For some reason I’ve never been too much of a fan of killer rat movies. Even though they’re nasty little creatures, for some reason their menace is very hard to convey on screen – Bruno Mattei’s hysterical “Rats: Night of Terror” being perhaps the worst attempt I’ve yet seen. In fact, prior to watching “Of Unknown Origin” about the only really effective rats scene I recall is that in Argento’s “Inferno”, & even then they have a helping hand and are arguably one of the weaker moments of that great film. And now, here’s one from the director of “Shadow Conspiracy” and “Leviathan”, starring those supremely emotive actors Peter Weller and Shannon Tweed. And so it was with pretty low expectations that I sat down to watch “Of Unknown Origin”, and was then extremely pleasantly surprised to discover it’s actually an engrossing and suspenseful affair with some very impressive moments.
Weller plays Bart Hughes, a New York banker with a beautiful wife (Tweed) and sweet son, who lives in a swish house he’s renovated himself. Immediately, his wife and son are shipped off on holiday, although Bart himself cannot go, since he’s up for being in charge of a major reorganisation at the bank, the success of which could make or break his career. And so the scene is set for his stressful work to be interrupted, as he soon discovers that something small and vicious has also decided to take residence in his house.
Getting rid of Tweed so early on is a particularly good move, since hers is by far the worst performance in the film, and this way she’s only allowed to derail a few brief scenes. As for Weller, this must surely rank alongside “RoboCop” as one of his finest performances. Bart could so easily have been an annoying, unsympathetic yuppie, but Weller makes him an eminently likeable and sympathetic presence. The film’s success comes primarily from the fact that we do feel so strongly for the character, as he falls apart under the intense pressure of being made to feel virtually like an intruder in his own home. It’s virtually a one-man show, and most of the best scenes are of Weller alone at home, with everyone else disappearing into the background somewhat.
Of course, the hero is only as good as his nemesis, and Cosmatos does a fantastic job in making the rat an intensely vicious, unlike able little bastard. It’s little exaggeration to say that Cosmatos makes the viewer truly despise the intruder, which is strongly suggested rather than openly shown, through use of extreme close-ups and borderline silly POV shots. Whilst the effects are often not much above that which you would find in a Critters film (indeed, the early moments showing a rather illogical shadow are rather too silly), it doesn’t really matter since, like “Jaws” or “Alien”, you don’t get to see them for too long, and the horrible aftermath and sheer viciousness of the attacks are enough to make the rat a formidable opponent. In addition, Cosmatos shows great skill at creating suspense, building an air of unease in the house as you’re never quite sure when the next appearance of the rat is going to be. In fact, it’s this sense of unease that is most rewarding about the film, since the attacks themselves are often a little underwhelming – although at least one is a seat-jolting classic. The brilliantly destructive climax – with Weller going all out with a specially modified baseball bat – is hugely entertaining stuff.
In addition to all the suspense, there are some really strong moments of humour and irony that really lift the film up a notch – Bart’s battle against the rat amusingly counter-pointed by his struggle to simultaneously get along in the rat race. The best scene of the film is actually nothing to do with the rat itself, but rather a show-stopping speech, brilliantly delivered by Weller during an important dinner party. But what really makes the film work so well is the frightening plausibility of the situation. Okay, so this rat is rather more insistent, vindictive and just plain nasty than your standard vermin, but it can’t fly, it’s not an indestructible zombie, nor can it open doors. The film does leave you wondering – just what was that weird shape you just saw outside by your dustbins? With an open sewer vision of New York that’s more “Taxi Driver” (or indeed “Inferno”) than “Manhattan”, and a brilliantly eerie score by Changeling co-composer Ken Wannberg, Of Unknown Origin is an overlooked early 80s gem which should hopefully get a bit of deserving attention now it’s arrived on DVD.
The disc from Warner Home Video comes with a pretty good 1.85:1 16x9 widescreen image. There are traces of grain throughout, but overall I was pleased with the picture. Audio is disappointingly mono only, but it sounds crisp and clear enough, so I shan’t complain too much. For extras, there’s a rather vague trailer that bizarrely makes the film look more like a ghost story, plus a commentary track by Cosmatos and Weller. Whilst it’s probably fair to say that this isn’t the best commentary around, there are some nice titbits of information, and both men seem very pleased with their work on the film. Not an amazing package, but then this is not a very well-known film, and I’m grateful to Warner’s for putting that little bit extra effort into this release.