Man versus Nature, Man versus Beast, Man versus Food; all mythical in status to varying degrees and most represented on the silver screen. Of Unknown Origin (1983) tackles the middle myth with a tongue firmly planted in its giant rat infested cheek and is an obsessive tour through a domestic hellscape.
Released in November by Warner Brothers, and produced in conjunction with some of that glorious Canadian tax shelter money (you’re welcome, eh), Of Unknown Origin only made back a quarter of its $4 million budget. It didn’t wow the critics either, although Peter Weller (Robocop) was singled out for his wry performance as the put upon vermin victim.
Bart Hughes (Weller) has it all; the perfect wife (Shannon Tweed, in her feature film debut) and son, a high paying job, and a beautiful brownstone in New York. (Read: Montreal. Tax coin. Beauty.) Wife and child head off for a vacation while Bart toils away on a big project. But don’t worry about him getting lonely; company comes in the form of a bulldog-sized rat with a temperament to match. Of course, he thinks he has a normal infestation issue at first; going from miniscule traps to exterminators to larger traps and larger issues (our friend chews through first the dishwasher wires and works his way up to the electricity) until the inevitable showdown between homeowner and home wrecker.
Of Unknown Origin deals in absolutes; this is Man versus Beast in capital letters, and is unapologetic in its intent. The film is pared down to essentials, as it should be; the only lateral story thread is his work, and is presented to make obvious correlations to the chase-the-cheese “rat race” environment. There’s nothing subtle going on here story wise, because this is mythology – even the filmic and literary nods (Bart is reading Moby Dick, he’s watching The Old Man and the Sea) are overt, and are made to let the audience know that nothing here should be taken too seriously.
This was director George P. Cosmatos’ fifth film, making mainly action/espionage films such as The Cassandra Crossing and Escape from Athena before this, and after made such ‘80s gems like Cobra and Leviathan. His natural affinity for movement serves him well here; after all other than the office scenes, Of Unknown Origin plays out almost entirely in Bart’s sanctuary (other than a few phone calls from Tweed) and Cosmatos keeps the action from feeling repetitive or growing passé.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that he uses the Jaws template and shows us the critter sparingly; only later during a visit to his bed do we really get a sense of scope for what Bart’s up against. And to be frank (Hi, Frank!), most of the damage to his beautiful abode is done by Bart himself, with the rat acting as a conduit for his domestic rage, which culminates with Bart regaled in full battle mode with stuffing, pads, and a modified baseball bat. He becomes a man driven to war to defend his turf.
Bart’s journey is the soul of the film; a sane, competent man whose life and security are turned upside down by a single intruder. But as the exterminator tells Bart: “He’s a rat. He’s got nothing better to do.” This of course makes the film even funnier; while Bart slowly descends into madness with attempting to catch his prey, the rat does what it does; it eats, shits, and kills. Sure the scale may be bigger – it eats almost the entire pantry and through all the electrical, and kills the cat – but it doesn’t act against its nature, and remember it has nothing better to do. Bart, on the other hand, has to act against his civilized status until by the very end he’s reduced to a makeshift warrior with a marbled moat. As the film progresses, we witness Bart go from clean shaven and organized, to disheveled and late with his project, to sleeping in chairs or perched like a squatting sentinel on the top of his staircase. Bart’s experience turns primal when the modern world collapses on him and he becomes Home Hardware Hannibal, and it’s a role that the normally taciturn Weller leans in to hard.
If you’re a fan of Canadian horror (and I bet more than a few of your favourites were at least made up here), this cast is a dream team: Lawrence Dane (Scanners), Louis Del Grande (Scanners again - star of the best GIF ever), and Keith Knight (My Bloody Valentine) all give the film that distinctly maple-y NYC flavour. This was Weller’s first starring role, and he was more than ready for it. His deadpan expressions slowly give way from annoyance to desperation and end up at an exasperated resolve that is truly funny to observe. The film acts as a 90 minute sizzle reel for him, and deservedly so; it shows he could handle comedy and drama all in one weird thriller.
Whether Of Unknown Origin is thought of today as a mythical treatise on survival of the fittest or a humorous take on office and personal politics, at the end of the day it just holds up as a terrific giant rat movie. And trust me; those are as rare as an affordable brownstone in New York.
Of Unknown Origin is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977)