Of Unknown Origin

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Our rating: three lava lamps.

Information about this film in the Internet Movie Database.

Of Unknown Origin
In a startling plot twist,
Peter Weller displays an emotion.

Many of the films we watch are quite old, and thus we sometimes happen upon the early work of an actor or actress who has since become quite notable. In the case of our latest movie, Of Unknown Origin, we are treated to some interesting early work from Peter Weller, as well as the screen debut of topless-scene queen Shannon Tweed. Although films that come early in a star's career are usually a bit embarrassing, Of Unknown Origin is actually one of the best films of its kind.

In its early scenes, Of Unknown Origin gives some misleading signs of movie badness. One is Tweed's name in the credits -- her work after this has been of a distinct b-movie nature. Another is the sight of her bare breasts in the film's opening minutes. As we've commented before, nudity in a film's opening scenes is not the signature of a competent filmmaker. In a startling twist, however, the movie rights itself and becomes an engrossing, suspenseful flick focussing almost exclusively on Weller's character. George P. Cosmatos, the director of Origin, is either a genius for suckering us this way, or he's the luckiest film director on Earth.

Peter "Robocop" Weller plays Bart Hughes, a smart yuppie banker with a beautiful wife (Tweed), a young son, and a nicely remodeled townhouse on which he did the work himself. Wife Meg and son depart the film early on, taking a vacation from which Bart must abstain due to a reorganization at the bank. The good news for Bart is that he's being put in charge of said reorganization, which will probably garner him a promotion and huge pay raise if he does it well.

Of Unknown Origin
Not just another pretty face.
In the first days of his efforts, however, he discovers that a rat has taken up residence in the townhouse. The usual efforts at trapping and poisoning the rat are unsuccessful because, as we soon find out, this is a super-rat. While we never quite figure out whether the rat is some mutated monster or just a particularly smart and malicious sewer rat, it hardly matters. What follows is the stuff of which homeowners' nightmares are made.

Part of what drew us to see this film is that we knew nothing about it, and the video box rather pointedly doesn't tell readers what the film is about, outside of a man versus some sort of monster or creature. It's not often that we find a film that we can honestly say we know nothing about going in. But the downside to that is that despite all the build up, the monster turns out to be a rat. A super-rat, sure, but just a rat.

Early on it becomes obvious that Bart is not going to stray too far from the path blazed by the many horror movie heroes before him: he will fail to do what a normal human would do in the given situation. Mainly this manifests itself in Bart's puzzling refusal to tell anybody about the rat. The only person he confides in is the superintendent of a neighboring building. Unfortunately this super is crazy, and tends to not be very helpful. At one point he tells Bart that rats are so hard to get rid of because, while you spend a small part of your day thinking about how to get rid of them,they "spend 100% of their time thinking about you!" Pretty scary, huh? That may be true, but how potent can rat thoughts really be, even if they do spend all their time thinking them?

Diary of a Rat's Thoughts

11:40 a.m. - Wiggle nose.
11:41 a.m. - Wiggle nose.
11:42 a.m. - Look for food.
11:47 a.m. - Eat food.
11:55 a.m. - Wiggle nose.
1:00 p.m. - Run down clock.

Rats!As he becomes more and more obsessed about the unwanted tenant, Bart becomes an expert in rat lore, which leads to an amusing dinner party scene. We have to wonder where Bart gets his facts. One of the articles he uses is titled "The Rat: Lapdog of the Devil." We question whether that's an objective source on rat biology.

Pretty soon, Bart's every waking moment is devoted to ridding the house of the vermin, which means he's not getting much done on the bank reorganization. His house has become a death trap for everyone, it seems, but the rat. His marriage to Meg is threatened when Bart, in an addle-brained moment brought on by desperation, kisses his assistant when she comes to check up on him. (Fortunately, the rat is opposed to infidelity and breaks that one up.) As it must, the film builds up to a final showdown between man and rat, and the battleground is nearly destroyed in the process.

Of Unknown Origin
A Colour Atlas of the Rat --
not recommended bedtime reading.
If the proceedings weren't so creepy, it would be a joy to watch Bart's downward spiral into near-insanity. As it is, you can't help but really feel for Bart. So few horror movies are made with this kind of craft that we just had to admire the technique even as we were squirming in our seats. (Gentle readers, we have remained seated through some of the worst flicks in history. Imagine what it must take to make us squirm.) The film also has a fine sense of its own man-against-animal history -- at one point Weller beats against the ceiling with a fat copy of Moby Dick, and at another he watches Spencer Tracy wrestle against a fishing pole in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.

It's tough to recommend a film like this, because the subject matter isn't what you'd call universally appealing. In fact, we're pretty sure that this film inspired the recent Dreamworks comedy Mousehunt. The theme -- and results -- are much the same, and if your stomach's not up to the challenge, you might want to stick with that incarnation. But as movies about little chittering things living in the walls go, this is really the one to get.

Rent or Buy from Reel.

Review date: 11/10/98

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