Saturday, August 12, 2006

Night of the Lepus

Ok, kids, it's bad movie time again. I finally got around to watching the legendary killer-bunny movie Night of the Lepus the other night. And ohhhh, it's as bad as they all said it would be. I mentioned the movie once already, in this post, which is mostly about endangered rabbits, etc.

If you google for the movie, you'll find dozens upon dozens of bad-movie sites praising and/or making fun of the movie (it's basically the same thing), since the film is actually quite famous if you move in the right circles.

If you want a really short plot synopsis, it seems that fluffy lil' bunnies are eating the local ranchers out of house & home, so a couple of scientists from State U. are called in. They try some sort of hormone thing to disrupt the rabbit breeding cycle, but it goes horribly wrong, and the rabits grow to 150 lbs. and become carnivorous. They maraud around for a while and terrorize the locals, until the authorities herd them on to a stretch of electrified railroad track. Bzzzt. The end. If you want a more detailed plot synopsis, you can't go wrong with the long, funny piece at The Agony Booth.

Other worthwhile reviews & comments at
Unlike a lot of the reviewers, I don't think the plague-of-cute-animals environmental disaster story is inherently awful. Offhand I can't think of a 70's B movie that pulled it off, but look at The Trouble with Tribbles, or the 1988 documentary Cane Toads (which I highly recommend). If you're making a movie like this, your goal has to be to make something even more compelling and scary than either a documentary about the same subject, or a serious film that sticks close to the true facts of the matter would be. That's harder than you might think. A plague of bunnies, or frogs, or locusts, or whatever, certainly spells economic and ecological disaster, but the creatures themselves don't represent an immediate threat to life and limb in the classic monster movie way.

Lepus tries to up the stakes by making the bunnies huge and carnivorous. If the filmmakers had come up with a way of making them even slightly menacing on screen, this might have worked. But sadly, the film's rabbits are so cuuuuute and cuddly, you want them to sit in your lap and eat carrots out of your hand, even when they're supposedly leaping off cliffs and devouring full-grown cows and horses. Tribbles works because it doesn't try to make the beasties scary. They're adorable, fuzzy, and nonthreatening, but they just keep multiplying at an incredible rate and nobody can muster the will to do anything about it because they're all so damn cute and fuzzy-wuzzy. I'm not going to bash the movie too much for not having scary rabbits, because I'm not sure scary rabbits are possible, no matter how much money you've got. Peter Jackson and a billion dollars worth of CG couldn't make rabbits scary.

Although to make matters worse, Lepus has fluffy little bunnies, not even wild jackrabbits or anything, and shooting them in slow motion next to model train sets doesn't even make them look big, much less frightening. There are a few quick shots with (apparently) people in bunny suits, too. If you blink you'll miss 'em, which may be a curse or a blessing. I actually felt cheated. I mean, if you're making a bad movie, take it and run with it, don't be shy. Although I kind of doubt people in bunny suits can ever be scary either. And yes, I've seen Donnie Darko, at the behest of various indie-film-geek friends. Sorry. Not impressed. Yes, there's also the killer bunny in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but it's not exactly scary-looking, as such, and all you need is one Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, and poof, problem solved.

The rabbits aren't the film's only problems. You find yourself rooting for the rabbits because none of the human stars are very likable. Most of the time you can barely tell them apart, with the possible exception of a mustachioed DeForest Kelley as a dynamite-totin' university president -- and I'm sorry, but he really needs a Shatner to play off of. I'm sure there's got to be a whole genre of Bones McCoy-themed fan fiction out there, but I'm also sure it's not the largest fanfic genre by any means. By the same token, Shatner needs Kelley too, or he's sunk too. Ever seen his western, "White Comanche"? He plays half-breed twins, one good, one evil, where the good twin embraces his white half, and the evil twin has gone all movie-Indian savage, peyote and all. I could swear I've written about this movie before, but apparently I haven't.

