The Wolf Man (1941) and Night of the Lepus (1972)

Dir. George Waggner. Starring Lon Chaney, Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers

Dir. William F. Claxton. Starring Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun

Both of these pictures—one a classic horror movie from Universal and the other a marvelously terrible horror movie that made me go “Aw!” for ninety minutes—begin with scientific invocations. In 1941, one goes to the books to learn something, and so we learn the definition of “lycanthropy,” defined as a psychological disorder in which one believes one is a wolf. That it hints at some shady doings at Talbot Castle is a nice little intro to the movie itself, but it also sets a tone for the picture. Scientifically, it is ridiculous to believe that Larry Talbot (Chaney, Jr.) might be transforming into this wolfman, and that’s why the empiricists in the picture are flummoxed. Larry’s father Sir John (Rains) completely ignores Larry’s protestations that something terrible might be happening to him. Dr. Lloyd (Warren William) makes the case over and over again that Larry needs treatment for the derangement he’s been suffering since he came back to his Welsh home. Science falters, though. It cannot explain Larry’s entirely earnest proclamation that he killed a wolf with blows from his silver-topped walking stick and that it left him with a serious chest wound, for the corpse underneath the stick belonged to a Romani fortune teller, Bela (Bela Lugosi), and in the morning there is not even a scratch on him. There is a fallibility in science and a great strength in the intangible. Family ties are more meaningful, and so are incantations and miracles incomprehensible to men of science and reason.

Night of the Lepus begins with the encyclopedia of the 1970s, a television news report. The newscaster (Jerry Dunphy) presents some footage of rabbit round-ups from Australia and the American West, knowingly posing a strange question. Cute as bunnies are, he says, they still have the potential to grow to enormous numbers and to destroy not just livelihoods but necessary foodstuffs as well. What rights do we have to protect ourselves from these animals? he asks. We watch as the people drive them into fences and then open fire or club them to death. The scourge of rabbits evinces an ecosystem that is out of joint. What makes that ecosystem out of joint is not the rabbits’ fault: it’s the humans’. Once we get out of newsreel, we see a farmer riding his horse over a rabbit warren, only for the horse to catch his hoof and break his leg. The farmer, Cole (Calhoun) shoots the horse to put it out of its misery, and explains to a professor friend, Elgin (DeForest Kelley) why he thinks there are so many rabbits on his property. We brought in a specialist who got rid of the coyotes, he says, and now the rabbits are out of control. You can find an almost identical sentiment in a much more serious and beautiful work than Night of the Lepus, namely Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

To be sure, the film is skeptical about scientists and their carelessness. Even the good scientists, like the Bennetts, Roy (Whitman) and Cody (Leigh), are fallible. They do not believe in poison, for they believe that the ecosystem can take care of itself without the ruination of something like DDT. The problem is that they, like all scientists, cannot see all ends. Their daughter, Amanda (Melanie Fullerton), is fond of one of the big rabbits they’ve taken for their control group. They tell her she can keep one of them as a pet, and so after they’ve jacked up this rabbit full of hormones, she takes him out of his cage and switches him with another rabbit. This is the rabbit who intermingles in the wild with the others, and he is the Adam of these 150-pound monsters with a taste for blood and an insatiable desire to attack whatever gets in their path. Once again, family is a more powerful indicator of what is to come than science, and the mistakes that are made within the family are the mistakes that will cost lives.

Night of the Lepus has some fatalities, including horses and cows. The film has some issues on this front, namely that every time one of these bunnies the size of a Newfoundland jumps on top of livestock or a person, it’s a guy in a bunny suit. This would not necessarily be such an issue (notice the very loud qualifier in front of “issue” there) if the guy in the bunny suit didn’t move exactly like a human being. There’s one moment where one of the rabbits gets shot and then, for effect, we see the arm of the bunny suit move up to clutch the rabbit’s face, which…is not a rabbit movement. Likewise the inclination of the giant rabbits to clothesline their targets first like they’re in a WWE match. More hilarious, and occasionally even a little impressive, is the way that they try to convince us that these are not just like, normal bunnies they’re filming. They’ve made sets for the rabbits which make human environments look small compared to them, but in order to make it look like the bunnies are bigger, they’ve got them in slow-motion. A lot. This is not a long movie, and I would wager that fifteen percent of it is just…rabbits in slow-motion on tiny little sets. This is a truly adorable horror movie, and it’s very bad, but at the beginning and the end of the movie it really is doing something interesting. Science has the power to keep the balance in a system, Night of the Lepus finds, and in the end the giant rabbits are contained and killed on a similar principle to the Australian rabbit drives. But it is more likely that science and progress will find a way to wreak havoc, for the carelessness of smart people to outweigh their intelligence.

The limits of science are even more loudly proclaimed in The Wolf Man. Science cannot cure Larry Talbot (inevitably pronounced “Tall Butt,” which I am not nearly mature enough to ignore), and in truth Larry doesn’t even reach out to science to do so. It requires mysticism, primarily from a surprising place. Larry’s father, who was closer with the late older brother who was meant to inherit, is always a little cool with him. (Rains is giving what’s pretty easily the best performance in the movie, probably the only person with any room for nuance in his part.) That Larry finds a mother, one who is entirely the opposite of his wealthy and respectable astronomer father, is one of the film’s more interesting thrusts. Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) is the mother of Bela, who Larry killed with silver when Bela had been transformed, and upon realizing that Larry is like her son, Maleva seems to take him on as a kind of surrogate, rescuing him from traps and speaking the poetic words over him which can bring him back to human form. The occultist and outcast better understands the ways to treat a man afflicted with a horrible curse than the landed scientist. The film’s final irony, which gives a so-so movie a reason to exist, is the final fight between Sir John and an unrecognizable Larry. Sir John has the walking stick which Larry used on Bela, and unbeknownst to him he beats his son to death with the silver material that can, and does, slay a werewolf. As the transformation from werewolf corpse to human corpse plays out in front of us in the final moments, we are reminded of the grave irony in Sir John. He may have the telescope in his home which allows him to see lightyears away, but he does not possess the requisite perspicacity to see his son in front of him as he is ending a proud generational line.

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