Night of the Lepus (Latin for "guy in a rabbit costume") is one of those movies you see only on Easter night. Long after the L-tryptophan from all that turkey has worn off and Charlton Heston has freed the Israelites from the evil clutches of Yul Brynner, you just might catch an overly serious newsroom narrator in a gnarly crimson suit coat intoning, "The world within the last few years has become more and more aware of the population explosion." You've found it! Sit back and relax, because you're about to witness the funniest rabbits since Sir Robin wet himself twice outside the Cave of Kyre Bannor.
The film opens in a familiar style (a la The Deadly Mantis and Empire of the Ants) with a narrator giving us background which will help set us up for the horror to follow. In this case, stock footage is shown of a rabbit round-up in Australia in the 1950s, where populations overran vast areas, "destroying crops and threatening Man's very existence."
"Does Man have the right to defend himself from this menace?" he asks us knowingly, "And if so, how?" We are left to ponder these deep questions as the stock footage shifts to the American southwest (and into color), where another rabbit round-up is underway. But these aren't the wild, mangy, hares of the Australian Outback, these are wild, mangy hares of Arizona, which switch quickly to fat, pet store bunnies in freeze frame as our title comes up on the screen.
Rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) seems to have a problem. He's galloping his horse through open range with what are apparently huge anthills spread about. Carefully he points his trusty steed between two of them until, "Breeeeheeeheee," the horse goes down. Rancher Cole, surrounded by normal-sized pet store rabbits, feels the horse's leg and lets out a groan. Then he pulls out a rifle from his saddle, aims, and has to walk the mile back to his home carrying the rifle on his shoulder. When he arrives, his nameless son (hereafter known as "Boy") asks "Where's Ranger?" Rancher Cole sends a farmhand out to retrieve his saddle from Ranger who has suddenly died of lead poisoning and picks up the phone. Rancher Cole has had enough.
"Mildred," he tells the operator with whom he is on a first-name basis, "Get me Doctor McCoy at the university." Actually, he asks for Dr. Elgin Clark, but in the next scene, he's walking at the University talking to Dr. McCoy (DeForrest Kelley) from Star Trek about how to get rid of the rabbits. McCoy offers the services of a local professor, but Cole is having none of that...apparently that guy killed off Cole's coyotes so well that the rabbits have no natural enemies left, which accounts for their profitable hole-digging business at Cole's Ranch. But luckily, there's an exchange professor in town who's trying to control things rather than poisoning the heck out of them. This exchange professor has a wife and an annoying child. That's just what this movie needs.
The wife is Dr. Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh), and Annoying Child (or AC) is their precocious and impish daughter, Amanda (Melanie Fullerton). The man fortunate enough to head such a family is Dr. Ray Bennett (Stuart Whitman), who is at present outside the BatCave, putting bats in a box and shaking it so he can record "The Cry of Fear" on his tape recorder. He's such a serious scientist that he doesn't even go down to meet the man that Annoying Child calls "Uncle Elgin" (but we know as Dr. McCoy). Instead, he shakes the box again and attempts to record the bats. I guess some things just can't be done in a place like, say, a quiet laboratory. Without so much as a "Hello" to Dr. McCoy, he informs us that he's going to use the bat's cry to scare them into areas which are overrun with mosquitoes. McCoy tells Doctor Ray about Cole's problem and about how he was a great football player in the 1940s, which induces our fearsome threesome to visit Cole's ranch. A rabbit hunt is underway, but long gone are the mangy, wild rabbits from our intro. These are fat, black and white pet rabbits, and Annoying Child hides her face from the spectacle and announces, "Mommy! I like rabbits, Mommy!" as if we expected anything else from a 9-year old who aspires to be a harpy biologist like good old mom.
More stock footage is shown of mangy, wild rabbits being caught in nets and put in cages, and Ray picks a fat, happy bunny out of one of them while remarking that this is no ordinary rodent. Cole relates how a neighbor used to raise domestic rabbits, but during a fire a couple hundred got away and mixed in with the local population. This explains why any time we see a rabbit from here on out, they are of the pet store variety (or a guy in a rabbit suit). "So they're mongrels," Dr. Gerry informs those who slept though genetics in 6th grade science class. Thanks, Doc.
After returning to the lab with two dozen rabbits, Annoying Child introduces us to the concept of the control group. Ray has a new serum from some Dr. Dirkson, which he magically knows the rabbits have never been exposed to. "I wish I knew what the effects of this serum would be" (you might try it...I always thought that the purpose of testing was to find out what those effects would be), but after injecting the serum into Annoying Child's favorite bunny, AC switches the rabbit into the control group, so apparently we're going to have to find out what the effects are the hard way.
