Of Unknown Origin (1983)

of unknown origin1983 - 2Four years before taking the title role in RoboCop, Peter Weller found himself starring in Of Unknown Origin, a 1983 man versus rat thriller.

He plays Bart Hughes, a banking executive who has a good job, a family he loves and his dream house, renovated by himself in New York City. When his boss puts him on an urgent, short-term project, he leaps at the chance to impress while his family takes a holiday for a while.

It’s at this point that Bart becomes aware of scratching noises in his basement and goes to investigate. It turns out he’s got a rat problem. Just one, but it’s a big one. This beastly rodent also has pretty good instincts when it comes to avoiding traps and a talent for trashing whatever Bart doesn’t want destroyed the most.

Initially the film is a slow burner. The exposition takes longer than it should and throws in some mandatory ’80s nudity just because (actually, probably because his wife Meg is played by former Playgirl Shannon Tweed) while Peter Weller mumbles his way through the script.

There in lies the initial problem with the film. Weller has never been the most charismatic of actors (he was a perfect choice for Robocop in that respect) and he literally couldn’t be more forgetable in the opening third of the film. However, this works in the film’s favour as it does set him up as something of an everyman. Happy but unremarkable.

of unknown origin1983 - 3Initially the rat is presented in first-person rat-o-vision, which is to say a low level camera observing what is going on in the same creepy way that you get on a Nigella Lawson cooking show.  We observe Bart doing his thing in his home from behind plants and whatever and you start to wonder if we’ll ever get to see the rat and if we do, will it look ridiculous?

Anyway, back to the story.  Bart initially becomes aware of the rat after hearing a few distracting noises and various little bits of damage around the house which Bart initially takes quite well given all the renovation work he’s done.

At first Bart approaches the problem in good humour, almost as a sporting challenge.  However, as the damage worsens and the traps fail, everything escalates. Here’s where it all starts to get good. Weller’s portrayal of a man losing it is spot on. The rat starts putting holes in his lovingly renovated house, chews through cables, eats his food and eventually murders the cat that Bart brings in. But it is when the rat eats the paperwork he’s been doing for his project that Bart loses his mind.

of unknown origin1983 - 4The inevitable final battle sees Bart, with the sort of spiked bat you’d expect to see in a sketchy PlayStation 2 game, causing more damage to his house than the rat ever could. It all feels like some sort of rat race allegory to us but only if you take the movie seriously which, of course, you don’t because it’s really just Robocop versus a rat that is about the size of a Yorkshire Terrier.

There are a few interesting moments along the way, including a dream sequence fake out, and Of Unknown Origin is an entertaining way to kill an hour or two but while Weller ends up doing a good job acting alone against a rat that we hardly ever see, we came to this film having just watched Q: The Winged Serpent which is notable for the stunning performance from its lead, Michael Moriarty, and for some fun stop motion creature effects. Seeing a furry little puppet in this just doesn’t stack up.

of unknown origin1983 - 5In the end you get the creature feature silliness of something like Slugs but without the horror moments mixed with the sort of puppet-based destruction of a Critters or Gremlins but without the fun. In the end, Of Unknown Origin works best as a ‘look how weird films were in the Eighties’ kind of experience. But we are complete marks for that sort of thing. We’re not sure we’ll be watching this one again in a hurry but we’re glad we did.

(Thanks for the recommendation Lee Koops).

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