There comes a point in the career of any film writer where they discuss their own personal “Origin Film.” An origin film, for the purposes of this article, is the movie a critic saw in their youth which crystallized their passion, making it clear that they would spend the rest of their lives watching, analyzing, and writing about film. For many, this moment comes in childhood, watching a Disney film or a Star Wars installment and wondering “How did they do that?” For others, it comes later on, perhaps with an open-minded high school teacher turning them on to Godard or Antonioni. In any event, the moment is never forgotten, and the film that prompted it is forever enshrined, consciously or otherwise, as the standard against which all others are measured.
For me, that film is Night of the Lepus, and I am 100% not kidding.
For those of you who haven’t seen it (HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?), Night of the Lepus is a man-vs.-nature, “When Animals Attack”-style monster movie, a genre which found a foothold in the nascent environmentalism and post-hippie dread of the 1970s. It stars Janet Leigh (post-Psycho), DeForest Kelley (post-Star Trek), Rory Calhoun (pre-Motel Hell), and some adorable children running around the sun-bleached Arizona desert and getting into unpleasant situations. For the most part, it’s a fairly conventional, straight-faced entry in the subgenre, and would likely be forgotten were it not for one notable aspect: the monsters in question are giant, man-eating bunny rabbits.
And when I say “bunny rabbits,” I’m not talking about wild hares or jackrabbits, the larger examples of which could probably fuck you up without the aid of genetic experimentation. These are adorable, pet-store-variety bunnies, hopping around dollhouses and knocking over the darling miniature furniture. To add menace, the bunnies are shot in slow motion and in close up, dubbed with galloping horse hooves and low, guttural growls. When they’re feasting– again, on HUMAN FLESH– the bunnies have bright red stage blood smeared around their mouths. When the action gets REALLY intense, and we need to see someone actually being attacked, a stunt double is swapped in, wearing a ridiculous bunny suit straight out of a Beatrix Potter ballet. Eventually, the bunnies descend on a drive-in theater, forcing an actor playing a cop to actually say out loud, “Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!” I should point out here once again that Night of the Lepus is not a comedy, and that all of this is played completely straight.
I first encountered Night of the Lepus when I was ten years old. Back in the ‘90s, cable TV had matured slightly out of its wild and woolly Videodrome days, but still had a ways to go before all programming was boiled down to either prestige masterpieces or vapid reality shows. It was in this environment that TNT, perhaps the most perennially identity-free of all the cable networks, hatched the brilliant tradition of airing Night of the Lepus every year on Easter Sunday. I had never heard of the film when I flipped to it waiting for the Easter egg hunt, and neither had anyone in my family; I simply saw that it was about monsters, and that was good enough for me. When it became apparent what those monsters were, my mouth dropped open. I literally could not believe what I was seeing. And I was thrilled.
I should mention that I did have some frame of reference. I was already something of a monster kid, having cut my teeth renting the films of Vincent Price and Godzilla, but in my childlike innocence I considered those movies fundamentally “good” (and still do, in all honesty). I had also seen my share of tongue-in-cheek parodies, like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Little Shop of Horrors (the original, mind you— I was a remake snob even then). This, I recognized was something else. It was funny– at least as funny as either of the aforementioned comedies– but even in my youth I could tell that it wasn’t supposed to be. I was a child, laughing at, and not with, something made by professional adults– and it felt good.
Over the years, I’ve given a lot of thought to the concept of “so bad it’s good,” which detractors often cite as a mean-spirited approach to film appreciation. To be sure, there is that aspect to it; as a kid who actively daydreamed of living the Twilight Zone classic “It’s a Good Life,” the fact that I could rightly feel superior to wealthy grown-ups was eminently appealing. But there was also a genuine joy to watching this patently lunatic spectacle play out, with all sincerity, on my TV on Easter morning. I was discovering something that no one else I knew had ever imagined existed. More than that, because the movie itself was far from “good” in any conventional sense, enjoying it felt nearly interactive. I was meeting it more than halfway, bringing as much fun to the experience as it was. I’d had my first experience with a maxim I would put into words years later: anyone can enjoy a good movie, but you have to get creative to enjoy a bad one.
TNT only continued its Easter tradition for a couple of years after that, which meant I wouldn’t see Lepus again until its first official home video release, on DVD in 2005 (a blu-ray release, courtesy of Scream Factory, is slated for this June). But the experience stuck with me: I began trolling the video store for the schlockiest b-movies I could find, wending my way through the Ed Wood canon before discovering Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the motherlode therein. My tastes broadened from there, but at my core, I’m still that ten-year-old, seeking to recapture the thrill of watching giant bunnies maul a carrot truck driver (seriously, that happens). It may not be the best movie ever made, but it’s certainly one of the fluffiest, and it changed my life forever.
Night of the Lepus
dir. William F. Claxton
Screens Wednesday, 4/11, 7:00pm @ Friendly Toast (Cambridge)
Part of the ongoing series: B-Movies & Burgers
Free admission! (First come, first served)
Presented by Monsters Are Good