“Of Unknown Origin” is, in a nutshell, the story of one man’s struggle against the terrors of the unknown, represented in this case by a huge, unnaturally intelligent rat. It stars Peter Weller as Bart Hughes, a successful Manhattan banker who ships his wife Meg (Shannon Tweed – no, really – in her motion picture debut) and son off to the country while he heads up his office’s reorganization. While the family’s away, Hughes discovers his spiffy Upper East Side brownstone has been invaded by a large rat, a rat that possesses an almost supernatural ability to avoid Hughes’ various attempts to get rid of him. Hughes and family have invested a great deal of time, effort, and recession-era moolah into remodeling their pad, and as his obsession with eradicating the uber-rat deepens, Hughes’ job performance, personal hygiene, and sanity all gradually slide into the toilet. The end result is a final confrontation that ranks in the upper echelons of all-time Man vs. Rat struggles.
“Gee,” you’re thinking, “How the hell did I miss this one?” Sarcasm aside, “Of Unknown Origin” received almost no attention during its theater run. My initial viewings were limited to a few times on HBO in the mid-80’s. It was never released on DVD and is out of print on VHS. There are still some copies available online at retail sites and for those of you with the brass balls required to buy videotapes on eBay.
“Of Unknown Origin” can also be viewed as one of the remote high (or mezzanine, at least) points in George P. Cosmatos’ directing career. A career which included such Stallone vehicles as “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and “Cobra,” as well as another Weller sci-fi pic, “Leviathan.” Watching “Of Unknown Origin” back to back with “Rambo” makes one wonder whether ole George hit the andro between films, since the former is remarkably free of the sort of orgiastic violence that typified some of his later works.
The Horror, The Horror
Pre-Giuliani New York City was not a place in which one wanted to linger, if you believed the movies. In the early 1980s, the urban decay of America’s cities was an accepted norm. One needed only to look at that era’s films, horror or not, that were set in such places. 1979’s “The Warriors,” while obviously a take on the classic ‘chase’ movie, was originally set “some time in the future.” This is apparently meant to scare the hell out of us, since the city of the future apparently has little or no visible law enforcement, except for a few subway cops and Mercedes Ruehl on a park bench. 1981’s “Escape from New York” went a horrifying step further, making future NYC a prison and, even worse, putting a Scientologist in charge of it. That same year saw the release of “Wolfen.” Barely a horror movie, “Wolfen” features super-intelligent wolves who demonstrate the time honored truism that man’s continuing exploitation and destruction of nature will come back to bite him on the ass. Literally.
By 1983, the atmospheric horror movie was as dead as John Lennon. Films that showcased subtle terror had been shoved aside for movies that featured big freaking predators (thank you, “Jaws”) or indestructible psychopaths (gracias, Halloween and Friday the 13th). Rosemary’s Baby was fifteen years in the can, and since then audiences had been treated to such nature-gone-wild offerings as “Alligator,” “Food of the Gods,” and…ahem…”Night of the Lepus.” Sure, “Alien” had an exploding abdominal cavity, but it’s not considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time because of it.
This is not to say “Of Unknown Origin” is comparable to the original “Alien”…at least, not much. The appearance of a rat in one’s house, while loathsome, was no great cause for alarm. Set some traps, call the Orkin man, or (if you’re Porky Pig) build a vicious robot cat. All in a day’s work for denizens of the Big Apple. Even a rat the size of a Rottweiler is somewhat less intimidating than a seven-foot space carnivore with acid for blood. However, both movies rely on the faithful ‘where’s the beast hiding?’ trope. Weller’s Hughes can hear the devious rodent scuttling around in his walls, for all the good it does him. Every time he tries to track the beast down it disappears. Like the alien, Hughes’ rat makes his entrance when he’s damn good and ready.
Other rat movies don’t suffer much in comparison, largely because most of them are completely dissimilar. In “Willard” (1971), man is the antagonist. More specifically, Ernest Borgnine drives our mild-mannered rat tamer to wreak horrible revenge. The only bloodcurdling thing about its sequel, 1972’s “Ben,” is the theme song. Hell, the titular rat is almost cuddly looking (which, given the plot, provides some unintentional shivers anyway). “Of Unknown Origin’s” most immediate antecedent is a little film from 1982 called “Deadly Eyes,” a movie also well-known for its special effects (the decision was made to use dachshunds to play the steroid-tainted rats). Sadly, the sight of dozens of crazed plus-sized vermin with their tails wagging didn’t have the desired effect.
Taken on its own merits, and ignoring the cheesy appearance of the rat itself, “Of Unknown Origin” isn’t that bad. Certainly it’s not in the same MST3K league as something like “Deadly Wiener Dogs.” Cosmatos, surprisingly, manages to create something resembling a suspenseful atmosphere, all while managing to get Shannon Tweed naked in the first three minutes. Whether you like giant rats or Canadian Playmates, this movie has something for everyone.
More rats in part two of FOOTAGE FETISHES: OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN>>>