Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Reader Recommendation: Of Unknown Origin (1983)

As recommended by Mitch at The Video Vacuum

Rounding off this month's series of reviews is Mitch's recommendation - Of Unknown Origin which he sold to me as "Robocop fights a killer rat". Well how the hell was I going to turn down a pitch like that? For one I'm a huge fan of Peter Weller, a hugely underrated actor whose distinctive voice and mannerisms make him a great, if unconventional, leading man. And secondly, the film was directed by George P Cosmatos, who went on to direct Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra - two of the most macho, over-the-top action films of the 80s. What would happen when these two got together? Well, to be honest I'd already gotten a little preview when I caught their 1989 team-up Leviathan - a okay-ish Alien rip-off - but I was hoping this earlier collaboration would be better.

Of Unknown Origin
sees Weller play Bart Hughes, a young businessman living an idyllic existence. He's just finished renovating his expensive New York Brownstone house, he's married to a beautiful wife (Shannon Tweed in one of her first performances*), and he's well on his way to making a fortune in his Wall Street job. When his wife plans a holiday he decides to stay at home and catch up on his work instead so that he can get a promotion. And it's when he's home alone that he starts to notice evidence that his house might have... a rat. So he starts setting traps and poison, but none of it works. You see this rat is smart and it's going to push Bart to the bring of sanity before he can find a way to kill it.

What I enjoyed about this film is that it combines two of my favourite movie subgenres:- "yuppies in peril" and "man vs animal". The film was obviously trying to make some pointed jabs at Weller's noveau riche businessman being forced to strip himself back to being a more primitive man in order to take down the rat. The lesson here is that all the money in the world won't stop a rat destroying your house if it wants to. The film also contains one of my favourite horror movie cliches where the lead character goes to a library and looks up exactly what they are going up against. You don't get that much nowadays, kids are more likely to look up stuff on wikipedia or google which is far less cinematic.

The film is
basically a one man show by Peter Weller. There's a couple of background characters and subplots here and there but the central focus is on Bart. I've got to say with a lesser actor this wouldn't have been as good. Weller has a lot of dialogue where he's talking to himself or taunting the rat. Usually this stuff comes off as really fake and amateurish (see: Diary of the Dead) but Weller has a knack for making it sound realistic. The film is definitely self aware of how ridiculous it all is though. Again, if they'd taken it too seriously it wouldn't have worked so well. In someways I would have liked a few more scenes away from the house but I can appreciate how keeping the film mostly set there built up far more suspense.

A lot has been said about director George P Cosmatos since he died. Both Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone have made suggestions that he didn't direct much of Tombstone or Cobra. Regardless of these rumours his direction on Of Unknown Origin was first rate. Given that the film is mostly set in one location, with one actor it never feels slow or boring. He does a lot of rat POV shots, scurrying through the walls and makes great use of rat close-ups that make you squirm in your seat. And they will make you squirm, no matter how hard you think you are. If Jaws put people off swimming in the sea and Psycho put people off taking showers, this one will stop you from sitting down on the toilet for weeks.

also manages to make the rat seem genuinely very scary, which is quite hard when you think about. A lot of people might be reading this review and think "Oh it's only one rat, why all the fuss?" Yeah, it is one rat but it's the size of small dog! The bits where it manages to attack Weller are genuinely quite ferocious and terrifying. Sure, this is an 80s horror film but for once it's not about a body count. Cosmatos just wants to scare you stupid and that's got to be commended.

I'm trying to think of any faults I found with this but I just don't think there were any. Okay, maybe I found the size of the rat hard to gauge. In some shots it looked huge, in others it looked much smaller. Let's face it you either want to see a killer rat movie or you don't. If you do, watch this, if you don't, then don't. 


To read Mitch's original review click here

* For those with an interest, yes Tweed does show her usual... um assets as per all her films.


  1. This sounds pretty good, looking forward to it, I like movies with only one character vs. George Romero's Monkey Shine's ever seen that one? It's the one where a domesticated monkey turns against its paraplegic owner..I think it is highly underrated.

  2. Yeah, this is definitely worth a watch. Weller is such a great actor.

    Haven't seen Monkey Shines but I'm a big fan of Romero's zombie flicks so I'll add that to my watch list.

  3. Excellent review my friend. I'm glad I could point you in the direction of this underrated gem.

  4. Yeah, thanks Mitch I really enjoyed this. Weller was totally on form. I could watch the guy read a phone book.

  5. I've never heard of this movie before but it sounds interesting. I love Peter Weller as besides Robocop he was great in Buckaroo Banzai and Screamers. I'm looking forward to his roles in the next Star Trek movie and as Batman in the animated The Dark Knight Returns movie.

  6. Yeah, glad he's getting some more high profile work. His voice should make a good fit for Dark Knight Returns.

    That reminds me, I've got to get a review of Buckaroo Banzai up soon.