A while back I did a list on the best movies I saw while doing Horror Movie A Day that I probably never would have seen if not for my daily intake. It’s not like I stuck to only movies I had heard of or wanted to see; in fact more often than not I don’t even know what the movies are about before I sit down to watch them. One on that list was Of Unknown Origin, a 1983 effort that was barely released and still remains relatively obscure – but remains one of my favorite entries and just gets better on repeat viewings.
Despite the rather Syfy Channel Original Movie-ish title (and the horrid trailer, more on that later), there’s nothing otherworldly or supernatural about the film; in fact it’s more grounded in reality than any other “monster” movie I’ve ever seen. Peter Weller (in his first starring role) plays Burt Hughes, a hotshot banker who is about to close a major deal at his Manhattan firm, while enjoying his pretty much perfect life with wife Shannon Tweed, a son and a gorgeous brownstone decked with the finest furnishing and décor available in 1983. Early on, the wife and son go off to visit her father, leaving him alone to finish working on his deal. Or IS he alone?
Of course not. If he is, there’s no movie. Not too long after they leave, Burt hears a noise in the middle of the night. Going to investigate, he discovers that his dishwasher is leaking all over the floor, and the next morning a handyman shows him the reason why – a tube has been chewed through, due to a mouse or - just maybe! - a rat. (Spoiler: it’s a rat.)
A leaky dishwasher is obviously not the extent of the thing’s menace, and the rest of the movie is essentially a small scale war between Burt and the rat, with the rat scoring most of the victories. Burt’s traps are avoided or destroyed, and every time he comes home from work or wakes up in the morning he finds yet another sign of the rat’s destructive nature: his pantry is chewed up, his pillows are reduced to feathers, etc. And after a while, it becomes clear the damn thing is PURPOSELY messing with him – when Bart hires an exterminator and leaves the check in a secure place, he comes home to find the check all chewed up (while everything else is relatively untouched for the day). It’s the closest the movie gets to absurd, but it’s such a great moment that it’s easy enough to forgive.
Especially since the movie admirably doesn’t cater to any typical horror movie clichés. There’s no devil’s advocate character, and not a lot of the usual “You’re being insane; rats aren’t smart enough to do this!” type stuff – in fact Burt doesn’t tell anyone about his predicament! He keeps going to work, looking worse and worse each day, and his coworkers and boss (and comely secretary, played by the lovely Jennifer Dale) just assume he’s having marital problems or something. It’s a unique approach to the typical monster movie – it’s essentially a minor problem that engulfs his entire life, unlike say Jaws, where the monster threatens a community and it’s up to our heroes to stop it in order to protect others. Weller’s not protecting anyone – in fact no one even really cares! It’s just a rat!
But WHAT a rat. Director George P. Cosmatos employs a variety of techniques - real rats in closeup, puppets, POV shots – in order to sell his monster, and for the most part it works. We could use a few more shots of the rat and Weller in the same shot in order to get a firm grasp on its size (it looks to be about the size of a small cat), but Weller totally sells the scenes where he’s either scrambling to get away from it or going on the attack (he wrecks as much of his house, possibly more, than the rat), even though he’s probably just swatting at nothing. Cosmatos also uses lots and lots of diopter shots to put the two in frame together, albeit in an intentionally surreal way.
Another thing that works in the movie’s favor, oddly, is the lack of a body count. The secretary comes over, and there’s a delightful handyman character who pops up with some frequency, but the rat ignores them. It’s all just Weller vs. Rat, and while you may think that would get a bit repetitive, you’d be wrong, as Burt’s demeanor changes enough to keep it fresh throughout the film’s 85 minutes or so. At first he’s just sort of annoyed, then scared, then outraged, and even sort of zen about the whole thing – when it chews out his electricity, he barely reacts, muttering “Was wondering when you’d get to that…” before returning to his book. The movie uses humor very carefully – it’s a funny movie, but never a comedy, and that is a credit to Weller’s terrific performance. It’s not easy to maintain your dignity while constantly being thwarted by a damn rat, but Weller pulls it off, and you will never find yourself saying “Why can’t he just do this or that?” You’d be just as harried as he is.
But what makes the movie work so well is, ironically, the very thing that killed it during its theatrical run: it was impossible to market. Without any real “money shots” (i.e. the rat closing in for the kill on some unsuspecting victim) and a monster that is barely seen in the movie, there wasn’t a lot for Warner to work with. The Jaws trailer didn’t show the shark much (just some fins), but it DID show the movie’s first two deaths, plus had some fun dialogue exchanges between the three big stars – there was still a lot to show, in others words. But here, the only other people Weller talks to in the movie are other bankers, and that dialogue is hardly a draw (I should note his coworkers include great character actors like Kenneth Welsh and Maury Chaykin). So instead they just try to sell it like a straight up horror movie, complete with a baffling closing shot where the brownstone is engulfed in a white light like it’s about to be beamed off to Mars or something. It actually did OK considering that Warner dumped it on less than 200 screens on Thanksgiving weekend, with a higher per screen average than at least five films in the top 10, but it did not expand, and sunk out of sight by the following weekend. Cable airings (I’m pretty sure I caught the ending on HBO as a kid) and Warner’s release of a DVD with new commentary by Cosmatos and Weller are the only reasons anyone is probably even aware it exists today. In fact I give them props on the commentary – I assumed it was from a laserdisc, but Weller actually says “DVD” on it, and it was done in 2003 – past the initial DVD boom. Someone there must realize its value!
Not enough to stock a 35mm print though. Since the day I first saw it back in 2009*, I’ve been asking for someone to show it at the New Beverly (I wasn’t yet hosting my own screenings there – p.s. thanks to any BAD readers who came out to Child’s Play!), but Warner doesn’t have a print in their vault. Not too surprising since they barely even had any when the movie was released, but it’s still a shame that I have to settle for online articles to spread my love of this vastly underrated film. Hell, I would pay the license fee out of my own pocket if I had to; seeing this on the big screen with a crowd would be a true pleasure. Hopefully somehow that will change someday. Next year is the 30th anniversary… you listening, Warner?
I hope I’m not overselling it. You can’t go in expecting to be blown away - what makes it work is how admirably focused and SMALL it is. Not to mention character based, something that is often sorely lacking in horror (but it may take watching one every day to realize it and appreciate it as much). Weller’s transformation from mild-mannered businessman to crazed warrior is played out beautifully; he doesn’t just snap all of a sudden; it all tracks at a perfect pace. And it’s got a lot of great bonuses – some well-placed sight gags, a fun homage to Jaws (when Weller decides he needs to know more about his opponent), and other little bits that add immense value to an already solid flick. Jeremy “Mr Beaks” Smith told me the other day that he can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it – I am fully inclined to agree.
*Weird coincidences abound – I first saw the movie on March 29th, 2009. My aforementioned article was published on March 29th, 2011. And, if you’re aware of the date, March 29th is coming up again. I was not aware of any of this until I went to look at my old review and to get the BAD link. I hope at least one of you found this as interesting as I did.