Soon AC, in a fit of lacrimation, induces her parents to let her keep one rabbit, which not surprisingly is the same rabbit which has just been injected with the mystery serum. Upon returning to Rancher Cole's, Boy struggles with AC (rabbits killed his chickens, and he hates ‘em), and the rabbit escapes down a hole, so we are off to the races. Meanwhile Rancher Cole establishes himself as our Environmental Hero, because he burns the ground between his ranch and the neighboring ranches to "starve ‘em out natural," much to the chagrin of his Environmental Villain neighbors who still say poison is the way to go. In this case, they're right.
Cut forward an indeterminate amount of time, and Cole and the two doctors make a startling discovery. Near a pond there is a footprint, bigger than Cole's hand, with five elongated claws like a bear's. Could be a mountain lion, but Cole hasn't seen one of them around in years. Whatever could it be? Meanwhile, Annoying Child and Boy are riding some ponies up to see Captain Billy, an unsuccessful gold miner who lives alone in a shack nearby. Upon not finding the Captain in his house (maybe the miner is in the mine?), Boy sends AC into the cave by herself to find him while he looks inside the same shack he already looked inside. He discovers more prints in some overturned flour. Now, while sending a nine-year-old girl alone into an old gold mine might seem dangerous, it's actually an opportunity to introduce our villains, and AC finds the body of Captain Billy, gets the snot scared out of her by pet store bunnies of indeterminate size (watch for the ripe red pin tomatoes on the ground near one of them...if these were real big rabbits, these would be tomatoes a foot across -- how do they grow inside a gold mine?), and awakens at home in a delirious fever. As I said, these are no ordinary rodents.
Dr. Gerry, snappily dressed in an early 1970s acid trip shirt with wavy gray and brown lines all over it, assures us that there is really something in that shaft ("Well, something scared her half to death"). Boy, who lied earlier about asking permission to go to the mine, now lies again by saying that he was in the mine shaft when he heard her scream and that he first saw her coming out of the shaft (how he managed to do both simultaneously is not really explored). In reality, he went into the cave while she was in there, and we can only assume they left together. But hey, what's a lie (or poor scriptwriting) between friends, since nothing ever comes of it?
Now the fun begins. It's nighttime, and a man in a refrigerated produce truck is driving on an unlit road in the middle of nowhere. Though it's cold enough outside that we can see his breath, for some reason he pulls off to the side of the road to check the thermostat in the back of the truck. Apparently he's concerned that the produce might be too cold or something, so he puts on his hazard lights and goes around to open the back door. One second to shine his flashlight into the back, and he's completed his task, but then he hears the somethings that Gerry has convinced us exist. Shots of rabbits, close up, shots of rabbits far away, man looks into the dark but for some reason the light is shining on his face, so bright that we can see his shadow on the truck. Rabbit. Man. Rabbit. Jump. Aaaahh! If you stop your truck in the middle of nowhere for no reason, you're rabbit chow.
It's the next day, and a mustachioed Deputy Sheriff is driving by. He stops to examine the truck. Hazards are still flashing, and the flashlight is still bright (where can I get batteries like that?), but the produce is all gone. Finding pieces of the man's shirt and then pieces of the man, he calls Sheriff Cody (Paul Fix), but apparently the news that you have a dead body by a truck can't be disclosed over the police radio, because the sheriff asks, "Now what's so urgent?" as soon as he arrives. While they are examining the body, a phone call (yes, they have a telephone in the car) comes in. I guess the folks at the ranch have finally decided to tell someone about dead Captain Billy after all.
Later, back at the lab, Dr. Leopold is explaining to Sheriff Cody that the tin cans and boxes that they recovered were not chopped with an axe but were bitten through "slowly and with great strength" and that saliva was found on the victim and the assembled accoutrements from the site. Sheriff Cody even looks through a microscope (apparently, he's an expert on saliva), and we get a one-second shot of something that looks vaguely scientific. Then he backs away from it. He's obviously impressed and wonders out loud if vampires could have created all this commotion -- vampires that haul off truckloads of lettuce, I guess. We switch to an unnamed deputy calling in that a family of four has been horribly mutilated. I guess he's free to disclose the fact over the radio, so mustachioed deputy must be on radio probation or something.
We go back to a different lab, where a doctor in a wheelchair (and expert on birth defects) is explaining how giant rabbits could have come from a single one getting loose. He does not bother to inform us how hundreds of them could have grown to full size without either eating or being seen, nor why they chose the previous night to begin their murderous rampage. Gerry (still dressed in her acid trip shirt) suggests that Sheriff Cody be brought in but is overruled by McCoy and Ray. Apparently the facts that at least six people are dead and he's looking for vampires does not concern our heroes enough to actually bring in the firepower. They've got more important things to worry about, like the university's reputation, so they get Cole, his buddies, and some leftover dynamite they got at 7-11 for a trip up to Captain Billy's playground to see if they can solve the problem themselves. They can't.
