America at the Crossroads of the Bunny Trail:
Warding the Way of Youth
While researching this article, I found a remarkable photograph of a golden-haired boy standing, rather like Paul Bunyan, next to a miniature farm house built by the Howard A. Anderson special effects company for the motion picture, The Night of the Lepus (1972). This boy has gone on to found a ministry specializing in the aid of wayward youths.
I think not.
Director William F. Claxton's magnificent The Night of the Lepus stands as one of the great films of the twentieth century--a cautionary tale for our time...and all times...that depicts the terrors of wayward youth and the threat it poses to civilization as a whole. While so-called "intellectuals", so-called "persons of taste," and so-called "persons who remember to take their meds" may dismiss Claxton's masterpiece about gigantic flesh-eating rabbits as misguided filmic drivel worthy only of mention as "Golden Turkey" fodder, a vocal number of critics are calling for the re-evaluation of Lepus as the Citizen Kane of all giant killer rabbit films. Noted BBC and US Public Radio critic Andrea Chase has said: "I have always suspected that there had to be more to Lepus than just a concept gone horribly wrong. I mean, it's not just bad in the way, say The Silver Chalice is bad. No, there seemed to be something more insidious going on, something seeping relentlessly into the subconscious and wreaking who-knows-what sort of havoc. The horror it inspires, after all, couldn't possibly come from the sight of jumbo bunnies hippity-hopping among the mesas like so many rodent doggies on Mother Goose's round-up from Hell." Award-winning author and internationally renowned critic Edward Bryant has said: "As a commercial venture, Night of the Lepus produced more bounce for the buck than any five Playboy Clubs." According to some sources, Jerzy Kosinski, if he had not died, may very well have been able to state boldly: "Just as Birth of a Nation paved the way for Woodstock, so did Night of the Lepus pave the way for the phenomenon we know today as Star Wars."
Strong words, indeed.
But before we plumb the depths of genius that is Night of the Lepus, we must first contextualize its central place in the history of the horror film as a whole.
Decade of the Lepus
Surely the pivotal era in the history of horror films was the decade from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. Beginning with Polanski's Repulsion (1965), a new existential edge found its way into horror cinema. Throughout the "Atomic Age" of horror movies of the '50s to the early '60s, the purpose of horror films had been to unleash a monster, then contain it, much like putting a genie back in its bottle. For example, in Bert I. Gordon's The Beginning of the End (1957), grasshoppers are mutated to giant size by radiation, and are then destroyed by being lured to politely drown themselves in Lake Michigan by brilliant scientist Peter Graves.
Yet from the mid-60s on, the externalized horrors of atomic "Frankenstein's Monsters" were replaced by the interior horrors of Repulsion, and the horrors from the Id of our faulty society, as in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). The Night of the Lepus ingeniously bridges these two sub-genres; it is a seemingly traditional giant monster movie that also addresses the darker societal and psychological terrors of the times in which the film had been produced--the Vietnam era.
Disguised as a "Saturday Matinee" monster movie, Lepus boldly explores a pre-Derridian/McLuhan-esque landscape, excoriating--in both senses of the word--American society in a cinematic Ragnorok of multi-layered self-reflexivity that leads, in a mimetic sense, toward a unique kind of Gestalt totality that in turn blends the insight of Auerbach with the trans-societal (yet individualistic) compassion of Rogerian therapy... put in the simplest possible terms, of course.
The Metaphoric Might of the Lepus
The social and economic upheavals of the late '60s and early '70s are well-documented; one need only refer to such unimpeachable sources as VH1 and The Wonder Years for verification. Produced at a time when Walter Cronkite read about the horrors of Vietnam each night to the American public, Night of the Lepus begins with a "fictional" (or is it?) newscast read by a white-haired representative of the American WASP patriarchy played with stunning precision by real-life, award-winning KCAL "street" newscaster, Jerry Dunphy. Dunphy, perhaps best known for his hard-hitting February 1972 interview with Karen Carpenter, informs the audience of the world population crisis, and how this population explosion of humans is paralleled by population explosions of rabbits in Australia and New Zealand. These rabbit population explosions are shown to be disastrous for property values and food prices...the Apocalypse as envisioned by Beatrix Potter. This "fictional" newscast collapses what had then been "current events" with the terrors of the film that follows, a deliberate blurring of the lines between "documentary" and "horror movie" that eerily presages The Blair Witch Project (1999). (Note: Blair Witch producers/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have yet to comment on the possibility of this connection, thereby conclusively proving that is so.)
