Thursday, June 14, 2018

NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972) (Scream Factory Blu-ray Review)


Label: Scream Factory 
Region Code: A
Rating: PG
Duration: 88 Minutes 
Audio: English DTS-HD MA  Mono with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: William F. Claxton
Cast: Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley, Paul Fix, Melanie Fullerton, Stuart Whitman

"How many eyes does horror have? How many times will terror strike?" This is what the rabbit-less original one-sheet advertised, with  a family holding off the disembodied eyes peering at them through the darkness with a shovel in hand! Man oh man did the studio go out of their way not to advertise that this was a killer-bunny movie when it came into the cinemas back in '72, for fear of it probably being laughed off the screen no-doubt. That's a fair worry I suppose, the premise is plenty silly on paper (an oftentimes in action), and when I saw it on TV as a kid I thought to myself, "killer bunnies, are you fucking kidding me?"  

That they play it so straight is probably why this one has gone on to have such a cult-following all these years later, it's so earnest it's kitschy, the director and cast are straight-faced, as they confront the threat of giant (dog-sized really, not all that giant) rabbits in the Arizona desert. It opens with rancher, Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun, Motel Hell) riding his horse on his rural property, when suddenly his horse falls to the ground after breaking it's leg in a rabbit-hole, forcing the rancher to pull out his rifle and put the animal out of it's misery. We learn that Cole's property is lousy with rabbits since all the predators have been killed off, so he seeks the help of college president Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelley, Bones from TV's Star Trek). As a longtime resident of Tucson, Arizona it was a hoot to see DeForest and Calhoun speaking right in front of the historic Old Main building on the University of Arizona campus where I worked for 20-years, though the the most notable film shot at the U of A campus to my reckoning would have to be the 80's classic The Revenge of the Nerds (1984)! 

We are then introduced to scientist couple Roy (Stuart Whitman, Eaten Alive) and Gerry Bennett (played by horror royalty Janet Leigh, The Fog) whom are asked by Elgin to go out to the ranch and see what they can do about this over-population of rabbits, which they do. They take a few of the bunnies back to their lab to run some hormone experiments on them in hopes of curbing the breeding population, but their bratty daughter loves one of the test rabbits and pulls an old switcheroo, resulting in the wrong rabbit being released into the population, which somehow enables the animals to grow to abnormal size seemingly overnight!

The normal sized rabbits were already wreaking havoc on the small Arizona community, so you can imagine that 150 lb. dog-sized rabbits prove to be an even more formidable and fearsome. As the menace grows they slaughter a family of campers and a produce truck driver who stops off on the side the road at the worse possible moment, the bloodletting in this is one is surprisingly ample considering this was an early 70's Eco-horror entry. As the rabbits turn to eating people they do not do so in gory detail, but the aftermath is plenty bloody in a Hammer films Kennsington gore sort of way, check out some of the screen grabs in the review for a few shots of this. Even the rabbits get bloody, being fired upon with rifles through the floorboards by people trapped in the basement after a house is overrun by the unfriendly bunnies! Probably the most disturbing footage is real, the film opens with a montage of newsreel footage about past rabbit explosions in the South West, the footage of people rounding them up and slaughtering the long-eared rodents is kind of harrowing. 

The film was directed by William F. Claxton who gad a long and storied career directing westerns for both the big and small screen, I don't think he did any other horror films, though he did direct a handful of Twilight Zone episodes. This is not a Western but it has the look and feel of one, set in rural Arizona there's a lot of dusty vistas, the cast has a Western look about them, so it's nice to see a 70's eco-horror flick with a unique Western atmosphere, it's a good looking movie. There's also a bit of trippiness to a scene of a young girl witnessing the blood-soaked bunnies in a closed-down mine, transitioning to a nightmare scene and the little girl waking up screaming, it's a nice touch. 

While this gets plenty of guffaws based on the admittedly silly sounding premise it's played straight without any winks and nods at the viewer, everyone is so damn serious and it makes it a better film I think. The movie is technically well made, even the special effects are good, the rabbits are real - there's no puppets I could spot - though there are some dead rabbits, but apparently they bought them that way, they didn't kill them, and there's a fun anecdote about that on one of the commentaries! The rabbits are shot on miniature sets and in slow-motion to give them some weight, they do great work here I think, it might be laughable to a degree but I just love this sort of thing, it might not have aged well but if you love old school practical and optical effects there's a lot to love, just look at the detail in those miniature Campbell soups cans and Lipton tea boxes! 

I also give the fun finale a nod of approval, it ingeniously involves electrifying a length of train-track to electrocute the bad bunnies, it's a frenzy of frying bunnies, gunfire and rabbits set on fire with a flame-thrower - though I assume the flaming rabbit used for the scene was a bunny-cadaver, and to that end there's a Humane Society approval that pops up at the end of the film, so there's hope.

Audio/Video: Night of the Lepus (1972) arrives on Blu-ray from Scream Factory through their licensing deal with Warner Brother, with a new 2K scan courtesy of WB, and it looks wonderful. The new scan is rich and finely detailed, grain is nicely ma aged, showing up poor in the under lit scenes but it;s very natural and filmic looking Blu-ray, the hairs of the killer bunnies has loads of details, offering plenty of fine detail and some nice looking depth. Black levels are very nice all around, offering good detail in the darker scenes. 

Audio comes by way of an English DTS-HD MA Mono track with optional English subtitles, the score from Jimmie Haskell (Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry) sound quite nice in the mix, dialogue  is always crisp and clean and never difficult to discern, and the horrifying rabbit sounds and gunfire come through robustly. 

Onto the extras it's nice to see Scream Factory are not just plundering the b-movie vaults at Warner Brothers but also providing new extras for the titles, which is something Warner Archive (whom I love for the fantastic work they do) just aren't able/willing to do for catalog titles, so this is why we love seeing them sub-license these titles to someone like Scream Factory! The main extras are two new commentary tracks, the first from author Lee Gambin (Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film) who gives a loving and enthusiastic reading on the film, he has an unabashed love for the film, loves it without shame and pours the love on with lots of info about eco-horror, the cast and crew, the ad campaign and how the film was received. The second track is from Pop Culture historian Russell Dyball, who begins by going into a surprising amount of depth about the newscaster at the start of the film, who was apparently the inspiration for Kent Brockman from TV's The Simpsons among other TV newscasters. The inclusion of two commentaries was pretty great, this is not a film I've watched a lot, or even read about much, so there was a lot if info packed into these two commentaries, and there's not a whole lot of overlap between the two, they're both trivia/anecdote heavy and very enjoyable with great energy. 

The disc is buttoned-up with a trailer, TV spots,radio spot and an image gallery. The single-disc release comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with 2-sided sleeve of artwork, the a-side featuring the original one-sheet artwork, featuring the now familiar eye-centric illustration, the b-side is not an artwork option but a scene from the film with text detailing the transfer credits, the disc itself features an excerpt of an alternate poster option.     

Special Features:

- NEW 2K scan of the original film elements
- NEW Audio Commentary with author Lee Gambin (Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film)
- NEW Audio Commentary with Pop Culture historian Russell Dyball
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min) HD 
- TV Spot (22 sec) HD 
- Radio Spot (1 mn) HD 
- Still Gallery (5 min) HD 

Night of the Lepus (1972) is a fun b-movie entry with a notable cast, it's way better than a killer-bunny movie has any right to be, so if you haven't checked it out don't pass it up, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised if you're a fan of strange 70's eco-horror. The new 2K transfer looks awesome and the new audio commentaries are a great value-add for those looking to upgrade this killer-rabbit classic.

Screenshots sourced directly from Blu-ray reviewed.