Night of the Lepus is a 1972 American science fiction horror film based on the science fiction novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit (1964) by Russell Braddon and tells the story of an infestation full of giant mutated rabbits.
Rancher Cole Hillman seeks the help of college president Elgin Clark to combat thousands of rabbitsthat have invaded the area after their natural predators, coyotes, were killed off. Elgin asks for the assistance of researchers Roy and Gerry Bennett because they respect Cole's wish to avoid using cyanide to poison the rabbits. Roy proposes using hormones to disrupt the rabbits' breeding cycle and takes some rabbits for experimentation. One is injected with a new serum believed to cause birth defects. However, the Bennett's daughter Amanda loves the injected rabbit, so she switches it with one from the control group. Amanda is then given the injected rabbit as a pet, but it soon escapes.
While inspecting the rabbits' old burrowing areas, Cole and the Bennets find a large, unusual animal track. Meanwhile, Cole's son Jackie and Amanda go to a gold mine to visit Jackie's friend Billy but find him missing. Jackie finds more of the animal tracks in Billy's shed, while Amanda goes into the mine and runs into an enormous rabbit with blood on its face. Screaming in terror, she runs from the mine.
Mutilated bodies begin to crop up around town, including Billy, a truck driver, and a family of four. Elgin, the Bennets, Cole, and Cole's two ranch hands, Frank and Jud, go to the mine to try to kill the rabbits with explosives. As Elgin and Cole set charges on top of the mine, Roy and Frank enter the shaft to get pictorial evidence. Outside, a rabbit surfaces and attacks Jud before Gerry can shoot it. Roy and Frank escape the rabbits in the mine and run outside as the explosives are detonated.
The explosives fail to kill the rabbits, and that night they attack Cole's ranch, killing Jud while Cole, Frank, Jackie, and Cole's housekeeper escape into the storm shelter. The rabbits make their way to the general store, killing housekeeper Mildred and eating everybody else in the small town of Galanos they find before taking refuge in the buildings for the day. In the morning, Gerry and Amanda leave to avoid the coming press but get stuck along a sandy stretch of road. Roy and Elgin update Sheriff Cody on the situation and, after realizing the rabbits have escaped the mine, call in the National Guard. As night falls, the rabbits leave Galanos to continue the rampage, making their way to the main town of Ajo and eating and killing everybody in their pathway. Cole proposes using a half-mile wide stretch of electrified railroad track as a fence to contain and kill the rabbits. They recruit a large group of people at a drive in theater to help herd the rabbits with their car lights, with assistance from the machine gun fire of the National Guard.
Thousands of rabbits make their way into the trap, where they are shot and electrocuted. At the film's ending, Cole tells Roy that normal rabbits, as well as coyotes, have returned to the ranch. The ending shows Roy and Gerry running on a grassy field where a normal rabbit is shown sitting on the grass.
- Stuart Whitman as Roy Bennett
- Janet Leigh as Gerry Bennett
- Rory Calhoun as Cole Hillman
- DeForest Kelley as Elgin Clark
- Paul Fix as Sheriff Cody
- Melanie Fullerton as Amanda Bennett
- Chris Morrell as Jackie Hillman
- Chuck Hayward as Jud
- Henry Wills as Frank
- Francesca Jarvis as Mildred
- William Elliott as Dr. Leopold
- Robert Hardy as Professor Dirkson
- Richard Jacome as Deputy Jason
- Evans Thornton as Major White
- Robert Gooden as Leslie
- Don Starr as Cutler
Isaac Stanford Jolley makes an appearance as a dispatcher, while Jerry Dunphy has a cameo as a television newscaster
The script for Night of the Lepus was based on Australian author Russell Braddon's science fictionnovel The Year of the Angry Rabbit. A. C. Lyles, known primarily for producing westernfilms, would make Night of the Lepus his first and only science fiction production. To craft the film, he pulled together people he had worked with on other Westerns. Gene R. Kearney and Don Holliday were tasked with converting the novel to a screenplay. In doing so, they removed many aspects of the novel (the plot of which focused on Australia dominating the world with a superweapon inadvertently created through the rabbits), and moved its setting from Australia to Arizona. It was shot at the Old Tucson Studios in Tucson, Arizona, a site well known for its use in Western pictures. Filming began at the end of January 1972 and concluded in early March.
According to Turner Classic Movies' David Kalat, the film's director William F. Claxton also came from a Western film background. In directing Night of the Lepus, he applied the same techniques used in his other films and declined the use of "standard" horror effects that would have enhanced the atmosphere, such as "canted camera angles, dark shadows, [and] eerie music." Rory Calhoun was cast as rancher Cole Hilman, whose ranch would be the start of the rabbit explosion. Well known for his western work, Night of the Lepus put him in unfamiliar territory as it was his first science fiction role, however, he found familiarity in the Western film trappings and his role as a rancher. Janet Leigh, who played Gerry Bennet, took the role because it was being filmed close to her own home, allowing her to travel home on weekends and allowing her family to visit her on the set. Though she felt the script "read well", she declined to allow her two children play minor roles as she did not want them to see or be part of any type of horror film. She would later state the film lacked an "ideal director" to bring the script to life, and the film failed, in part, because it was impossible to make a "bunny rabbit menacing." Fellow The Rifleman actor Paul Fix was given the role of the sheriff of the town under siege, while DeForest Kelley, who frequently guest starred in Westerns, was cast as Elgin Clark, the college president who asked researchers to try to stop the rabbits.
The domesticated rabbits used in the film differed greatly in appearance from the wild rabbits that were plaguing the southwest at the time. In Night of the Lepus, this was explained by stating that they were descended from recent rabbit farm escapees. To depict the rabbit attacks, a combination of techniques were used. For some scenes, the rabbits were filmed in close-up stomping on miniature structures in slow motion. For attack scenes, they had ketchup smeared on their faces. For other scenes, human actors were shown wearing rabbit costumes.
Originally titled Rabbits, production company MGM renamed the film, using the Latin name for "rabbit" in hopes of keeping the audience from presuming the animals would be non-menacing. To further prevent the audience from thinking of cuddly bunnies in relation to the film, the theatrical posters featured no rabbits, instead displaying only eyes and referencing unnamed "creatures". The trailers showed no critters, and the press releases only mentioned that the film had "mutants." The only clue given to the audience was the required acknowledgment on the poster to Braddon's novel. However, some Night of the Lepus promoters gave away the secret by sending out souvenirs decorated with rabbit's foot designs.