Because of this journalistic blurring of "documentary" and "horror," utilizing the authority of an anchorman who earlier that same year had proven unafraid to ask Karen Carpenter "the tough questions" about working with her brother, The Night of the Lepus not only describes a kind of societal upheaval, it participates in it and confronts it by reminding us that it is real.
As such, Night of the Lepus is a diatribe against (and a cultural counter-attack against) the social forces of the early 70's that most closely resembled rabbits, both in terms of appearance and behavior. Yes, Night of the Lepus is a reactionary vision on the part of those Americans whom Nixon speech writer (and game show host of today) Ben Stein described as the "silent majority" against the influence of Baby-Boomers and Hippies.
If Jack Nicholson throwing food and dishes off a table in a diner in Five Easy Pieces (1970) is cinematic Hippie/Baby Boomer rebellion, Night of the Lepus is the big truck driver who makes Nicholson clean up the mess. If Fonda and Hopper ("Hopper"...as in "hippity-hop") riding across America on their hogs selling drugs in Easy Rider (1969) is the definitive cinematic statement of Hippie/Boomer anti-establishment identity, Night of the Lepus is the pickup-driving Red Neck who blows them away.
Hippies as Rabbit Menace
While the aforementioned "persons who remember to take their meds" may dismiss the thesis that the giant rabbit threat of Night of the Lepus is an allegorical extrapolation of the cultural influence of Baby Boomers and Hippies, let us examine the attributes of both Hippies/Boomers and rabbits...attributes that in small numbers and regular size are not threats, yet which become monstrous and terrifying when numbers and size increase.
First, we must take note of that most simple factor: numbers. The Baby Boom was the most dramatic population explosion in North American history. "Rabbits," Dunphy informs us, "so cuddly as pets, become a menace when too numerous." Can there be a more eloquent statement of the shift from Beaver Cleaver to the middle class anxieties instilled by Charles Manson? The Boomers had ceased to be cute artifacts of middle class suburban culture, and had become a threat to it. What's more, not only are Boomers the result of out of control breeding, they practice it. The sexual revolution of the 60s and early 70s represented a breakdown of American middle class reproductive etiquette.
And how do rabbits live? In warrens...a "natural" subterranean counterpart to the Hippie commune. Both warren and commune inhabitants look harmless, yet upon closer examination are shaggy, dangerous, filthy and possibly rabid. Indeed, were not the most dangerous Hippies those who went "underground?" The normal-sized rabbit warren of Night of the Lepus, most notably as shot during the title sequence (just as composer Jimmie Haskell's haunting and evocative score graces the soundtrack) is a desert warren, thereby firmly establishing a connectivity with the Spahn Ranch, the infamous desert commune of Charles Manson.
It is worth noting, at this juncture, that Jerry Dunphy would later play himself in the 1976 Made-for-TV version of Vincent Bugliosi's book about the Manson murders, Helter Skelter. Obviously, the association established between the staid authority of Dunphy and the social chaos of Manson (as depicted in the form of Manson's furry counterparts in Lepus) had proven too powerful for the producers of Helter Skelter to ignore.
As the title sequence ends, we see rancher Cole Hillman, played by cowboy star Rory Calhoun (later to play a rancher of another sort in 1980's Motel Hell) riding his horse, named Ranger, across the Arizona plains. Yet valiant Ranger is startled by a rabbit, falls and breaks his leg. As any true cowboy would do, Calhoun shoots his horse. Metaphorically, this rabbit ambush of Ranger is an encapsulation of the betrayal of US soldiers of the Vietnam era by the long hairs (hares). The name "Ranger" collapses the human world with the animal world, for "Ranger" also refers to the Special Forces unit glorified in John Wayne's subtle and emotional cinematic masterwork, The Green Berets (1968). There is further collapsing of the animal and human world (if, indeed, Boomers and Hippies can be considered "human"), when Calhoun then calls the local university president for help, stating "I got me a feud goin' on." A "feud"...thereby connoting a battle for rights to land. And why does Calhoun call a university president? Why not the EPA, or the Department of Agriculture? If the rabbits function within what critic Joanna Russ calls the "subjunctivity" of Night of the Lepus as anything else besides unruly Hippies or protesting students, the EPA and Department of Agriculture would of course have been called. Destructive Hippies and destructive rabbits...both must be dealt with by proactive university presidents.
