I knew virtually nothing about this film, having recently encountered its mention in an amusing, tongue-in-cheek review of a ‘guilty pleasure’ flick of mine, 1989’s underwater sci-fi horror movie ‘Leviathan’. ‘Leviathan’ was directed by a guy named George P. Cosmatos, who also directed such notable titles like ‘Rambo: First Blood Part 2′(1985), ‘Cobra’ (1986) and ‘Tombstone’ (1993). Of course, I was familiar with all those flicks, but when this particular reviewer mentioned ‘Of Unknown Origin’ as one of his early works, I thought it might be time to give it a whirl. So I sought it out…and hit PLAY.
‘Of Unknown Origin’ opens with a pleasant introduction to ‘Bart Hughes’ (Peter Weller), a corporate lawyer of some note, as his supermodel-like wife (Shannon Tweed) and his messy young son leave for a vacation with her father, leaving ‘Bart’ to man the large, newly renovated brownstone in their absence. On the work front, ‘Bart’ and his gorgeous assistant ‘Lorrie’ (Jennifer Dale) are handed a high-priority merger project with some serious time constraints, amid promises of “get this right and the skies the limit, sonny.”. As they jump into the project, something back at ‘Bart’s luxurious home isn’t right. It seems that a large, gross-looking rat has taken up residence somewhere in the house and is starting to make it’s pesky presence known. Strange hair is found. Food packages are gnawed on. Appliances malfunction. Etc. At first, the prospect of the rodent’s intrusion is seen as a mildly amusing inconvenience by ‘Bart’, but that soon changes as the over-sized pest demonstrates a frightening level of nefarious intelligence…especially after ‘Bart’ accidentally kills her brood of new-born babies. After that…the fight is on!
There’s a lot of good stuff in ‘Of Unknown Origin’…but there’s also a lot of wasted opportunity. The first thing that I need to mention is the acting. Peter Weller (‘Robocop’), as usual, is superb as the pampered yuppie who finds himself locked in a match of wits and stamina with the determined and pissed off Mama Rat. His interactions in the beginning, where we get to see his overall family dynamic, felt natural and fun. I believed that he loved his wife and son, and had a decent sense of humor and intelligence. Right away, I was on his side. His interactions with other characters, mostly his co-workers and superiors, also felt right, and ‘Bart’ remained consistent throughout. As he’s done in numerous other films, Weller brought about a character who was easy to root for, largely due to his pleasant ‘every man’ness and clear ‘smarts’. I could never see Weller playing an idiot…it just wouldn’t fit. The next most notable character was ‘Bart’s plucky assistant ‘Lorrie’ (Jennifer Dale). Besides being REALLY easy on the eyes, Dale brought a nice energy to her part and the character was instrumental in trying to keep ‘Bart’ focused on the task they’d been assigned, while also clearly caring for him as a person. THAT element was ALMOST poorly exploited partway through the story, with a mouth-to-mouth kiss with ‘Bart’ that came out of left-field and didn’t seem right for either character. Luckily the rat showed up and broke up the potentially damaging ‘hot n heavy’. I liked that they both, more or less, let the moment go and continued on as they were, friends and professional colleagues and no danger to his perfectly functional marriage. In another flick, this moment may have become a plot point and helped justify the bad shit that happens to ‘Bart’, on a karmic level, but thankfully they showed restraint and didn’t cheapen it with needless garbage like that. Coming back to the cast, everyone was solid and I ‘bought’ them as the characters.
I also appreciated the approach they took with showing the furry antagonist. Cosmatos clearly took a page from The Book of ‘Jaws’, and chose to limit how much we get to see of the little bitch. Plenty of creative effect was garnered from the use of shadows, reflections and intense close-ups, all complimented by small, rodent-like sounds (skittering claws, gnawing teeth, squeaks, and low yowls, etc). The one bummer is that later in the flick, we have to see Weller interact directly with the rat, which is shown in the Wide Shots as being about the size of a Jack Russell Terrier, whereas it was apparent that many of the Close Ups were of an average-sized specimen. It was quick…but it was noticeable. Still…the majority of the shots and edits worked to convey the threat.
