It’s no secret that many of our most cherished holiday folk tales are low-key terrifying. Similar to Christmas being symbolized by a jovial man in a red suit, Easter has become synonymous with bunnies and eggs. And certainly, the idea of a jolly, red-suited immortal shimmying down the chimney in order to deposit toys under a giant flammable Christmas tree is—on its face—practically Lovecraftian. But in terms of sheer creep factor, nothing compares to the Easter Bunny: a roguish, anthropomorphized lagomorph intent on vexing children in a Jigsaw-from-Saw-esque game of find-the-egg ultimately culminating in rotted teeth and elevated childhood obesity statistics.
Seriously, though—there’s something about the rabbit, as an animal, that’s weirdly unsettling. The creatures have occult totemic significance going all the way back to prehistory; an inherent ironic juxtaposition of such a cuddly-seeming mammal, freighted with some extra bit of eerie darkness. From the ominous imaginary familiars of Harvey to the boiled bunnies of Fatal Attraction, filmmakers have been using rabbits—and rabbit imagery—to unsettle. So! In honor of Easter this weekend, here are five of our favorite horrifying hares from independent film:
DONNIE DARKO (2001)
Director: Richard Kelly
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore
Where You Can Watch: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube
Why We Love It: “Have you ever seen a portal?” So asks Frank the Bunny in Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult classic debut, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular Donnie: a sullen high school loner plagued by hallucinations, who may or may not be able to see the future. Donnie’s familiar through these surreal visions is the disturbingly bone-faced Frank. Like the ultimate furry from hell, Frank taunts Donnie with obtuse clues about some sort of ill-defined higher purpose, eroding his sanity to the point where getting creamed by a crash-landing 747 (spoilers) finally seems like the most reasonable course of action. Most of the creep factor comes from the creature’s memorable design, which to this day informs the film’s marketing and visual identity—this, despite less than three minutes of actual screen time. The lesson? Just say “no” to imaginary friends.
Director: Jan Švankmajer
Starring: Kristýna Kohoutová
Where You Can Watch: Fandor, Amazon
Why We Love It: Mixing live action and stop-motion, Czech animator Jan Švankmajer’s retelling of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is perhaps the darkest and most upsetting version of one of literature’s most inherently dark and upsetting fantasy tales. What makes this version of Alice even creepier than usual is the fact that many of the puppets used to depict familiar Wonderland characters—including the White Rabbit—are made from actual taxidermied animals. The result is a surreal, grimy, distinctly Eastern European-flavored interpretation of the material that exposes Alice for what it really is: an anxious child’s fever dream about the grotesquerie of the adult world. Trust us: no Cadburry Crème egg is worth getting mixed up with this rabbit.
Director: Harmony Korine
Starring: Linda Manz, Max Perlich, Jacob Sewell
Where You Can Watch: DVD
Why We Love It: Harmony Korine’s transgressive 1997 art house breakthrough isn’t for the faint of heart or stomach. Eschewing a traditional narrative, Gummo instead presents a series of disturbing vignettes, all set in tornado-ravaged Xenia, OH. For the most part, it’s unclear what exactly Korine is trying to say about the film’s motley collection of damaged, antisocial outsiders (which include a cat murderer, an unhinged pair of wrestler-brothers, alleged Satan worshippers, an elderly child molester and plenty more.) The result is an unforgettable collection images, staged in a heightened white-trash milieu. Of the most memorable of those images is that of Bunny Boy (Sewell)—a mute, enigmatic teen dressed in nothing but a pair of basketball shorts and a giant pair of pink bunny ears (somewhere, Louise Belcher nods in approval.) And even though Bunny Boy is arguably Korine’s most benevolent Gummo’s creation, it would still be advisable to refuse any marshmallow peeps offered up by this particular Easter emissary.
Director: David Lynch
Starring: Scott Coffey, Laura Harring, Naomi Watts
Where You Can Watch: David Lynch’s website
Why We Love It: If there’s any filmmaker with the ability to make an already sort-of terrifying woodland creature even more terrifying, it’s David Lynch. Lynch, of course, has spent nearly 40 years mining unease from all sorts of seemingly mundane objects—from apple pie, to logs, to sprinkler heads. Filmed concurred to his classic 2001 neo-noir Mulholland Drive (and featuring Mulholland’s Harring, Watts and Rebekah Del Rio), Rabbits is a nine-episode series of web shorts about a family of anthropomorphized rabbits living together in an eerie green-hued room, having surreally disjointed nonsense conversations while an unseen sitcom audience laughs along as if they were watching The Big Bang Theory and, you know, the creepiest shit ever, full of the filmmaker’s trademark stomach-churning soundscapes and odd editing rhythms. Fun fact: if all this rings a bell, it’s probably because pieces of Rabbits were later folded into Lynch’s 2006 feature Inland Empire.
WATERSHIP DOWN (1978)
Director: Martin Rosen & John Hubley
Starring: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox
Where You Can Watch: Filmstruck, iTunes, Google Play
Why We Love It: Based on the 1972 young adult novel by Richard Adams, Watership Down is an allegory-dense fable about a small colony of rabbits living off the land in southern England. After experiencing an apocalyptic vision of the future, Fiver (Briers) leads a small expedition of true believers out of the safety of their warren, embarking on an epic adventure from which not all return. Taking cues from high fantasy and the adventure novels of the 19th and 20th century, Watership Down is a fairly intense watch, definitely pitched more at adult sensibilities then those of young children. But the result is a stirring, atmospheric quest story that would make Joseph Campbell proud. Just keep reminding yourself: It’s only a cartoon, it’s only a cartoon…