Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Night of the Lepus: Better Than It Has Any Right To Be

There was a lot going on in the 1970s. People hit the disco, dropped acid, laid back and mellowed out; Tricky Dick was so tricky, he ended up tricking himself right out of office; Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds were the reigning kings of the box office and Jack Tripper was the pretend queen of TV; the drugs were so good that some brilliant entrepreneur was able to convince people that rocks were pets; President Gerald Ford became a comedy sensation on Saturday Night Live; and the animal kingdom went apeshit crazy. Fortunately for all of us, that last one only happened in the movies.

It was a trend that spanned the entire decade – the “nature strikes back” genre, in which animals turned on humans, sometimes after growing to gigantic sizes. Most of the citizenry was safe, fortunately, because these animals tended to attack only actors and actresses who specialized in B-movies or one-time stars whose glory days were behind them – although there were a few exceptions. Many people mistakenly assume this genre was started by Steven Spielberg’s megahit Jaws, but that was in 1975, midway through Hollywood’s crazy animal phase.

I might have overlooked a few, but I’ve managed to come up with 20 titles in this genre between 1971 and 1979, a few of which were made-for-TV movies. It all started with the very modest a-boy-and-his-rat tale, Willard, starring Bruce Davison, Elsa Lanchester and Ernest Borgnine. It was such a surprise runaway hit that it required a sequel, Ben, the following year, and inspired the animal-themed horror trend that lasted the entire decade. If watching rats eat peanut butter that’s been slathered on Ernest Borgnine’s writhing body sounds like a good time to you, then you must see this movie.

Ben was followed by Frogs in 1972, starring Ray Milland. In her review in Andy Warhol’s Interview, Fran Lebowitz called it, “The best bad movie I have ever seen in my life.” Many others followed. Strother Martin turned Dirk Benedict into a big cobra in 1973's Sssssss. Robert Culp and Eli Wallach dealt with creepy, murderous chimpanzees in the 1973 TV movie A Cold Night’s Death. Ants got pretty cocky in Saul Bass’s brilliant and little seen 1974 thriller Phase IV, probably the most intelligent and creative movie of this entire lot. 1975 saw both the genre’s zenith and its nadir. The zenith, of course, was Jaws, the A-list blockbuster shark movie that so frightened audiences that some people actually switched from baths to showers because they were too afraid to sit in the water. The nadir was the $250,000 home movie The Giant Spider Invasion (my apologies to home movie-makers everywhere). Shot in the glamorous hot spots of Wisconson, like Gleason and Merrill, it featured Volkswagen Beetles dressed up to look like giant spiders. The genre seemed to escalate after that. Titles like Squirm, Grizzly, Day of the Animals and Kingdom of the Spiders stampeded across America’s drive-in screens. In 1977, producer Dino De Laurentis joined the fun with Orca, in which Richard Harris tried to forget how respected he was and Bo Derek’s leg was chomped off. The genre wrapped up in 1979 with Prophecy, directed by the great John Frankenheimer and written by The Omen scripter David Seltzer. It brought more quality to the genre than usual. Critics attacked it, but I enjoyed it.

Two beloved purveyors of schlock got involved. William Castle produced Bug in 1975, in which Joanna Miles’s head was set ablaze by fire-starting cockroaches on the set of the Brady house from The Brady Bunch, which had been canceled the year before. The king of movie gimmicks, Castle wanted to equip theater seats with little brushes that would scrape moviegoers’ legs to simulate the feeling of a bug crawling on them, but nobody would go along with that idea. Bert I. Gordon certainly wasn’t going to be excluded from a trend so ripe with schlocky potential. Known as Mr. BIG both for his initials and for his 1950s movies about giant people and giant bugs, Gordon holds the record for having more movies shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000 than any other producer-director. In 1976, Gordon directed Food of the Gods, in which former faith healer Marjoe Gortner went head-to-head with a giant cock (what is it with these evangelists?). The next year, he followed that with Empire of the Ants, featuring giant ants and an angry Joan Collins (I’m not sure which is scarier). Both movies were allegedly based on books by H.G. Wells, but the resemblance ended with the titles.

The award for the most popular crazy creature in the 1970s eco-horror movie fad goes to the humble bee, starting with the genuinely creepy 1974 TV movie Killer Bees starring Kate Jackson and Gloria Swanson. 1978 brought two more bee movies. The Bees was an ultra-cheapie starring John Saxon and John Carradine (both of whom have probably appeared in more bad movies than any other Johns in the history of cinema). Of course, The Bees was so cheap that one glance at it told you it was going to be bad. Really bad. The other bee movie that year was a different animal entirely. It was glossy and slick with big-studio cache and an all-star cast – and yet it almost makes The Bees look like a respectable effort. Disaster king Irwin Allen gathered together some big Hollywood names and threw bees at them in the fat-budgeted turd The Swarm. It starred – get comfortable because this will take a while – Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, Jose Ferrer, Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, Bradford Dillman, Fred MacMurray, Henry Fonda, Cameron Mitchell and a swarm of bees so powerful that it blows up buildings and knocks a train over a cliff. Michael Caine had to deliver groaners like, “That’s a complicated story. It begins years ago. But let’s skip that.” And my favorite, “We've been fighting a losing battle against the insects for fifteen years, but I never thought I'd see the final face-off in my lifetime. And I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees. They've always been our friend.” If you’ve never seen this movie, watch it as soon as you can. I promise you’ll swear it was made by Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker.