The final, most obvious commonality between the Boomer/Hippie threat and the rabbit threat is their shared insatiable appetite... an appetite that in the case of rabbits makes an irredeemable wasteland of America's great frontier (as exemplified by Calhoun's ranch) and on the part of Boomers makes a wasteland of America's school yards and campuses. Both Boomers and rabbits consume huge quantities of grass. That Boomers smoke it and rabbits eat it is moot. The "turned on generation" and the "tunneling generation" both destroy America's social well-being through this ungodly appetite.
Generational Battle Lines
Informed by Calhoun about his "feud" with the rabbits, the university president, Elgin Clark, played by DeForest Kelley (whose best-known role this is), enlists the aid of married scientists Roy and Gerry Bennett, a "young couple." When we are introduced to the couple, played by Oscar [(c), TM, r] nominated actors Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh, we must immediately re-examine what is meant by "young." Whitman and Leigh are well into their forties, and look it. Boomer-aged couples were, unfortunately, a common sight on college campuses at the time. The conspicuous absence of any member of the largest demographic segment of the early 70s in Night of the Lepus suggests that that void must be filled by the largest demographic segment of the film itself, rabbits...both normal and giant sized. For, with very few exceptions, no one in Night of the Lepus is under the age of forty or over the age of fourteen.
It is worth noting, in this context, the narrative function of Whitman and Leigh's daughter, ten-year old Amanda (Melanie Fullerton). Amanda is a witness to the scientific work of her parents, and as such, constantly asks them what they are doing. "What are you doing, Daddy?" she inquires inquisitively of her Daddy. She is instructed by her parents about the scientific principles at work in the film's narrative, and as such, she is the means by which the audience learns of these same principles. Amanda, beautiful sweet daughter of the scientist Bennetts, is collapsed with the audience. What she is to learn throughout The Night of the Lepus is what the audience is to learn.
And as the nightmare drama of the film plays out, Amanda, and we, find it to be a very dark lesson indeed.
The Battle for the Youth of a Nation
The rampant sexuality of Hippie/Boomers and rabbits has already been mentioned. Yet the most insidious aspect of that sexuality is its being directed toward America's youth. Night of the Lepus becomes a battle between American middle class morality and the evil Boomer-Rabbit aesthetic for the souls of children. As Janet Leigh explains her scientific work to control the rabbit population explosion to Amanda (and to the audience), Leigh states that she is trying to "Make Jack [as in 'Jack Rabbit'] more like Jill, and Jill more like Jack." This was the era of Ziggy Stardust; Boomer sexuality was disrupting traditional gender roles. As Leigh and Whitman continue their experiments, injecting rabbits with hormones and serums to control their reproduction, little Amanda proves susceptible to the hirsute charms of the hares. Whitman remarks in the lab that "She's the only one who gets along with them!"
Yes, Amanda gets along with them too well. Far, far too well. Smitten with one rabbit in particular, Amanda switches the critter (which has been injected with hormones) to her parents' laboratory control group of untreated animals, so that she may make a pet of it. This rabbit is later accidentally set loose back on Calhoun's ranch, where, we find out later, it breeds with other rabbits there to create the giant rabbit/Hippie menace.
And the name of this rabbit? The name of this villain who seduces little Amanda, this lop-eared Lothario who leads her astray, and goes on to spawn the deadly mutant rodent threat?
Romeo, of course.
Yes, Romeo! A comment, no doubt, on what had then been the recent filmic celebration of disenfranchised Boomer sexuality: Franco Zeffirelli's reprehensible Romeo and Juliet (1968), in which Boomer teens were shown engaging in grotesque acts of sexual indulgence.
Bad Trip for Amanda
Once the giant rabbit threat is unleashed, Amanda, and the audience, first encounter the huge beasts in a scene where Calhoun's fourteen-year-old son, Jackie Hillman, (Chris Morrell) takes Amanda to a mine shaft to introduce her to Captain Billy, an old prospector he knows. They come to Billy's cabin and find it deserted. Amanda investigates the shaft to see if she can find Billy. As she does so, Morrell finds in Billy's cabin a giant rabbit footprint in a pile of spilled flour. Yet we must read this on a deeper lever. Yes, on the surface it is a footprint in flour, but it is also a 'track mark' in white powder, a metaphoric reminder of the dangers posed by the Hippie/Boomers' use of and peddling of drugs in school yards.
