Of Unknown Origin (1983)
"Two forces have claimed the house. Only one will survive."
Bart Hughes is a smart yuppie banker with everything a man could want: a beautiful wife, a young son and a nice freshly-renovated townhouse. When a reorganisation at the bank stops him from going on holiday with his family, Bart sees it as opportunity for promotion and a huge pay rise if he succeeds. However, shortly after taking on the task, he discovers that a rat has taken up residence in the house. When the usual efforts of trapping or poisoning fail, Bart goes to ever-increasing lengths to kill the rodent, slowly losing his grip on sanity in the process.
The early 80s saw a small spike in rat-based horror films with this, Deadly Eyes and Rats: Night of Terror all making the rounds in the first half of the decade. I guess it is every homeowner’s worst nightmare – to have an unwanted guest of the rodent kind decide to gate-crash your happy household – and so I can see the desire to turn them into some sort of unstoppable monster on the big screen. Rats have been a thorn in the side of mankind for centuries, culminating in our rodent friends being responsible for the deadliest pandemic in our history – the Black Death. And for all of those people out there in the world who defend rats and keep them as pets, I’m sure the overwhelming majority of us would be happy to see them consigned to the history books as an extinct species.
That’s exactly where Of Unknown Origin comes into play. An effective horror-thriller which can be basically summed up as Peter Weller versus a giant rat, or a more adult-orientated version of Mousehunt without the slapstick comedy, the film likes to play on our insecurities and our fears about rats and our ability, or lack of ability in many cases, to stop them from spreading so quickly. But coming in the 1980s, Of Unknown Origin also taps into the nifty real-life analogy of the ‘rat race’ – there’s no coincidence that Weller’s character is a high-flying banker living in the dog-eat-dog world of office politics, caught up in the rat race. Watching a man break apart from the inside over stresses and fears about his family, his work and now this monumental problem to try and attain the metaphorical ‘cheese’ at the end is something that most of us of working age can associate with.
Speaking of Weller, this is his film from the start in his first leading role. He’s virtually a one-man show for a large percentage of the running time as other characters are merely there to bounce off him to show how much he’s losing his mind. His descent into obsession is reminiscent of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick and there is a clip shown on the television at one point of the similarly-themed The Old Man and the Sea to continue the parallels about one man versus one beast. The film really allows you to get inside Bart’s head and so the games of one-upmanship he has with the rat become a personal vendetta - he’s not only determined to get the rat of his house but to completely destroy it by any means necessary. And destroy it he does – his house becomes the personal playground of a wrecking ball, with floorboards, furniture and the walls taking a beating as he desperately tries to get rid of his rodent enemy. The problem is that for all of the violence, and a few scares, the film is largely flat and I found myself drifting in and out at times.
Taking a leaf of the Jaws book of ‘explaining how the animal operates to further establish the threat’ school of exposition, there are some effective scenes in which the problem of rats is highlighted, and it’s pretty startling with some of the numbers thrown around. This was in 1983 too, so I’d hate to think of how much worse the problem has gotten. There’s an amusing dinner party scene where, having watched hours of videos and read countless books, Bart torpedoes the roast chicken meal with a diatribe of just how horrible rats are and the sort of things they do. It’s enough to put you off your dinner too. And I guess that is where the strength of this film lies – it’s not scary but it will get under your skin. The rat itself is brought to life with a variety of miniatures and close-ups of real rats. Believe me, if you didn’t have a fear or just general disgust of rats before, then you will after watching. Lingering shots of the gnarled teeth, of rats’ whiskers or just the little thing sat there, beady-eyes staring at the camera, will really unnerve you.
Of Unknown Origin does outstay it’s welcome long before the conclusion and would have worked better as a short instalment of an anthology film. But for what it is, it’s a reasonable timewaster. It’s got a great finale and Weller is always a good watch when he’s on form. With anyone else leading the way, I don’t think it would have been as enjoyable.
Of Unknown Origin
Director(s): George P. Cosmatos
Writer(s): Chauncey G. Parker III (novel "The Visitor"), Brian Taggert (screenplay)
Actor(s): Peter Weller, Jennifer Dale, Lawrence Dane, Kenneth Welsh, Louis Del Grande, Shannon Tweed
Duration: 89 mins