Of Unknown Origin (1983) *****
Memory is a traitor. You know it, I know it, we all know it, and the younger you are when a memory is formed, the less trustworthy that memory will be. Nostalgia is thus a tricky thing-- how many times have you gone back to revisit something that you remember fondly, only to be confronted with an unpleasant surprise? If youíre within a few years of my age, for example, you probably loved Gremlins when it first hit the theaters. Have you seen it lately? Pretty stupid, huh? Especially that scene that inexplicably parodies Flashdance. It works with music too. I bet you have, somewhere in your collection, a record/tape/CD that you bought when you were about 14 years old, which you thought was the shit at the time, but which you for some reason havenít listened to since those days-- my copy of DRIís Thrash Zone LP is a good example. Whatever record you have that meets the above description, go listen to it now. Itís hideous, isnít it? Heartbreakingly awful. Or what about the TV shows you used to watch when you were a kid? Chances are, at least a few of them are available on video now, particularly the cartoons-- go check one out. ďThunder CatsĒ looks like a great big pile of shit through adult eyes, doesnít it? Whatís my point here? Just this: sometimes the distortion of memory will work in the opposite direction, and hand you a surprise that is not merely pleasant, but little short of joyous.
Which brings me to Of Unknown Origin. When I was a pre-teen, this was possibly my favorite horror movie. After what must have been an awfully short career in the theaters, it came to premium cable in what was probably the summer of Ď84 (though if the movie really tanked at the box office, it could have been the summer of Ď83), during which it seemed to play once or twice every week on Showtime or The Movie Channel. My brother and I watched this movie every chance we got, and it was probably instrumental (in a perverse sort of way) in instilling in me the strange mixture of love, respect, and dread that I feel toward rats even today. I liked the movie so much, in fact, that years later, I even tracked down Chauncey G. Parker IIIís novel The Visitor (on which Of Unknown Origin was based) to read for a project in my eighth-grade English class. When I stumbled across a copy of the film at the Hollywood Video in Severna Park, nostalgia took hold of me like a fucking bulldog, and I simply had to rent it. I girded myself for the all-but-inevitable disappointment and popped the tape into my VCR, but to my astonishment, that disappointment never materialized. If anything, Of Unknown Origin is actually many times better than I remember it being!
The story here is deceptively simple, and can be distilled down to a single phrase: Peter Weller vs. the rat. But to put it that way is to sell the movie short, giving no indication of the multiplicity of levels on which it operates. Bart Hughes (Weller, of RoboCop fame) is some sort of Wall Street moneyman, on the verge of his big professional breakthrough. Itís a breakthrough he and his family really need, because itís cost them a fortune to buy and refurbish their huge Victorian brownstone in Manhattan, and Hughes hints early in the movie that the great expense was undertaken on the assumption that the promotion heís coming up for will soon be his. As the film opens, Hughes has just been given the high-pressure assignment upon which that promotion will hinge, while his wife Meg (direct-to-video softcore queen Shannon Tweed, of all people, in her rather surprising first film role) and son Peter are on their way to Megís parentsí place in Vermont for a vacation. In one of the most economical set-ups Iíve ever seen, the familyís departure is followed by a series of mechanical problems around the house, the circumstances of which all point to the work of either a veritable phalanx of mice, or a single large rat. Hughes consults with Clete (Louis Del Grande, from Scanners and Happy Birthday to Me), the maintenance man for the building across the street, who recommends a course of action for dealing with the pest. Bart tries standard rodent traps, then bigger, more lethal traps, and then poison, all to no avail. He begins doing research on rats, seeking to get to know his enemy better; nothing he learns is particularly encouraging. He takes in a stray cat, in the hope of playing the ďWild KingdomĒ angle; the rat kills it. Itís about this time that Bart begins to grasp the gravity of the situation.
Meanwhile, all is not well at work. His boss, Eliot Riverton (Lawrence Dane, of Rolling Vengeance), has given Bart just two weeks to complete the assignment that will make or break his career. This would be setting the bar awfully high under the best of circumstances, and Bartís circumstances are far from ideal. His uninvited houseguest is a phenomenally destructive creature, tunneling through the walls of Bartís house, cutting his electrical and telephone lines, eating his food, wrecking his linens and furniture, even chewing a big-ass hole in the ceiling of his bedroom at one point. After Bart discovers the animalís nest and kills its litter of young (ďJust pray it isnít a female,Ē Clete had told him only a couple of scenes before, ďTheyíre twice as vicious.Ē), the duel of wits between Bart and the rat begins to look more and more like an outright war. As the conflict escalates, sucking up more and more of Bartís time, it becomes increasingly unlikely that he will be able to meet his obligations on the job front, and the combined pressures begin taking their toll on Bartís mind. When, at last, the rat destroys Bartís notes for his big assignment, itís the final straw.
