found at any pet store next door! The only menace really shown is a never-ending series of wide eyes jutting out from the dark. It’s funny to think that anyone was tricked by this ambiguous preview into attending opening night…only to be confronted by the cheesiest horror film to ever come out of Hollywood! Expectedly, no surviving cast or crew members are interviewed about their involvement with this embarrassment. Producer Lyles has appeared on other DVD’s of more respectable films like ROMAN HOLIDAY and SUNSET BOULEVARD, though. (Casey Scott)

 

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