But I want to focus on one particular movie in this genre. Released in 1972, it was an early entry, but it stands out simply because it’s so ... well, unlikely. Mention the title in a group and you’ll get a lot of laughs as people remember it and discuss how absolutely awful it was. But I disagree. And so do they – if you press them a little, you’ll find they probably saw it as children and that they remember being frightened by it. It is by no means a great movie, but when you consider it in the context of the animals-gone-bad movies of the 1970s, you have to admit that it was different, even bold, and if you set aside its reputation long enough to take a serious look at it, you’ll probably see that it was better than it had any right to be. I am referring, of course, to the only movie ever made about giant man-eating bunny rabbits, Night of the Lepus.

Not many people are familiar with the novel upon which this movie is based. It was Russell Braddon’s 1964 Australian political satire The Year of the Angry Rabbit. No, you didn’t misread that – political satire. I’ve never read it, but as far as I can tell from what I’ve read about it, there are no giant rabbits in the novel. In fact, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the monster movie it became. The website Trash Fiction, which provides the following description:

“This is great fun, a wild political satire set in the late-1990s that spirals off into all sorts of odd directions. We start with the emergence of myxomatosis-resistant rabbits posing a potential threat to Australian farming. The government decides to research a more powerful virus to put an end to the problem once and for all, and the scientists come up with Supermyx. Unfortunately it doesn’t harm the rabbits, but is instantly fatal to humans. At which point the Aussie Prime Minister realizes he has the most powerful biological weapon ever on his hands, and quite reasonably decides that it’s time for his country to take over as the rulers of the whole world.”

Somehow, this became a story of biologists Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh trying to help a farmer get rid of a destructive horde of rabbits and inadvertantly turning them into giant bloodthirsty monsters. Imagine you’re director William F. Claxton and screenwriters Don Holliday and Gene R. Kearney and you’ve been given the job of making a horror film about giant killer rabbits. How would you approach it? How would you make such an idea work on the screen?

Claxton was a veteran director of movies and TV shows, mostly westerns. Kearney had written mostly for television, and Holliday had written nothing before Night of the Lepus and never wrote anything ever again. His IMDb entry contains no information at all. It’s almost as if he didn’t really exist. Maybe they made him up so they’d have someone to blame.

If Night of the Lepus were made today, I imagine it would be very self-conscious and jokey, filled with snark and probably more than a few references to “fucking like rabbits.” In fact, I’m kind of surprised the 1972 version wasn’t made that way. But Claxton, Holliday and Kearney did something that I think was kind of ballsy. They decided to play it straight. There are no gags, no smirking asides. Just giant rabbits, their screaming victims, and the people desperately trying to solve the problem.

The cast certainly was game. Stuart Whitman was a busy actor who’d been working for 20 years and had appeared in nearly a hundred movies and TV shows by the time he signed on to fight giant bunnies. Not all of those movies and TV shows were blue-ribbon projects, so a low-budget monster movie didn’t make him flinch. But Janet Leigh had been a big movie star in the studio system during the ‘40s and ‘50s. She once said of Night of the Lepus, "I've forgotten as much as I could about that picture." But she added that she’d agreed to do it only because it was close to her home in California and wouldn’t keep her away from her family for long. DeForest Kelly was on hand, too, in his final non-Star Trek performance. They remained straight-faced for the cameras, but I wonder how many times either of them said between takes, “You’re kidding, right?”

I’ve found that horror movie fans are among the most forgiving human beings on the face of the earth. All the Christians I’ve ever known could take a lesson in forgiveness from horror movie fans. If you love horror movies, the fact is you have to sit through a lot of garbage to find the good stuff. Given the nature of horror movies – where far too many people think it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be horror – the good stuff is rare and the garbage is overflowing. It’s kind of like panning for gold, except instead of water and sand and gravel, you’re mostly sifting through shit. This is one of the reasons I seldom watch horror movies anymore. The older I’ve gotten, the more aware I’ve become of the fact that life is short – too short to waste time sifting through shit. The genre exhausted me, and one day I decided I’d seen enough. When enough people whose opinions I trust tell me a new horror movie is good, I give it a look. Now I judge movies – all movies – by the same standard. When you’re a forgiving horror movie fan, the bar is set lower for horror movies than it is for movies outside the genre. It’s not uncommon to hear a horror movie fan say something like, “Well, it was a lot better than Friday the 13th 4.” When you judge all movies by the same standard across the board, you realize that hemorrhoid surgery is a lot better than Friday the 13th 4. But for the sake of this article, I am going to revert back to my old ways and do exactly that.