On the down side, as I mentioned earlier, the movie turned out to be something of a wasted opportunity. Not sure if they were going for a straight-up horror movie, but had some things in the script (based on a novel by an author named Chauncey G. Parker III) been tweaked, it could’ve been an effective and unsettling picture. As it is, it sometimes comes across as confused about what it wants to be. While I get that ‘Bart’ is supposed to be a ‘soft skinned’ urban yuppie type, it often came across as slap-sticky and ‘forced’ when he declared war on the rat and started bashing the shit out of his prized home with a mourning star-like concoction he threw together in his basement, while clad in sports equipment armour. Strangely, while some of his hand-to-hand combat scenes with the rat play out as rather comical, (hand-puppet rat biting and snarling from around a door, stuffed rat thrown on Weller’s back from off-camera, etc) I found the disintegration of his mental and physical state in the work-place, as a result of the nocturnal shenanigans, quite engrossing. Watching his colleagues try to figure him out, while he stumbles over himself trying to keep the whole rodent affair quiet, added a little added depth to the story. I get that not all movies need to end on a violent or dreary ‘downer’, but I found the light-hearted and comical ‘final scene’ too saccharine for where the flick, at times, seemed to want to go. It worked…but it also made the scope of the movie too small, somehow. It diminished the stakes. Coming back to the script, there’s also no reason given for this pissed-off monster rat to take up residence in THIS house. It simply chooses to show up the very day that ‘Bart’s wife and kid are leaving, and we’re never given a reason why. I suppose that some people could prefer that approach, as often keeping the reasons hushed can add to the mystery and / or horror of a situation, but here it just felt abrupt.
The cinematography was often clever and inspired. We get numerous interesting PoV shots, as the rat travels through the walls, floor and pipes. Of course, there’s a couple shots where’s it’s like ” C’mon!!…It’s RIGHT there, Weller!!” but for the most part, it worked. In conjunction with this, the close-ups of the rat were good too…as it looked like a greasy, dirty bastard with big-ass sharp yellow teeth, that I would not only want to kill but burn as well, to protect against whatever horrid infections it’s carrying.
All in all, ‘Of Unknown Origin’ was an occasionally tense flick about a man fighting a giant rat (with at least one clear reference to ‘Moby Dick’ thrown in) in his large, opulent home and the detrimental effects this battle has on his mental and professional state. It’s well-filmed, well-acted (especially Weller), and sometimes amusing. On the other hand, just when it promises to get entertainingly nasty, to show some teeth, as it were, it held back and lacked the punch that this story COULD’VE had. It’s an entertaining little ‘time waster’ that’s tamer than it needed to be…and it could’ve used a little bit ‘more’ in the climax. It ends too easily, in my opinion. The ‘solve’ is too abrupt and the show wraps up just a little too neatly. It’s a well-crafted genre piece that simply plays it a little too safe at times. If you’re a fan of Peter Weller, and find the idea of an invading pest of alarmingly large size ‘thrilling’…then you may get something out of ‘Of Unknown Origin’. Hell, even the title hints at something ‘larger’. Aw well…still a decent flick. Not perfect…but not bad either.
*Watching this one reminded me acutely of the gory and unsettling ‘Rats’ series of books, ‘The Rats’ (1974), ‘Lair’ (1979) and ‘Domain’ (1984), by excellent horror author James Herbert (1943-2013). There’s a 4th story out there too, as a graphic novel called ‘The City’…but I have yet to read it. If you like solid horror literature, DEFINITELY give this man’s work a shot. In the right hands, these stories could be turned into some seriously disturbing and entertaining movie material. But until that day…check these novels out! They are some of his best…out of a very accomplished catalogue of horror / thriller stories.