The fearsome threesome apparently travels the globe in a lime green pickup with a camper on the back (this becomes important later), and they reach the mine with Cole, McCoy, and some others (but without AC), only to discover that the monstrous rabbits have opened up three holes in the area above the mine, where McCoy and an unnamed voyager are to set up dynamite. McCoy drops a rock into the hole (after we view the same frothy-mouthed, turning-away bunny that we've seen three times already), and asks Ray if he can hear the bongo music played by the rabbits over the CB, which he is holding down into the hole. Apparently, these are special magic CBs which allow people on both ends to talk and listen simultaneously, because we continue to hear the rabbits from McCoy's CB as Ray tells McCoy he's going in to try to take one out alive. "Whatever is in there is a mystery," he reports. And since he is a man of mystery, it's his job to solve it before he buries them forever. I guess he forgot that mine shafts can go into the mountain for miles, might have several exits, and even if they plug them up, rabbits can dig their way out, as evidenced by the three holes above. Either way, he and Cole take flashlight, camera, and a rifle into the cave entrance to solve the mystery of the Easter Bunnies from Hell.
The rabbits, understanding their impending doom (hahaha) have moved about a half mile into the cave, which should tell Ray and Cole that dynamite blown up at the entrance is unlikely to kill them, but apparently they overestimate the power of the stuff.
Finally, we get to see rabbits and humans in the same frame. The way it's done is by filming two sequences, one of humans on the left side of the screen and one of rabbits on the right side, and splicing the parts together. In this scene it's done well...in others, well, let's just say the rabbits are inconsistently proportional at times. Anyway, now that we've photographed them, it's time for the "run away" scene, where Cole and Ray make their way back to the mouth, only to have Cole get jumped on by a guy in a rabbit suit. Ray uses the rifle not as a gun but as a bat (he's quite the sportsman), and the rabbit grabs its head with its very human arm and falls off the uninjured Cole.
Not remaining uninjured is Jed, who's hanging out with Dr. Gerry outside the mine. He wanders into Captain Billy's former residence, while, outside, a light brown velveteen rabbit digs its way out of the ground (it's actually just buried in the loose dirt and sits up). Inside, Jed is jumped on by a guy in a dark brown rabbit suit made of shag carpet, and Gerri runs in and shoots the bugger. Jed, covered in blood, comes out of the shack just as Cole and Ray exit the mine and it blows up. They all watch the dust fly, and no one asks why he looks like he just lost Hell in a Cell.
Back at the lab, the doctors are poring over the photograph of the rabbits in the cave, apparently forgetting Gerri killed a real one in Captain Billy's shack. Being more afraid of the press than the rapacious residents of the warren of death, Gerry and Annoying Child decide it's time to head for the lodge in the lime green pickup.
It nighttime again, and all the dead rabbits are on the prowl. Climbing gingerly out of their faux grave, the bongo music starts up again, and we see them galloping past model houses toward Cole's real house, and his horses don't like it one bit. Over the protests of Cole, they break out of their corral and run away into an open plain where there is sunlight shining. The rabbits, still in a time zone where it is dark, approach the top of the cliff. The horses, in the middle of a valley bereft of cliffs but full of sunlight, are still running. Then the rabbits jump, and a guy in a rabbit suit lands on a screaming horse. Jed, apparently recovered from his beating, decides it's time to play "guy who gets scared by the dark and runs away in a panic." Haven't seen many of these movies, have we, Jed? He jumps in the truck and drives off, while Cole goes in to call Mildred, who runs a glass-fronted general store in addition to being the phone operator. Jed sees a bunch of rabbits, so he hauls back to the ranch and hits the telephone pole (yeah, never saw that coming), jumps out of the truck, and in a scene usually reserved for the heroine, trips over the only board in sight as the rabbits close in. Here we can see perfectly how the rabbits and human scenes are spliced together. If you look at the sky you can see that it's day on the left side of the sky, night on the right, and there's a straight line separating them. Anyway, the rabbits leap into nighttime and attack Jed.
Due to improper matting, the rabbits are now as tall as the truck and have parts of the fencing sticking through them, but with the help of the guy in the shag suit, they finish off Jed while Cole and his family hunker down in the basement. The bunnies run across some Astroturf (the only green grass in the whole movie) to rummage through his kitchen while he shoots them from underneath. The rabbits decide it's time to kill Mildred instead, so they retreat across the Astroturf.
Mildred is unsuccessful in getting her checkers-playing husband and his buddy to run up to see why Cole's phone call was cut short, and they leave her to her death. Once they are gone, taking the only truck in sight (maybe she flies home?), the rabbits arrive. Smartly locking the glass door for protection, Mildred stands in front of it and waits, making scared faces by bulging her eyes out. Checker-buddy is also toast, due to the fact that he takes a full 45 seconds and five backward glances to walk the ten feet from the gate to his house. Once the bunnies arrive, he picks up a chair and hits one, then gets blasted through the front window. Ahhh, home sweet home.
