Sunday, August 10, 2008

Night of the Lepus

Bugs Bunny has killed Elmer Fudd. Killed him dead. Wrenched the life from right out his body. Mauling and gnashing; an insatiable bloodlust tearing into pieces a Fudd shocked and dying. Teeth and claws wielded with vicious intent, ripping flesh from bone, the sound of screaming fading as the seconds tick past. It’s a nightmare vision belonging to a world where Chuck Jones, homicidal glint in his eyes, murders his friends and family. It’s a genre defying leap into the mad and the perplexing. Why would a Bugs Bunny, mischievous as he is, proceed down such a violent avenue? To whom are we supposed to grant the moral high ground if Bugs is to revel in the degeneracy of crimson reprisal? Where are we left and what tools do we hold to deal with the blackening void in our social soul?

Elmer Fudd was not killed by Bugs Bunny. But he could have been, given the pathways opened up by Night of the Lepus. Potential acts in the realm of the cartoon are disclosed by the film, selflessly brandishing myriad methods by which we can alter, mentally and physically, the images that mark our childhood. Corrupt forces perhaps, but dashes of colour to be added to nostalgic thoughts discoloured by time. The colour proffered by Night of the Lepus? A glowing red oozing in time with the dirge of Merzbow and the juddered acumen of Artaud. Let it shift the mind into new dimensions, kicking creativity into perverse forms. No other result is to be permitted, the light cast by the killer bunny rabbit yields no options but one: imagine Bugs Bunny killing Elmer Fudd.

But hang on – killer bunny rabbits? I once saw a giant worm chase Kevin Bacon, but killer bunny rabbits? Surely my eyes and ears deceive. The spokes on the wheels of my mind must be bust. Yet it’s true. Bemused faces may radiate bemused looks at the idea but the truth remains as it is. Stretches the suspension of disbelief, sure, but we can’t ignore it: the bunnies are out to get us. Forget your sharks and your crocodiles, their carnivorousness is crude and uninteresting. Cute and furry, these are the traits of the killer in our contemporary society – and when I say contemporary I mean 1972, when the film was made.

Origins are sometimes interesting, sometimes not. Killers are shaped by different forces. Ichi was bullied. Lecter was hungry. Bateman was bored. The bunnies? Ah, isn’t it another case of science gone wrong? Pretend Brundle never got cocky, pretend West didn’t forgo ethics in the name of ambition and we might be surprised. But it’s not to be. Science’s festering underside is revealed to us once again.

Night of the Lepus opens with a short public information film, an alarming report on the growing population of rabbits and the negative effects to accompany it. Farmers’ crops are shown destroyed by scurrying hordes of rabbits. Economic stability finds itself undercut by mammals whose only crime is plenitude. Instinctual consumption brands the enemy, its rapid reproduction elevating it to the status of demon beast, a figurative monster holding sway over rural commerce. We are slowly brought into the fold by seeing the real dangers posed by rabbits. We lower our guard while simultaneously entertaining the concept of rabbits being pricks.

The narrative dramatises what the documentary footage introduced. A community is plagued by an excessive number of rabbits. A zoologist is called in to come up with a solution, something that will diminish the population without having to resort to shotguns and shaking safari lust. He, with wife and kid in tow, captures a few rabbits and transports them to his university lab where he hopes to create a formula that will effect a bloodless cull. In the middle of the experimentation his daughter removes a test subject, an endearing little critter she’s become rather attached to, and lets it loose in the countryside. Big mistake, for that rabbit has been injected with a serum that doesn’t prevent reproduction – as was the aim – but instead turns the creatures into giant flesh-eating killers.

The freed rabbit consequently infects all his brothers and sisters, they too turning a dark shade of ferocious. Dead bodies, limbs torn off torsos, terrified eyes blinking disbelief, these are the products of the enlarged bunnies as they go on nightly rampages through the community. The figurative monster of the intro gives way to the literal monster of the narrative. The bunnies are significantly changed, transformed into a demented counter-image, touched by nocturnal urges that impel them to feast on human flesh. And why are they nocturnal? I can’t say, a reason for this is never offered – I can only assume it to be a personal preference.

Dodgy overdubs and static acting help orientate us to watch Night of the Lepus. We know from the outset that an enjoyable horror movie is going to unravel before our spectatorial faces. A dose of blood, some teased scuttling in the darkness and devil driven waves of oversized rabbits bounding into town. Spooked or confused, such is the reaction by the populace, with a few exceptions. The protagonist, as is his scientific wont, keeps objective distance, spurred into curiosity by the situation and not once assailed by guilt. His pal, none other than Dr McCoy, also delves into the twists and turns of biological mutation without so much as a gasp. Cool-headedness rules supreme. Luckily, Janet Leigh arrives to satisfy the scream quota. Her and her daughter add needed ingredients of the human to our protagonist and permit themselves to get into peril just so he can rescue them.

Extreme close-ups guide our sight of the mutated rabbits. Sprints over dirt are recorded by cameras positioned only a small distance away, the zoom function exploited to the fullest. Scale models let us see the rabbits looting a convenience store and roaming past houses and over bridges. This is a technique barely concealed. Only the most suspended disbelief could fail to notice the use of miniatures. Perhaps it’s a commentary on scale or our sense of spatial perception – or it could just be crappy production values.

What I know even less is why every shot has the rabbits running in slow motion. Was there such a dearth of footage that they needed to slow down every sequence to meet the running time? The bats in Bats needed no extra time to flutter, so I don’t see why the rabbits insisted upon such a plodding march.

Night of the Lepus is fun. Corny but fun. It’s not on par with the quality of The Killer Shrews, nor does it match the rat lunacy of The Graveyard Shift, but as far as the concept of ruthless, man-eating bunny rabbits goes, it’s a winner. Short of seeing Elmer Fudd’s headless body lying beside the road, this film will be charged with satisfying every inch of our leporid bloodlust for a long time to come.


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