When you focus only on the fact that Night of the Lepus is about giant bloodthirsty man-eating rabbits, it’s pretty hard not to laugh your ass off. I mean ... rabbits? Bunny rabbits? Where’s the threat? Even if they were gigantic, it’s hard to imagine them doing anything but eating foliage and dropping pellets. It’s the idea of the movie that trips everyone up. It’s hard to get past the fact that it’s about giant killer bunnies. But if you can do that, you’ll see that it’s really not so bad after all. Not great by any means, but not the awful dreck so many claim it to be. It certainly wasn't as bad as much of the awful dreck released in that genre during the 1970s.

The special effects are pretty good. Rabbits storm through miniature sets, slowed down enough to give them weight and size. Occasionally, a guy in a rabbit suit is used, but very infrequently, and he’s never shown clearly enough to spoil the illusion. The movie was made with some care, with an occasional attempt to build tension. One of my favorite scenes shows a woman peering through a window curiously when she hears a strange sound. Outside, we see rabbits stampeding toward her, we see her horrified reaction, then they burst through the window and one of them attacks her, making her bleed 1970s movie blood, which was always too bright. There was an effort to generate suspense and fear in that scene. These guys took their story seriously and I think that seriousness translates well to the screen given the fact that it’s a low-budget drive-in “animals go batshit crazy” movie – if you can get past the idea of giant killer rabbits.

In movies of this kind, a trick often employed is to avoid giving the audience a good look at the monster until the climactic scenes. This has been a staple in movies with limited budgets and even in big-money movies like Jaws. But Claxton did not take this route. The rabbits are revealed early on. They aren’t a secret. While this may have been a miscalculation on Claxton’s part, I see it as a rather brave move. He seemed to think that people would either buy it or they wouldn’t, and had no desire to screw around with keeping the creatures from the audience as if they were too dumb to figure things out. So he said, Here they are, folks – take ‘em or leave ‘em.

MGM knew it had a very tricky movie on its hands. They suspected that if moviegoers knew it was about giant killer rabbits, it would become a joke before anyone saw it. So they tried to conceal that fact. It was played down in the trailer and there were no rabbits in the poster art. The original title was Rabbits, but somebody at MGM wisely nipped that in the bud. Night of the Lepus sounds much creepier and was much more effective because few people knew that “lepus” was Latin for “rabbit.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Night of the Lepus is a great movie. It’s not even a particularly good movie. While made with more care than one would expect in such a movie, it wasn’t enough. There are moments that could have been milked for suspense and tension but instead are passed by almost dismissively. There’s no conflict between the characters – everyone pretty much agrees they’re dealing with giant killer rabbits and they have to do something about it, and that’s it. And there are lines like this: "Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!" Night of the Lepus was absent at the Academy Awards that year, and its absence was eminently inconspicuous. You won’t find it on Roger Ebert’s list of great movies.

But I’ve always thought it’s gotten an undeserved reputation over the years. It’s often called “campy,” which it most definitely is not. There’s no camp in Night of the Lepus. The whole enterprise is approached with a straight face, with no wild overacting or tongue-in-cheek flourishes. It is the subject of much derision, while truly crappy fare like The Giant Spider Invasion and Irwin Allen’s godawful The Swarm are given a pass – mostly because, unlike our killer bunny movie, they have been completely and deservedly forgotten.

Night of the Lepus made the leap to television pretty quickly. After its theatrical release in 1972, it hopped directly to The CBS Late Movie, which is where I first saw it the following year. I spotted the movie in the TV listings, and while I didn’t know what the hell a lepus was, a whole night of them sounded interesting and possibly scary. I was a faithful viewer of The Tonight Show, but that night I switched over to CBS to give the movie a look. When I realized what was happening – that rabbits had grown to enormous size and were wreaking havoc across the countryside – I laughed. Out loud. Even at the age of 10. But I kept watching, and I got involved, and after a while, my grin dissolved and I was hooked, thinking, Holy shit, they’re serious ... and this is kinda scary. I loved the movie. Loved it! The next day, I wanted to talk about it with others who’d seen it, but I didn’t know anyone who’d seen it because all my fellow 10-year-olds were pussies who were in bed by nine. When I tried to describe the movie to them, they laughed. When I told them it actually had been scary at times, they laughed harder. I alone knew that I had seen something totally unique and wildly entertaining. Goofy, yes, no doubt. But unique and entertaining.

And that, I think, is the secret to the success of Night of the Lepus. Go ahead and roll your eyes if you want, but yes, I said success. It’s a success because we’re still talking about it 38 years later. Most of the other movies I mentioned – the yawnfest that was Frogs, the slapped-together turkey Grizzly, the silly and overblown Orca, the cinematic abominations The Giant Spider Invasion and The Bees, and that big-budget all-star shitstorm The Swarm – have faded into obscurity. But mention Night of the Lepus in almost any group and you will get an immediate and enthusiastic reaction. Everyone remembers it. How could they not? It’s the only movie ever made about giant man-eating bunny rabbits! And aside from the fact that, yes, it’s about giant man-eating bunny rabbits, it’s really not as bad as most people think.

It’s on DVD. Grab some carrots and a bowl of lettuce, pull up a nice comfortable pile of sawdust and give it a look. It’s not boring, it’ll make you smile, and it’s better than it has any right to be.