Friday, January 4, 2013

Night of the Lepus (1972) dir. William F. Claxton

Logline: A husband and wife research team begin injecting rabbits with all sorts of untested serums in order to discover a solution for their rapid breeding and large population, which is threatening to eliminate the crops of multiple ranches in a remote Arizona town. When one of the injected and quickly mutating rabbits is accidentally set free into the wild, it's not long before caravans of gigantic, carnivorous bunnies descend upon the town and begin chewing apart the townsfolk.

Animal of Choice: mutant bunny rabbits, "as big as wolves and just as ferocious."

Thinking Ecologically: Before devolving into unthinking bunny slaughter in its second two thirds, Night of the Lepus tries its hand at some ecological themes. Not long after the ranchers of an Arizona town banded together to wipe out the large coyote population plaguing them, an ever larger population of rabbits began to crop up, threatening the community's mutual livelihood by consuming the bulk of their produce. The obvious lesson here, which many of the townsfolk who'd prefer to simply poison the rabbits with cyanide and be done with it clearly have failed to grasp, is that the integrity of an ecosystem depends on the continued existence of all of those species who inhabit it. Killing off one pest is only going to allow that pest's natural prey to flourish and, more than likely, pester you.

Fortunately (or, considering the consequences, unfortunately), a local rancher (Rory Calhoun) enlists the assistance of a married research team (Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh) to avoid poisoning the land (and hence destroying the ecosystem in toto) by developing a hormone that can be injected into the local rabbit population and either halt reproductive processes or cause isolated death. While again this only slightly more responsible eradication shows a basic misunderstanding about the necessary place of rabbits within the local ecosystem, the film soon becomes distracted by the literally bigger issue: a lack of scientific precaution results in the rabbits mutating into an even more deadly menace. But because the issue is introduced early on, the film's failure to support the creation of a balanced ecosystem is unshakeable. The rancher's lament about the difficulty of keeping the ecosystem intact ("There's a balance to these things. It's tricky") doesn't excuse the fact that he's as ready as anyone to eliminate the rabbits as long as the chosen method keeps his crops alive. At the end of the film, after the violent electrocution of the remaining mutated rabbits, the rancher comments upon the fact that some new rabbit burrows have been spotted on the land by stating, "Survival of the fittest. That's only fair, I suppose." His implication is that ecosystems should bend to human desires and that the continued existence of animals within them is dependent upon nothing more than the whims of the human species.

Thinking About Animals: In its opening, Night of the Lepus uses a TV news story to pose its central query: does man have the right to destroy rabbit populations if they pose a threat to human interests? True, the rabbits in the film eventually become giant carnivorous mutants that feed on human flesh (though we see that they still occasionally make veggie runs), but it feels as if the film is initially trying to turn us against the notion of bunny slaughter with its cruel documentary footage of rabbits being corralled against fences. Curiously, any sense of sympathy for the bunnies is jettisoned once they've mutated, and the mass slaughter of their population becomes entirely justifiable in the film's mindset. By transforming into growling, stampeding brutes, they exist as symbolic externalizations of the threat that normal cuddly rabbits pose to human life and progress. In fact, it was the adorable appearance of the first experimental rabbit that inspired the researchers' young daughter to rescue and thus inadvertently set it free, the message being: horrible destructive things can come in cute packages. Night of the Lepus vilifies its rabbits, though the contradiction inherent in this treatment is never addressed: the rabbits' status as a villainous menace (both as normal crop-chewing bunnies and mutated horrors) is entirely man-made through the eradication of their natural predator and genetic tampering.

Another intriguing avenue of thought-- one that the film neglects to either develop or recognize beyond the opening news story footage-- is that rabbits and humans are at odds because their populations have expanded similarly. Like these Arizona rabbits, humankind has had no barriers impeding its growth as a species, so the human demand for food increases and not one acre can be spared for rabbits or any other creature, which leads-- consequently-- to the destruction of ecosystems by humans in order to prevent any such sharing of the food supply. Perhaps the mutation of the rabbits into creatures that prey upon people was nature's nasty way of thinning out the harmful and overlarge human herd.

Evaluation in Brief: Oft chuckled at for its impossibly goofy central premise (giant killer bunnies, egads!), Night of the Lepus is nonetheless an enjoyable enough romp. Yes, one must be prepared for endless streams of rabbits, replete with bloody and sweaty maws, stampeding by the camera in extreme close up or forced perspective, as that is what passes for thrills in this picture, but I must admit these scenes became rather entrancing through repetition, like they were inserts from an over-theatrical nature documentary gone awry. Though cheaply done (by way of smatterings of red paint), there's a surprising brutality to the bunnies' infrequent human kills. The actors, a reliable stable of weathered vets (Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley), make the best of things

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