Revisiting early things from childhood can be difficult, in part because you can't remember everything exactly as it was or what it even was. There are bits of media that stay stuck in my head where I search every now to try and sort out what the hell it came from. Many of these searches often take years until some specific, random thing is encountered and then bam, there it is. One of these such searches for me was Night of the Lepus, a horror film about giant killer rabbits from the 70s. Yes, giant killer rabbits.
As silly as this premise is, this film was really scary to me as a little kid. I couldn't remember what the movie was called or even what the plot was, but there were parts I could remember that stayed engrained. A black and white part with rabbits running loose outside all over the place. A mine shaft and someone being attacked by a giant rabbit inside a shed just outside it. A family hiding and shooting at rabbits inside their house. The giant rabbit holes. At some point, I started to think this was some kind of fever dream it was so absurd. Recently, I was dead set on sorting out what the hell this was. There can't be all that many movies about killer rabbits, and finally my searching led me to the answer, Night of the Lepus, a somewhat notorious film for being, supposedly, one of the worst films ever made. Now this I had to revisit.
I had my hopes up that this would be a so-bad-it's-good kind of film with a reputation as "one of the worst films ever made" and I was curious to see these scenes that were so "horrifying" to me as a little kid. As it turns out, Night of the Lepus, without the rabbit element, it about the most average 70s horror film I've ever seen. The acting isn't bad, nor good. It's standard for the time period, though may seem dry to a younger audience not used to the acting in older films. The special effects are also not bad for the time period. Some parts look goofy, but honestly, so do most horror films of this era in parts. Special effects...have come quite a long way.
Most disappointing to me is the plot is actually decently thought out for such a silly premise. It's not funny, it's actually interesting. We start off learning that this area is overpopulated by rabbits that are a hybrid of wild rabbits and pet rabbits that have gotten out that cannot be controlled because a few years back, the local town killed off all of the coyote in the area to protect livestock. One of these locals mentions while he now has no problems with coyotes, the rabbits are everywhere and have eaten out basically all of the vegetation on his land to the point his animals have nothing to really eat. There's a reference at some point in the movie that whatever took out the coyote also took out all of the deer, so the area has lost two major species to that local ecosystem. This sort of approach at attempting to deal with "problem" animals is still common to this day, and always leads to this sort of chain of events. And governments still typically side with the kill everything/poison the land/introduce something that's never been in this environment to combat the current problem type solution. Nearly all of these lead to more problems that are easily forseable, and the cycle keeps on going downward. In the rare cases situations like this "fix" problems, they're often so ridiculously expensive at the end of the day and can typically only be successful over a very tiny portion of land that these efforts are always terrible ideas. The locals in the film, now dealing with their rabbit infestation, are thinking of using poison to kill all the rabbits, which will take out a ton of birds, insects, etc. The townspeople want to anyway, because they want the rabbit problem over with fast. With little time to act, our lead enlists a biologist who uses natural means to try to dissuade unwanted animals from areas. But he's an expert in chiroptera, not lepus and there's no time to properly research anything.
With little time to work, the scientist attempts hormonal experiments to try to make the rabbits infertile, but that doesn't go well. He tries a serum next, but his dumb kid switches the bunnies in the experimental and control groups, then another dumb kid makes her release it in the wild. And so, the mutated rabbit is now out and the rabbits are multiply like, well, rabbits. This is probably the dumbest part of the plot, but everything before that is...actually things that happen in real life all the time. And to be honest, given how white nose syndrome spread across the USA, I suppose even the lab element isn't all that dumb. Humans are humans and do foolish things at times, just not thinking about it.
Now, to the rabbit. Giant rabbits. They used regular rabbits and use tricks to make them look big. Miniature sets like you'd see in Godzilla films, green screen, stuff like that. The miniatures are well done. The costumed humans in a couple of scenes are pretty funny, but there's rarely seen. It's mostly just shots of actual rabbits, often during attacks, coated in some very fake looking blood. The blood in the movie is a hilariously bad, but having seen plenty of bad horror films...not unusual. In attempts to go cheap, blood is often one of those things that ends up being what stands out looking the fakest. The stuff here sometimes can be a thin, near orange shade to a way too goopy, still too bright red. They really focus a lot on the rabbits' large teeth. It's hard to sell rabbits as scary, especially as most people are completely divorced from nature and have never had a wild animal, much less a scared rabbit bite them. "Classic" non-avian reptiles and big predators often have the opposite problem--movies can easily scare you with these, but in real life, they're not as likely to go after you as you'd think. I've been up close and personal with plenty of gators and crocs, snakes longer than my body, venomous snakes and all kind of spiders, near wild bears and mountain lions. Most of these are probably not going to attack you, and the bite a rabbit can leave on you can be pretty nasty. Rabbits are pets though, and with each generation, it seems people are less attuned to their place in the natural world. I doubt you could sell Cujo to today's audiences.
Rabbits are probably one of the hardest things to sell in a horror film. Donnie Darko's Frank is an example of it working, but we know it's a guy in a costume, not a real rabbit, and the mask is really what sells it. For the rabbits here to frighten adult audiences, no matter how realistically the movie may portray damage a giant, but otherwise mostly normal, rabbit could accomplish, and no matter how suspenseful and sciencey and serious it tries to be, it's just not going to work. Most people are only going to be frightened by rabbits in a film if they don't really resemble actually rabbits beyond a few rabbit-esque features. I do give them props for really commiting to the natural disaster element and all, but I'm not sure anyone can really make this premise work and sell it to a mass audience.
