Rabbits produce two things in obscene quantities: other rabbits and rabbit pellets. Thankfully, the only thing that “the pre-Monty Python killer rabbit movie” Night of the Lepus begat was the filmic equivalent of the latter. Not unlike the dire, one-joke Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, only played ludicrously straight, William F. Claxton’s film is a radically dull riff on the nature-run-amok genre, utilizing what must’ve felt at the time like the only animal not yet exploited to scare audiences. But scares are exactly what the filmmakers didn’t get—not even with some early-’70s PG grue, multiple close-ups of giant bunnies’ tusk-like buck teeth, or Janet Leigh in that tweaky, full-on DT-shakes mode that came to characterize all of her latter-day horror performances.
The film takes place on a parched desert prairie that’s overrun by a plague of the fat lagomorpha, seriously pissing off a farmer who probably deserves all the grief coming to him, given that he was moronic enough to try to irrigate the desert in the first place. He recruits a committee of ivory-tower eggheads to come up with a solution, since rounding the herds up in fences and kicking them around only appears to spook the horses. Quicker than you can place bets on “playing God,” the scientists (Leigh and Stuart Whitman, in a “we nominated them for Oscars and this is how they repay the legacy” twofer) have 30 of the furballs sequestered in paper-lined cages with various pharmacological cocktails dripping down their slimy little throats.
Rabbits don’t have vocal cords, so Big Science can’t hear them scream. Luckily, the real God is a card-carrying PETA member, and with the help of His human incarnation on Earth (in the form we all feared He’d take: a very blond, very terrible little actress), a tainted bunny ends up back in the wild. Specifically in an underground network of caves, where it apparently busts his polluted nut in gallons—because not even so much as a day later there are mysterious human mutilations and an ominous rumbling from the hills. Vengeance has a new face, foolish humans, and it’s an absofuckinglute waste of time.
This Blu-ray release is derived from a 2K scan devoted to restoring as much color to and eliminating as much damage from the film’s negative. Especially impressive are the outdoor shots in the Arizona ranchlands, which are notable for their depth of field and extensive image detail. The film’s costumes benefit from the upgrade in color saturation, with Janet Leigh’s red sweater looking particularly striking. The DTS-HD track sounds balanced and forceful, booming Jimmie Haskell’s eerie score while keeping dialogue audible.
Rather than assembling a handful of extras that embrace the "so bad it’s good" mentality that often accompanies releases of camp classics, Shout! Factory has thankfully taken a different tack in the form of two historically minded commentaries, each of which contextualizes and discusses Night of the Lepus with a sobering intelligence. The commentary by author Lee Gambin is the highlight. Gambin situates the film within the subgenre of ecological horror, explaining how the opening news broadcast alludes to anxieties regarding overpopulation in both the American Southwest and Australia. Gambin is an authority on the topic, as his book Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film examines the social conditions that have informed films about animals attacking humans since the 1950s. Gambin makes reference to many other films as well, offering an informed and fascinating argument for Night of the Lepus as an integral piece of this lineage. Another commentary by pop-culture historian Russell Dyball explains the film’s production contexts and references archival interviews with the cast and crew, including Leigh’s growing realization that William F. Claxton didn’t have a handle on the film’s tone. Stay tuned for Dyball’s funny discussion of David Lynch’s 2002 web series Rabbits as well. Rounding out the disc are a still gallery, a TV spot, and the film’s theatrical trailer.
Shout! Factory pulls a rabbit out of its hat with this Blu-ray release of Night of the Lepus, which boasts a solid transfer and a pair of great commentaries.