Of Unknown Origin (1983): Rat Race

Matty tears up the floorboards in a whirlwind of appreciation for George P. Cosmatos’ nifty creature feature.

A largely faithful adaptation of Chauncey G. Parker III’s 1981 novel The Visitor, the creepy and amusing OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN is one part creature feature, two and a half parts metaphor. Marking the big screen debut of future erotic thriller queen Shannon Tweed (she bags an ‘introducing’ credit) and anchored by the first leading role of Peter Weller, Weller is Bart Hughes: a yuppie who goes toe-to-paw with a giant — but not unrealistically so — rat inside his plush New York brownstone. It’s an irresistible hook: whereas your usual man-vs-nature flick typically unfolds in the wild, here it’s the wild that comes to man, the film seeming to suggest that, for all our mod cons and innovations, our privileged first world existence can be undone at a moment’s notice. It’s certainly the case for Hughes.

Fiercely proud of his high-flyin’ post at a trust company and his swanky homestead (“I renovated this house from the bottom up,” he says to a handyman pal), Hughes’ screeching nemesis moves in the second his wife (Tweed) and son leave town to visit her father. Initially thinking it your bog-standard pest, soon the alarmingly intelligent rat is waging a full blown campaign of terror against Hughes; stalking, attacking, and, even, deliberately toying with him by ransacking frighteningly specific items at the most inconvenient times.

Having bagged Of Unknown Origin’s director job thanks to the recommendation of his friend, Jaws (1975) editor Verna Fields, helmer George P. Cosmatos appropriately takes his cues from Steven Spielberg’s classic and provides only glimpses of Hughes’ rodent tormentor for swathes of the film’s duration. Shots of weirdly opposable claws; scraggly, matted fur; a thick, cord-like tail; razor-sharp teeth — all of which are brought to life via a clever, if never totally seamless, mix of puppetry, forty live rat ‘performers’, and, amazingly, a few possum stand-ins (!). While Cosmatos doesn’t shy away from delivering the goods in Of Unknown Origin’s plentiful scenes of critter carnage, it’s the quieter and quirkier bits where the rat is subtly lurking in the corners and crevices of the frame that generate the tension.

A criminally underappreciated talent who’s sadly best known for ghost directing a handful of star-led vanity vehicles (see: Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Cobra (1986), Kurt Russell’s Tombstone (1993)), Cosmatos twists the suspense screws with style and precision, keeping the rat a real presence and imbuing Of Unknown Origin with a paranoid, voyeuristic quality that leaves you with the unshakable feeling that Hughes is continually being watched and studied. Though the novel’s most intriguing idea — that maybe, just maybe, the rat is a figment of Hughes’ imagination as he cracks under pressure from work — gets a little lost in translation (presumably at the behest of the producers who wanted more ‘monster’ action up front), Cosmatos’ strong suit is the way in which he uses Hughes’ dismantling of his house to mirror his disintegrating mental state. In a very funny touch, the bulk of the damage to Hughes’ home comes from his own attempts to catch the rat, the destruction mounting in tandem with his blinkered obsession to kill the damned thing (he falls behind at work, starts researching rats excessively, ignores calls from his wife, has rat-centric nightmares etc.). It’s a helluva turn from Weller, too. The RoboCop (1987) icon is excellent throughout, selling the rat as a genuine threat and tackling the nuances of Brian Taggert’s script with gusto. Because as great as the horror/consumed-by-madness stuff is, it’s Of Unknown Origin’s satirical swipes at office politics that occur between the mayhem that resonate. A keynote scene early on lays the footing: after a backstabbing colleague snags a brokering deal from under him, Hughes is transferred to a different, trickier merger that a couple of his other co-workers believe to be beyond his skillset — a nicely judged thread that reveals Hughes to have been plagued by rats for longer than he thought…

A superior but sadly unheralded slice of Canuxploitation from Canada’s tax-shelter golden age, Of Unknown Origin was produced by maple horror legends Claude Heroux and Pierre David (Visiting Hours (1982), David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), Scanners (1980), and Videodrome (1983)) and lensed in Montreal, which makes a convincing substitute for the Big Apple. It was given a brief, unsuccessful North American theatrical run in winter ‘83 by Warner Bros. (who, incidentally, also distributed Deadly Eyes (1982) — another Canadian rat shocker) but found its niche on video and cable, earning a small but loyal group of admirers.

Can ● 1983 ● Horror ● 89mins

Peter Weller, Jennifer Dale, Lawrence Dane, Shannon Tweed ● Dir. George P. Cosmatos Wri. Brian Taggert, based upon the novel ‘The Visitor’ by Chauncey G. Parker III

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