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Down the Rabbit Hole We Go

The small, fluffy mammal has become Hollywood’s go-to stand-in for creepiness—and it all started with one of the most famous bunnies of them all, Peter

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One of the most controversial scenes on film last year involved rabbits—animated ones. In Sony Pictures Animation’s Peter Rabbit, a bitter feud between a man and a group of CGI bunnies turned disturbing when the rabbits used slingshots to repeatedly peg Domhnall Gleeson’s Thomas with fruit. Things only got worse, as the bunny leader Peter (voiced by James Corden) encouraged one of his cohorts to aim a blackberry into Thomas’s mouth, knowing full well that he had an intense allergy to the fruit.

The rabbit successfully lodged the blackberry in Thomas’s throat—though, thankfully, he had an EpiPen in his pocket to quickly inject himself before things took a turn for the macabre. Peter and the other rabbits were dejected by this outcome, however, the implication being that they’d hoped this blackberry attack would prove fatal.

If we’re being honest, I initially thought the parental outrage over an allergy-related scene in a kids’ movie called Peter Rabbit was a bit overblown. But watching the near-murder now, you can’t help but be truly shaken, and wonder why such insidious souls reside in such cuddly little creatures.

You probably associate rabbits with carrots or a propensity to breed rapidly—or perhaps you just think of them as jumpy little pets, as lovable as cats and dogs. These ideas aren’t erroneous. It’s just that if you’ve spent any time in movie theaters over the past couple of years, you’d notice that rabbits are mass producing on the big screen. Whether trying to murder General Hux with blackberries or serving as symbolic representations of loss—or most recently, being used in Jordan Peele’s new sociopolitical horror movie, Us—seemingly out of nowhere, rabbits have hopped right into the zeitgeist.

The animal’s history in cinema before this recent spate of projects is indeed a versatile one. They’ve been presented as lawful good (the bunny in Bambi), chaotic evil (Donnie Darko, Monty Python and the Holy Grail), and sometimes their visage has been used to express some very weird stuff (whatever was going on in David Lynch’s Inland Empire). Perhaps the most famous cinematic bunny—not counting Bugs Bunny, a wiseass mostly associated with television—is the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, the one who encourages young Alice to go down a hole and begin her psychedelic adventure. This White Rabbit is also extremely neurotic and cares very much about punctuality.

But the rabbit has never before been a particular point of emphasis for filmmakers—there wasn’t a period in history when every filmmaker was jumping onto a trend toward rabbits, the way Steven Spielberg’s Jaws inspired pale imitators and slight variations, or how The Blair Witch Project spawned more “found footage” horror movies. But maybe the past year or so has actually been a rabbit inflection point. Let’s see just how deep the rabbit hole goes (sorry).

Jordan Peele is not a fan of rabbits. He made that much clear when being interviewed on the red carpet for the premiere of his new horror movie Us, in which rabbits serve a crucial, functional role for the “Tethered,” doppelgängers of Americans who begin a spree of ritualistic murders. “If you put a rabbit brain in a human body,” Peele explained, “you have Michael Myers.” He believes the animals’ vacant stares demonstrate a lack of empathy; the mark of a sociopath. It’s a playful bit, but make no mistake: Peele definitely finds rabbits to be extremely creepy.

The bunny phobia is Peele’s prerogative, but whether you agree with his assessment or not, it’s essential to understanding how the auteur uses bunnies, as well as the rabbit-related themes in his projects. In the chilling prologue to Get Out, where Lakeith Stanfield’s character is attacked and abducted by a stranger on the streets of a placid suburb, you can hear the faint echoes of Flanagan and Allen’s “Run Rabbit Run” playing from the assailant’s car. It’s an old song—one previously used in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses; Peele loves referencing other horror movies—which already sounds legitimately freaky sans context. But it’s terrifying in a film where black people are getting abducted and experimented on by a bunch of white people. As far as establishing a tone for a horror movie goes, the song is rather perfect.