Anyway, there are a few nice, corny B-movie lines, but the acting's generally pretty drab, Kelley included. It doesn't help that most of the actors are seriously getting on in years, again, Kelley included. Would it have really killed anyone to add, say, a buff 20-something grad student and his miniskirted hippie-chick girlfriend? They could be the voices of reason, expressing doubts about messing around with nature and all that, another thing the movie seriously needed. Also, lose the kids. Kids in monster movies are annoying, unless they're there as monster chow, which is rarer than it ought to be.

The movie actually throws all sorts of people on the screen who by all rights ought to be bunny treats, just by the conventions of the genre. Among the film's many lab-coated scientists, there's a black guy and a guy in a wheelchair, and neither get eaten. A family passes through the area in a car, refusing to pick up one of our main characters as he tries to hitchhike by waving a rifle in the air(!). They find the now-abandoned town where the rabbits have just been marauding, while searching for gas, or a hot meal, or something. They don't get eaten either. At the movie's climax, the authorities order everyone at a nearby drive-in theater to help out by forming a line of cars, using the cars' headlights to scare the bunnies onto the electrified railroad tracks, while at the same time the national guard sprays the area with machine gun fire, and I think flamethrowers too. They don't lose a single soldier or drive-in teenager in the process, which makes no sense. It's a monster movie -- if you're a soldier or a teenager in a monster movie, getting eaten or otherwise mauled by the film's uncanny beasties is what you're for, fer cryin' out loud. As far as movie monsters go, the rabbits are really falling down on the job here.

The fact that the film's filled with movie has-beens is actually kind of interesting. Maybe it's useful to think of this movie as a transitional phase as the classic monster movie evolved into the classic 70's disaster movie. Even washed-up movie stars from decades past can be a plus at the box office, at least compared to the character actors and complete unknowns you usually get in 50's-60's monster flicks. Sometimes they can even act. What's more, Lepus is an MGM film, made during the final death throes of the classic studio system, so it's possible they were stuck with all these has-beens on long term contracts anyway, and they & the studio all rode off into the sunset together making movies like this. Hey, it's a theory. For some reason, the filmmakers also thought they ought to toss in some gore. "Gore" in this movie means people lying around without a scratch on them, splashed with an odd red-orange substance that I guess is supposed to be blood, but which looks much more like tempera paint, or possibly carrot juice. I don't really understand the decision to add the gore, except that that's what everyone was doing back in the 70's, now that there was no longer a Code to prevent it. Maybe we can chalk this one up as an early, naive example of movie gore, from way back before anyone knew what actual blood looked like in real life. Maybe that's it. But I still don't know why they bothered.

The real star of the movie has to be the sound guy, desperately trying to make the movie scary in postproduction. We get all sorts of growling and snarling wild animal noises whenever the rabbits are near, and someone's forever noodling away on a timpani, desperately trying to create feelings of tension and dread. The timpani player probably gave himself a repetitive strain injury, and for what? The movie just isn't scary. But the sound guy still gets a gold star for effort. It's not his fault he was given a supremely crappy movie to fix.

If you liked Lepus, you're bound to love Frogs, another early-70's eco-monster movie. Rich family lives in the swamp, has been dumping toxins into the swamp and otherwise being mean to the wildlife, and now it's payback time, and the people are offed one by one. As with bunnies, there's no plausible way for an ordinary frog to harm a human being, so when they do in Ray Milland (!) at the end all you see are tons of frogs hopping around his mansion, and one hops onto his record player, stopping it, and then the lights go out, and there's (I think) the sound of breaking glass, and a scream, the end. Killer frogs aren't the only attraction here -- we also get to see someone smothered to death by falling spiderwebs and assorted motionless rubber insects. I've forgotten how nature gets revenge on the others, but I seem to recall it was similarly "inventive".

I guess I could be spending my time watching actual good movies, but where's the fun in that? If I'm going to be bored silly, I'd rather be bored by a stupid B movie than a pretentious art film. At least this way I can't be accused of not comprehending the manifold subtleties of the auteur's vision, because it's pretty obvious that in Lepus, there's no auteur, no vision, and no subtleties. At least, no subtleties that I'm aware of, anyway.

1 comment :

Unknown said...

That is the best movie in the freakin' whole world!!!