Thereís so much good about this movie that itís difficult to figure out where to start. For one thing, thereís Peter Wellerís acting, which never once strikes a false note. The horror genre is not generally known for the psychological and emotional depth of its characters-- and with good reason-- but the role of Bart Hughes is as complex and demanding a part as nearly any youíll see in a movie. The subtlety and realism of Wellerís performance would be striking in any context; in a film that requires him to spend much of his screen time playing opposite an enormous rat, it is little short of awesome. Then thereís the pacing of the script. Not a single second of Of Unknown Originís 90 minutes is wasted, but neither is there ever the sense that the proceedings are being rushed. It is also a visually impressive film, full of innovative camerawork and thoughtful frame composition. But perhaps the best thing about the movie is the refreshing respect that its creators display for the intelligence of the audience. Take the scene in which Bart spends his lunch hour in the libraryís A/V room researching rats. Most movies would have us hearing through Bartís headphones as he takes in the various microfilms and video tapes, but Of Unknown Origin keeps us out of Bartís head here, recognizing that we are smart enough to get the gist of what heís learning solely on the basis of what we see on the screen of the microfilm viewer. When Bart later distractedly launches into a socially awkward tirade about rats at dinner with his bosses and their wives, the specific details he mentions are thus new to us, despite the fact that we were looking over his shoulder, as it were, when he acquired this knowledge. A more significant example of the way this movie respects its viewersí intelligence is built into the contours of the story itself; Of Unknown Origin has a number of different layers to it, and director George P. Cosmatos and screenwriter Brian Taggert deftly employ a wide range of techniques for getting at the viewer. The movie of course works as a flat-out horror film in the usual 80ís mold, with quite a few scenes designed with an eye toward shock value-- Bartís discovery of the dead cat, his first confrontation with the rat in the boiler room, the toilet scene. But there is also a lot of attention given to tension, suspense, and atmosphere, with brief shots of the rat gnawing on the innards of the house or running through the tunnels it dug inside the walls serving as the transitional device linking most of the scenes. The movie also operates effectively as a character study, tracing Bartís gradual psychological disintegration under the combined psychic weight of the rat and his job. Some of my favorite scenes consist of little more than Bart sitting around the house, trying to work while talking aloud to the animal as it scurries audibly through the walls and ceiling. And as an unexpected bonus, the climax delivers a sudden jolt of raw action-movie mayhem to bring it all to a close.
But what Of Unknown Origin does best is play to fears and worries only tangentially related to the very immediate threat posed by a killer rat. Because it hinges on an intrusion of something dangerous and destructive into the home, the movie is able to riff on many of the themes that are typically associated with the haunted house sub-genre. Indeed, I find it remarkable how much this film has in common, from this perspective, with the markedly inferior The Amityville Horror. Both movies mount a relentless attack on any feelings we may have of financial insecurity. Like the characters in The Amityville Horror, Bart and his family have taken an enormous financial risk, buying a house they canít quite afford and lavishing vast amounts of time and effort on it in an attempt to realize through it their dreams for the future. In Bartís case, the risk is compounded in that it is predicated on a gamble that he will get a promotion that is far from certain. That the rat first makes its presence felt by chewing though the water hoses to the Hughesesí newly (and, no doubt, expensively) overhauled dishwasher is an indication of things to come. By the time the movie ends, this rat will be bidding fair to bring Bart and his family to complete financial ruin, partly by undoing Bartís costly and time-consuming renovations, and partly by endangering the promotion that he so badly needs to make his situation work. For that matter, it isnít out of the question that Bartís obsessive struggle against the rat will actually leave him jobless in the end. I think what makes Of Unknown Origin so much better at playing this angle than The Amityville Horror has something to do with the nature of threat faced by the two filmsí beleaguered families. Somehow, it seems not quite as bad to have your whole lifeís work unmade by a vengeful ghost or demon or poltergeist than it is to have the same thing done by a fucking rat. After all, itís difficult to imagine how one is supposed to fight ghosts and demons, but every phone book in America has at least one number a person could call and summon thereby another person to rid them of a rat. By every apparent measure, you are the ratís superior-- youíre bigger, stronger, smarter, better organized, you have the full power of human technology at your disposal-- and to think that even with all those advantages, you might still lose is harrowing indeed. And of course, in marked contrast to demons and poltergeists, rats are real. Letís not forget that when we try to get a handle on what makes Of Unknown Origin tick. And to think that this was brought to us by the same man that directed Rambo: First Blood II and Cobra.