At the very moment Morell finds the 'track mark,' Amanda discovers the body of Billy and is menaced by the giant killer rabbits. The scene marks a dramatic stylistic shift. Suddenly, through close-up shots of domestic Norwegian rabbits photographed through macro-lenses (in order to make the rabbits appear giant sized) the film takes a surreal air. The editing becomes jumbled. As she screams hysterically, Amanda is photographed through a distorting fish-lens. Layers of mushy sound cloud the sound track. This scene of terror is markedly effective in that it is a chilling recreation of a bad LSD trip, rivaling anything depicted in Go Ask Alice.
Indeed...little Amanda, by entering the rabbit-infested mine shaft becomes a modern Alice going down the rabbit hole. Surreal nightmares await. Senses of size become warped. The ugly "pro-drug" lyrics of "White Rabbit" (!) by Jefferson Airplane come to mind: "One pill makes you larger, and another makes you small."
Amanda is saved by Morrell, and is taken out of the hallucinogenic Hell of the rabbit warren/Hippie commune.
The rabbits then go on a destructive spree throughout the Arizona countryside in a series of attacks that chillingly recreate (in horror movie hyperbole) the Tate/LaBianca murders. Indeed, does not the name of Manson girl Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme evoke a "squeaky" connection to the rodent world? The drug-related threat of the rabbits is reinforced by utterly surreal shots of Norwegian bunnies running through miniature sets accentuated by sound effects of thundering footfalls and strange electronic tonalities.
Yet, as we, the audience, watch helplessly the havoc wrecked by the hoppers, we become enlisted in the fight. Just as Lepus had earlier collapsed Amanda with the audience (in terms of the instruction it affords about the Hippie menace), so does Lepus at its climax collapse the heroes of the film with the audience regarding the resolution of the menace. Not only does Lepus show the audience how the Hippie/Boomers are to be suppressed, it drafts the audience...a draft the audience does not dodge.
Whitman devises a plan to destroy the rabbits which entails the corralling of the beasts to a railroad track that will be electrified. This corralling is to be done with gunfire and a wall of headlights from cars conscripted from a local drive in. In other words, an audience is called to battle. Officer Lopez (Phillip Avenetti) informs the drive-in audience (clearly shown to be composed exclusively of families; no necking, dope smoking teens are to be found at this drive-in) that they are needed to meet the threat to their community. "A herd of killer rabbits is headed this way!" he says boldly. "And we desperately need your help!" The drive-in audience dutifully follows instructions, and aids in the mass electrocution of the blood-lusting bunnies.
And what of the gunfire that corrals the rabbits? The standard procedure of monster movies states that the Army must participate. Yet it is very telling that this crisis, initially managed and administrated by a university president, is resolved when the governor calls The National Guard to meet the threat! Yes, the climax of Night of the Lepus is a retelling and a recontextualiztion of the 1969 Kent State "tough love" (called by those with Boomer bias a "massacre") administered to rioting Hippie/Boomers by the Ohio National Guard. Yet here (as had not been the case with news reports of the Kent Sate "tough love" incident) a movie audience helps out, thereby involving those seeing Lepus with the redirection of Boomer/Hippie energies from rioting into a more productive and socially acceptable behavior: namely, being electrocuted. For electrocution of the rabbits is their salvation, a means of forgiving them their forsaking of middle class bourgeois norms and a means of reintegrating them into those norms. For, how is a rabbit made part of bourgeois existence? By being made into a coat, of course! And how are rabbits "prepped" for skinning and manufacture into coats? By having electrodes shoved up under their cotton tails. "Electrocution," while apparently fatal (much like the bullets of National Guardsmen are apparently "fatal") is in fact an invitation for the rabbits to forsake their destructive ways and to become integrated into middle class households.
Thus the climax of Lepus (which is edited in a manner that recalls the Odessa Steps sequence of Potempkin) is a call for the audience to participate in the electrocution of Hippies held at gun point by the National Guard--what would have been a wholesome and practical solution to the problems of the era, if only it had been instigated. It is worth noting that two recent films most often reviled by the Boomer-dominated media of today as being "bad influences on today's youth" are Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and the Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix...both of which feature clips of rabbit attacks from Night of the Lepus!
Is it the violence of the film which they find objectionable, or the undermining of Boomer domination of American culture through the use of Lepus clips?
I feel the answer is obvious.
(Dedicated to someone, who knows why.)
Michael Marano is the multi-award winning author of Dawn Song and a respected film critic. Really.