The movie is actually pretty suspenseful, but the rabbits themselves always deflate the suspense. You can't divorce in your head that the rabbits are really just normal sized rabbits made to look big on camera sitting around eating lettuce and leisuring. On the one hand, I do like that for once it's not a predator that's getting this treatment, but that makes it much harder to convince the audience of the need to be afraid. A grizzly can be threatening to me no matter its size, but I'm instinctively going to see a rabbit as a prey animal, one I myself should be able to catch and eat. One a dog could catch, or even a cat. I can't separate that in my brain, no matter how big or bloody you make the rabbit. It's a rabbit.
But what about young me? As a small child, I was frightened of a few of these scenes, even though I owned a rabbit and wasn't afraid of my own pet. I think back then the whole world seemed scarier. That's just how kids are. I was afraid goblins in the woods would get me, rugaroos would snatch me out of the car at night, thunderbirds and rocs would snatch me from the ground, and gremlins would eat my feet off. There was no real reason to be afraid, but I was scared of shadows just out of sight anyway. I think, looking back, the big factor is what made me afraid then, much like with the thunderbirds and rocs. I was terrified of Godzilla and fascinated by him all the same. The entire film Little Nemo scared the shit out of me from start to finish as a kid, especially the goblin creatures, as did the goblins in Labyrinth, both designed by Brian Froud. I became a huge fan of his by age ten. With so little knowledge about the world, I suppose it makes sense that little kids are afraid of so many random, stupid things. It's safer at that young age to be extra cautious. We grow out of these fears over time, for the most part. It's funny to look back and think I was once terrified of giant, cuddly rabbits attacking a man in a shed.
As an adult, no scene was frightening, but I'd say the closest it got to starting to be creepy were the scenes where the rabbits eat the escaping horses and when the men are first trying to find the rabbits in the mine and one rabbit is sneaking outside at the same time. These are the best the film has to offer in the scare department, but they're still not really scary. However, as a natural disaster suspense film, the movie isn't that bad. It's average, and in some ways, more nuanced than most. I brought up Godzilla earlier, and I think comparing the first film and this film is appropriate. They're both about giant creatures rampaging around, being a walking natural disaster for the area, due entirely in part to the actions of humans. Godzilla is certainly the better film, especially the original Japanese version, but Night of the Lepus is far from the worst film of all time. I've seen some absolute god awful shit in my life. This isn't remotely close to the bottom of the barrel. I'd say if the animal were changed to literally any other animal, it'd probably either be better remembered as frightening or already entirely forgotten, depending on what animal was chosen.
The climax of the film is a big military, police, civilian vs rabbit showdown via a plan devised by the biologist. Basically, they lead the big rabbits to a train track, and use gunfire and bright lights to push the rabbits to the electrified tracks and kill them that way. This ends the giant rabbit problem, and we hear afterwards that the coyote and deer have returned, the grass is growing back, and the rabbits, normal sized of course, are also still there. As they should be, since in the right amounts, they are not harmful to their ecosystem. They're supposed to be there. So I like that while they did have to put down all the mutated rabbits, they didn't destroy all the "pest" rabbits in the area. They were only pests to start with because their population got of control from the disruption of their ecosystem when the coyote and deer were gone. Several characters repeat that there is a balance in nature, and that harsh solutions like killing all of one thing rapidly usually cause more harm than good. This whole problem with the rabbits could've been avoided if they came up with a different way to deal with the coyote to start with. (And also if the scientist had practiced better lab safety by not letting his kid wander around unsupervised in a lab!) I can think of so many examples of things like this happening, right now, in real life. And it'll keep happening because better solutions typically involve time and good planning and most people in charge of these sort of things only care about speed and if there's an easy product/company to outsource the problem to, which usually involves just killing tons of things needlessly. And often begins with introducing something that shouldn't be there, then introducing something else that shouldn't be there to try to kill it, then introducing something to try to kill that, and so on.
Overall, it's an average film with average effects and average acting for the era. The plot, on paper, is a little above average, but the choice of animal makes it unable to ever really land well.
5/5 Nice eerie 70s music to vibe to, LOL. I actually liked the music.
4/5 Decently done in quite a few scenes, but just can't deal with its own rabbit problem weighing it down.
3/5 A little more science and environmentally based than most, but nothing special.
3/5 Standard fair for the time. Not the greatest, certainly not the worst.
3/5 Some really good miniatures, decent light effects and okay green screening, terrible fake blood, and some hilariously bad costume work.
1/5 It's just too hard to make regular looking rabbits scary.
3/5 Average as it comes.
I started to wonder why this movie has such a reputation as one of the worst films ever bad. Aside from the rabbit element, it's just well, generically average. Is some other reason for the reputation? Is it the overt environmentalism? Is it that most people claiming this haven't actually seen the film and are just repeating someone else's opinions? Who knows. I had gone in expecting something to be hilariously bad, but it was more entertaining as a disaster film than I expected. It's no gem, and I wouldn't likely seek this out often, but it's alright and the bunnies are funny at times. If you like old horror films, this is a fun little movie to check out once. Bad in ways that are fun to laugh at, but there is some meat in there to hold you through when the laughs end. Certainly not worth being a repeat in your movie list. Maybe best to save it for Easter. And of course, you can get a big laugh out of child me being terrified of big bunnies!