There’s a very strange inner conflict at work in the drive-in schlock classic Night of the Lepus. The film (also known as Rabbits) can’t decide if it wants to be a hip & trippy update to the sci-fi monster movie format (like its contemporary Phase IV) or if it wants to be a tragically square Rory Calhoun Western. The strange middle ground it finds between those two aesthetics is what partly makes it such a bizarre viewing experience. Well, that and the thousands of gigantic, murderous rabbits that plague the small ranching town it’s set in. Yes, Night of Lepus is a horror film about killer bunnies and there’s just as much tension between whether those bunnies are cute or terrifying as there is between the film’s dueling hip & square tones.
Posed initially as an allegory for over-population, Night of the Lepus immediately muddles its message with some musings on pesticides and reckless scientific research, to the point where no specific intent really holds water for the film. Here’s all you really need to know: a towheaded Rhoda Penmark-type accidentally introduces a chemical into the natural environment that causes thousands of wild rabbits to mutate into gigantic, bloodthirsty monsters. The most amusing part about this mutation is that the movie can’t decide exactly how large they are. The rabbits’ exact dimensions vary from shot to shot depending on the technique used to make them appear abnormally large. A lot of the film shows ordinary, cute-as-a-button bunny rabbits trampling all over an even cuter miniature of a small Western town but in other shots it’s grown adults in bunny rabbit suits tackling and swiping at the terrified citizens. This combination of effects is disorienting as well as alternatingly hilarious and terrifying. To the movie’s credit, they do find a way to make close ups of the bunnies’ blood-soaked teeth & paws genuinely disturbing, even if other scenes are just herds of adorable bunnies hopping across miniature sets.
Speaking of blood, the rabbit attacks in Night of the Lepus are surprisingly gruesome. The bright red acrylic that apparently everyone out West bleeds is splattered all over the film, sometimes during attacks, but mostly on the mangled corpses that the bunnies leave in their wake. This striking affinity for gore combined with weird nighttime shots of rabbits menacingly hopping to strange sounds, heavy breathing, and animal roars suggests a very strange atmosphere that the rest of the film just has no interest in keeping up. Janet “Psycho” Leigh, Rory Calhoun, and a dude that looks awfully similar to Rory Calhoun all play the material straight, like the rabbit attacks are just part of a particularly bizarre episode of Bonanza. Only the Rhoda Penmark stand-in, who of course feels no remorse for causing the deaths of hundreds of innocent people (and rabbits), gets in frequent laughs with her outrageously oblivious dialogue.
For the most part, Night of the Lepus is entertaining more in its indecision than its dialogue. Is this a Western or a monster movie? Is it more influenced by John Wayne or marijuana-smoking hippies? How large are the rabbits, exactly? Are they cute or terrifying? The answer to all these questions, confusingly, is a simple yes. Night of the Lepus is a lot of things all at the same time: both generic & bizarre, both adorable & nightmarish, both super cool & super lame. These inner conflicts are partly what makes it such a fascinatingly re-watchable cult classic. Well, that and the gigantic, murderous rabbits.