While rabbits do not play much into the rest of Get Out—instead, deer take center stage—they have much more to do in Us, in a much more literal sense. After Peele’s film opens with its own creepy prologue on Santa Cruz beach, the opening credits begin with a closeup of a caged rabbit, before the camera slowly pans out to reveal a plethora of cooped up bunnies. Eventually, the rabbits’ actual narrative purpose becomes clear: The Tethered have been secretly living underground for decades, and the animals are the clones’ only form of sustenance. (Unfortunately, we also learn that the rabbits are eaten raw by the doppelgängers, which is just gross.) Presumably, because of how quickly they can reproduce, bunnies were an ideal, replenishable food source for this horrific, tunnel-bound experiment.

Beyond their function to explain how the Tethered survived for so long underground, the abundance of uncaged rabbits at the end of the film—when Lupita Nyong’o’s human character Adelaide challenges her doppelgänger, Red, after the latter kidnaps her son—appear to serve a broader thematic purpose. To rescue her son and learn about the Tethered, Adelaide must undergo her own twisted version of an Alice in Wonderland adventure, traveling down into the Tethered’s hidden underground world. To uncover the truth, Adelaide goes down a figurative rabbit hole, filled with literal rabbits, to confront the harsh realities of her own identity, as well as the sins of an entire nation.

There is a duck race in The Favourite. It is a tragically brief but illuminating portrait of what was on the minds of certain dignitaries while Britain was at war with France in the early 1700s. (Hint: Not the war—and also, the fastest duck was named Horatio.) But the duck racing was just a bit of window dressing to demonstrate how blissfully unaware Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her cohorts were of anything going on outside of their palatial squabbling. In the end, it was a bunch of bunnies that were crucial to The Favourite’s twisty psychosexual politics.

In the film, Queen Anne has 17 pet rabbits—one for each of the children she lost. While the real Queen Anne did in fact lose all of her children, rabbits were still considered more a food source than a pet: She never had pet rabbits, let alone one for each dead child. The decision to use rabbits was, in other words, an intentional spin on actual history—the first clue signaling that the animals had an important part to play in Yorgos Lanthimos’s film. As an extension of her children, the rabbits obviously hold a lot of sentimental value for Anne, which Abigail (Emma Stone) uses to curry favor with the queen, and eventually share her bed, in part by feigning an interest in the animals. Anne’s other lover, Sarah (Rachel Weisz), spends most of the movie being brutally honest to Anne, and considers the pets “macabre.” (Which, as demonstrated by The Blackberry Incident, is fair.)

All of this comes to a head in The Favourite’s final moments. By this point, Abigail has successfully convinced Anne to exile Sarah and her husband from Britain. Basking in her “victory” over Sarah, Abigail presses her foot on one of Anne’s rabbits in the queen’s bedroom, delighting in its pain. The rabbit squeals, catching the attention of Anne, who finally sees Abigail for what she really is. She demands that Abigail massage her legs, forcefully pressing her face down and pulling her hair in a final power play. As this happens, the image on screen warps to show Anne and Abigail’s faces, interposed with the scurrying of rabbits that slowly pervade the screen until the end credits hit.

It’s a trip, and also a pretty bleak indictment of the unique hell Anne and Abigail have found themselves in. Anne realizes she’s lost Sarah—someone who appeared to genuinely love her—and replaced her with someone who was using her to climb the royal ladder. And Abigail realizes that, as high as she’s risen, she’ll never be as powerful as the queen, who’s now wary of her deceit. Both women are trapped in misery, caged together like the 17 critters that live in Anne’s bedroom. Right before the credits hit, Anne and Abigail’s faces have totally given way to a sea of rabbits, underlining that awful truth: They’re in a hell of their own making, and have thrown away the key.

The lessons of rabbits in cinema today are the same lessons filmmakers have been using for decades. Rabbits can signal loss and innocence (The Favourite), can be used to underscore sociopolitical allegories (Us), and can be murderous sociopaths with no regard for humanity (Peter Rabbit). Placing a rabbit on screen could conjure any mix of these ideas. They are, with all due respect, multifaceted little fuzzballs.

Horses had a particularly strong year on film in 2018; dogs are always able performers; and Captain Marvel is an encouraging sign for positive feline representation on the big screen. But it’s bunnies that might be the animals most benefitting from cinema at the moment, one squeal, one jump, one blackberry-laden attempted murder at a time.