Color, 1972, 88 mins. 27 secs.
Directed by William F. Claxton
Starring Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley, Paul Fix, Melanie Fullerton
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Warner Bros. (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)


Few Night of the Lepusmajor studio films have been Night of the Lepuspromoted more misleadingly than Night of the Lepus, an early installment in the nature run amok horror craze that more or less kicked off with Willard and stampeded through such films as Jaws, Grizzly, Food of the Gods, and Frogs, to name but a few. In this case, viewers got an unflinching look at the mayhem unleashed when the dusty landscape of Arizona is overrun with... rabbits. Granted, they're giant, bloodthirsty rabbits, but the sight of these bunnies rampaging across miniature sets didn't go over too well with audiences roped in by posters with the vague tagline, "How many eyes does horror have? How many times will terror strike?" The film quickly dropped out of circulation apart from a handful of TV airings, never even earning an American VHS release at all and only popping up eventually on DVD from Warner Bros. in 2005. Even better, Scream Factory decided to bring it to Blu-ray in 2018 with a lot of new bells and whistles, which means that while the 1955 Invasion of the Body Snatchers may only be out there bare bones, the world now has a tricked-out special edition of Night of the Lepus. We live in truly magical times.

Based more or less on Russell Braddon's Australia-set sci-fi novel Year of the Angry Rabbit, our story of furry fear begins with quickly multiplying rabbits overrunning the ranch of Cole Hillman (Motel Hell's Calhoun), so it's up to researchers Roy (Whitman) and Gerry (Leigh) under the aegis of college head Elgin Clark (Kelley) to come up with a solution. They decide to introduce an experimental hormone injection to curb Night of the Lepusthe reproductive Night of the Lepuscycle, but when one affected rabbit gets taken home and released by Gerry's daughter who, while looking for it, discovers that something very large and very deadly is on the loose. Soon enormous, mutated bunnies are stomping across the desert, pulverizing buildings and tearing the locals to pieces as the scientists and military try to come up with a plan to stop them from turning into an even bigger environmental threat.

As bizarre as it sounds in a synopsis, this film is a hundred times wilder when actually seen firsthand. The first big attack scene (just after the 30-minute mark, so brace yourself) is a particular stunner, and there's really nothing else in the annals of filmmaking to compare with the sight of pet bunnies burrowing out of the ground and getting smeared with fake blood while trampling over miniature fences and batting around screaming actors. The end result may not be the kind of thing that will ever get critical respect, but it definitely is fun to watch and never dull for a second. The film is essentially structured like a '50s sci-fi monster film, which probably wasn't the wisest narrative choice at time in a post-Rosemary's Baby landscape but gives it an undeniable charm now as it works in imagery from classic westerns (the background of director William Claxton, not surprisingly) to truly surreal and delightful results.

As mentioned Night of the Lepusabove, the film's home video debut when it appeared on DVD featured only a theatrical trailer as an extra (a configuration later reissued as an MOD disc via Warner Archive in 2010). The Night of the Lepus2018 Blu-ray does it better many times over both in terms of presentation and extras, with the film itself looking sparkling fresh with a new 2K scan of what's touted as "original film elements." Whatever the source, it looks great with pitch-perfect flesh tones and those wonderfully eye-popping early '70s color schemes, most notably Janet Leigh's blazing red blouse. The DTS-HD MA English mono audio (with optional English subtitles) is also top notch.

In a generous gesture of film scholarship, the feature also comes outfitted with not one but two audio commentaries that really don't overlap at all. First up is a very entertaining and fast-paced one from Lee Gambin, who expertise on animal attack films has already been firmly established with his books (Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film and Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo) as well as his epic commentary for the Australian Blu-ray of Orca. He's in fine form here and delivers a wonderful rollercoaster of a track that skillfully ties together atomic age fears, the pleasures of cinematic artifice, the creative Night of the Lepusoverlap with the films of William Girdler and Bert I. Gordon, the influence of westerns, and the joys of watching stunt men in bunny suits. A second audio commentary Night of the Lepusby Russell Dyball lives up to his self-described status as a pop culture historian as he reels out an avalanche of good-natured trivia from the significance of multiple L.A. local TV personalities (including the opening announcer) to the many divergences from the source novel and the threat (or lack thereof) of rabbit bites. Also included are a surprisingly generous still gallery (4m46s) with some great international posters to boot (Una noche escalofriante!), the reverb-heavy theatrical trailer (which also goes out of its way to hide the real subject matter), a TV spot, and a borderline abstract radio spot. Extra points for the simple but fantastic menu design, which should make fans of the theatrical poster (as opposed to the absolutely epic teaser one) very happy.

Reviewed on June 1, 2018.