It's morning, and time for Dr. Gerri and Annoying Child to head for the lodge. At the first turn-off, she gets stuck in the sand. We'll be back to her in ten hours or so. Meanwhile Sheriff Cody arrives from the crime lab, and he knows the problem is rabbits, so let's jump in the police helicopter and go for a look-see at all the dead ones from yesterday's Fourth of July celebration. McCoy and Ray tag along. Once they reach the mine they find that the rabbits aren't dead but have re-dug the same holes. McCoy drops a rock into the hole, hears a thud, and deduces that the rabbits have gone. But where?
Cole is hiking into town and discovers Mildred's body in the General Store, along with about 20 rabbits, which is supposed to represent all of them, I guess. Tossing his rifle away, he hitches a ride with a friendly priest and joins the others for the final Heroes' Death Battle with the furry firebrands. It's night again (apparently we went the whole day without actually doing anything), and now there are hundreds of rabbits approaching the city (which is being evacuated) on a front two miles wide. How hundreds of eight foot rabbits could have hidden out all day long in a 30x30 foot General Store is beyond me, but the National Guard is coming, and Doctor Ray has an idea. Electrify the railroad tracks and shock and awe them to death, of course. The rabbits are spending the early evening crossing bridges, playing the bongos, and jumping off cliffs. They even manage to catch a herd of cattle (stampeding across the plains in broad daylight), drag them into the darkness, and kill them. But where is Gerry? Why hasn't she called? Annoying Child informs us, once again, of how scared she is.
Now, how do you funnel hundreds of giant killer rabbits into your half mile of electric railroad tracks? Of course! With lots of cars! Just because we've evacuated the town doesn't mean that hundreds of people won't be enjoying a Tom and Jerry cartoon at the drive-in, so a deputy easily convinces the moviegoers that they should turn on their lights and follow him to save the town. They line the cars up to wait for the horde.
Since Ray hasn't heard from Gerry yet, he jumps into the chopper with Sheriff Cody's sidearm and heads up to the lodge. Gerry, who has been digging in the sand since morning, has still not freed the lime green truck o' death, but she does have a hole about eight feet deep behind the back tire. It's dark now, and the rabbits are coming.
Now it's time to break out the highway flares. Obviously, Gerry has seen Empire of the Ants and knows that no matter the odds, all giant monsters can be held off with highway flares, so she locks Annoying Child in the back of the truck and rather than joining her in a safe, aluminum cocoon, stands at the back of the truck to do single combat with the furry mischief makers. Annoying Child, her head in the window, cries out, "Mommy! Mommy! Look out, Mommy! Oh, Mommy, I'm scared!" until I was ready to yank open the camper door and toss her to the beasts myself.
We switch quickly between Doctor Gerri in front of a full-size truck with two windows in the camper to a model truck with only one window, surrounded by rabbits as big as it is. Gerri, running side to side holding the flares in front of her, manages to ignite a dead rabbit on a string (where's the ASPCA when you need them?), and Ray arrives just in time with the chopper to scare the saber-toothed monsters away. Now we're set for the final showdown.
Imagine it, if you will. There's a line of cars to the east and one to the west. The track has been electrified, and here come the rabbits, right for it. The National Guard, McCoy, Ray, and Cole have their guns out, and as soon as the rabbits arrive, they begin firing, oblivious to the lines of cars right behind the rabbits. As the rabbits jump across the model train tracks, they panic and flounder, but it's too late for them. Sparks, fire, and the stench of burnt rabbit fur fills the air. The killer rabbits are defeated.
Jump forward an indeterminate period of time, and Dr. Ray is playing football, apparently at the college, when a happy Rancher Cole shows up. He's pleased because there's a new pack of coyotes in the hills. "Any sign of rabbits?" Ray asks. "A couple," laughs Cole, "but they're nothing like they used to be, hahahaha."
Scene to watch for: The Drive-in. During a Tom and Jerry cartoon, a trooper announces over his loudspeaker, "Your attention please. A herd of killer rabbits is headed this way. Everyone turn on your headlights and follow the police car at the entrance of the theater." Like all loyal citizens, they do.
Best line: Rancher Cole sticks his hand into the cage to pull out a bunny but jerks his hand back and says "Ow!" "What happened?" Dr. Gerry asks. "A rabbit bit me," Cole informs us. Ummmm, duh?
Things that make you go "Huh?": The film begins recalling the woes created by Man when he introduced rabbits into an environment where they did not exist previously. So why is it that the first thing Doctor Ray is doing is planning to introduce bats into an area where they do not exist? This guy's our hero?