Of course, the real star is Peter Weller, who brings a surprising amount of understatement to his first cinematic starring role. Weller has been criticized for his lack of emotion, but it serves him well here as he gradually comes to realize that desperate measures will be necessary to rid his home of this intruder. Weller also serves up the film’s most humorous moments, most notably a speech to his business partners about the history of the rat as enemy of mankind. The soliloquy is an obvious riff on Quint’s “USS Indianapolis” speech from “Jaws,” but it also echoes (and foreshadows) similar discourses
in “Tentacles,” “Alligator,” “Food of the Gods,” and Anaconda. You know the one: the wizened old scientist/researcher/hunter ruminates on how long the main thematic monster has been on this earth and how it is the perfect/ultimate/consummate killing machine. Weller’s rambling diatribe stands out from others mostly because of the setting: Hughes isn’t kvetching with a like-minded group of monster hunters, he’s at a business dinner with associates who have no idea what the hell he’s talking about.
The movie’s subtext is not hidden from viewers (Hughes bangs a copy of Moby Dick on the wall at one point). But “Of Unknown Origin” can also be viewed, for those of us working on a thesis, as an allegory to the futility we all feel in our daily lives. The unholy triumvirate of work, school, and relationships all lead to feelings of helplessness, which can cause even the most buttoned-down of us to lash out. Bart Hughes is as buttoned down as they come, and by the end of the movie he has turned his beloved brownstone into a death maze, driven nails through a baseball bat, and crossed the line into Ahab-like obsessive psychosis.
The character of Hughes is one of the few in films of this genre that comes across as realistically portrayed. Sure, not many of us know what it would be like to deal with an unnaturally cunning rat in our house, but consider your reaction if you’d spent the better part of your free time in the last few years renovating your home until some varmint showed up and commenced to destroy it. What would you do? You’d go Carl the Groundskeeper on him, that’s what you’d do.
Weller is a tough actor to get a handle on. He is forever immortalized in geek lore as Buckaroo Banzai, but he’s also demonstrated his willingness to tackle some relatively low-budget science fiction selection (“RoboCop” notwithstanding): “Leviathan,” “Screamers,” the upcoming “Odyssey 5.” For a guy who has claimed no special love for SF in interviews, he’s certainly milked the milieu to the best of his abilities.
In many ways, however, “Of Unknown Origin” showcases the quintessential Weller; unemotional to the extent of torpor (except when extreme pain or deranged), vaguely predatory in appearance, and a snazzy dresser – for the 80’s anyway (see also: “Shakedown”). Weller would really do little more than hone these particular attributes in later movies.
It’s really a pity “Of Unknown Origin” is, ironically, relatively unknown. It isn’t very justifiable either. If nothing else, it’s got Shannon Tweed in it, which is usually good enough to earn a firm placement on the erotic thriller rack in the Drama section at your local Blockbuster, or maybe a 2 AM airing on the USA Network.
The problem with evil giant rat movies is that rats, evil and giant or not, just aren’t that scary. Studios today can give us giant genetically enhanced killer sharks and snakes longer than an airplane that move like the wind, who cares about an average sized rodent with an overdeveloped sense of self-preservation? Sure, nowadays if you have a cool website you can make anything scary, even the alleged ghost of a dead witch that nobody ever actually sees, but sometimes a rat is just a rat.
“Of Unknown Origin” has its comic moments, most notably Hughes’ aforementioned spiel and his calmly spoken threats of extreme violence directed at his unseen antagonist. But horror as muted black comedy would soon give way to juvenile fare like “Child’s Play,” the “Scream” trilogy’s annoying self-referential smart-assery, and the bleak horror-comedy stylings of the “Tales from the Crypt” variety. At least “Of Unknown Origin” never claimed to be anything more than a B-movie, but it was a B-movie that managed to evoke some genuine creepiness while featuring a fairly compelling performance from its lead. I recommend you check it out, if for no other reason than horror as a genre is becoming as derivative and formulaic as romantic comedies of late, and “Of Unknown Origin” deserves a second look.
Remake My Day
On the astronomically slim chance this ever gets remade (I’m not counting Mousehunt despite the similarities), and given the budget constraints such a film would face, I see the studios going with David Arquette as the lead if they want to play up the humor aspect, Johnny Depp if they don’t. Shannon Tweed could be in it as well, though this time she’d be playing Hughes’ hot mom. The rat itself would be CGI, of course. Perhaps an amped-up version of Stuart Little, only dyed black and with bigger teeth. Access to greater firepower would eventually allow Hughes to level the entire block, if not the neighborhood. All this despite the attempts of the love interest, an urban environmentalist who realizes the rat is a new species that needs to be studied, not destroyed. The character of Bart Hughes would be an executive with a struggling telecom company, and the movie could be viewed as a parable for the damage wreaked by careless accounting practices.
Or maybe not.
Writer Pete Vonder Haar takes us down memory lane for an in depth look at films we may have forgotten about. Some of these films will bring back fond memories, while others may force you to cancel your cable service in fear of coming across a late night screening of them.