But by the mid-point of the decade, filmmakers were almost constantly coupling vicious animal behavior with man’s massive and on-going mistreatment of the environment.
Pesticide-spraying man battles spiders in Kingdom of the Spiders (1977).
Toxic-waste dumping man faces insect rebellion in Empire of the Ants (1977).
Other films of the same ilk including The Bug (1975), Squirm (1976), Day of the Animals (1977), and perhaps the most infamous revenge of nature movie of all: Night of the Lepus.
Before long, the ranchers and law enforcement officials near Ajo are waging a war against giant carnivorous bunnies with teeth the size of “saber tooth tigers.”
The big problem with the film is that as avatars of fear, rabbits are rather un-intimidating creatures. Even with red paint splattered on their whiskery mouths.
In fact, these giant rabbits hop around -- or rather “stampede” -- across miniature sets in slow-motion, in full view of the camera for long, dull stretches of the running time, and the result is underwhelming to say the least.
But a herd of giant carnivorous rabbits escape from this trap, and make a run for Ajo, where they have the capacity to do major damage in terms of life and property value.
The movie plays on-screen during the scene in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) visits the Oracle, and sees children bending spoons. The subtle suggestion is that a movie like Night of the Lepus -- about a “herd of killer rabbit” -- could only exist in a weird facsimile of reality.
Again, this is a fear that should not be named, specifically. Even the very word, "rabbit," doesn't promote scares.
But on the other hand, Claxton goes way over-the-top in terms of fake-looking gore, a step which moves the film out of the zone of realism. The scene vacillates between deadly dull conversations and over-the-top moments of ridiculous violence, and the approach is not pleasing.
Roger Greenspun, writing in The New York Times, noted the “technical laziness,” “stupid story” and “dumb direction,” a kind of trifecta of utter terrible-ness.
Alan Frank, in 1982, treated the film more gently, though drew the same conclusion, noting that the “enlarged rabbits” don’t “really carry a genuine monstrous charge.”
Watching the film again for the first time since I wrote Horror Films of the 1970s I felt a little bad for the out-dated wonders of Night of the Lepus. The movie features a lot of likable performers in it -- it’s great to see De Forest Kelley again, for instance -- and it surely capitalizes on the eco-terror Zeitgeist of its moment.
And yet beyond that, this is a horror film unable to enunciate even a single moment of authentic horror.
Watch Night of the Lepus, and you’ll see.