Of Unknown Origin (1983)

If It Can’t Scare Them to Death, It Will Find Another Way.

Poster image of 1983's Of Unknown Origin

Bart Hughes and his wife Meg are nearly done remodeling their townhouse, their young son Peter is happy and healthy, and Bart is practically a shoe-in for a big promotion, so all-in-all, life is pretty damn good. Meg and Peter go on vacation with her parents, but Bart has to stay behind for his job. What should have been a fairly relaxing bachelor respite proves to be anything but, beginning practically the moment his family walks out the door and he realizes a rat has taken up residence in his home. A very large, very intelligent, and very angry rat, to be precise. The rodent declares war on Bart, and Bart is forced to risk life, limb, and sanity by returning the favor.

This fantastic and fun Man Vs. Nature film has less in common with THE BIRDS or ARACHNOPHOBIA and more in common with war films and home invasion flicks. Bart becomes a hardened veteran over the course of this movie’s running time, one who threatens to suffer a psychological break due to the horrors that he has seen. It is APOCALYPSE NOW dialed way down, or FUNNY GAMES sidestepped far to the left. It’s one man versus one infiltrator. The infiltrator, in this instance, just so happens to be a rat. Smart scripting and great performances overcome the general silliness of the simple plot, making for a truly memorable experience.

Yes, OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN has a fairly simple storyline, but that’s actually one of the film’s strengths. It doesn’t get bogged down with complicated plotlines or too many characters. Sure, we have Bart’s family, his secretary, assorted coworkers, and an army surplus dealer that pass through, but they are all of little consequence to the story. The only human being aside from Bart who is of any real value is handyman Clete, and the story would remain complete (albeit slightly less entertaining) even without him. Were you to cut this down to the quick, and boil it down to its purest form, you would be left with a one-man, single-set stage play of the most ingenious design.

Peter Weller the yuppie from 1983's Of Unknown Origin

Bart’s wife and son were scarcely seen in the film, save for the beginning, the ending, and a few rather pointless phone call interstitials that were there for no other reason than to prevent us from forgetting that those characters even existed. The sole purpose of Bart’s family seemed to be to give him something to fight for, lest fighting for his property wasn’t seen as enough in some people’s eyes. They were pretty thin characterizations that didn’t add much to the story or to the character of Bart, but they didn’t take anything away from it, either.

Clete, as played by Louis Del Grande, was an unusual character, a blue collar philosopher somewhat obsessed with rats and the lore that surrounds them. He rather reminded me of some weathered hunter who had spent his life chasing a mythical beast, and was now passing his wisdom onto the next generation of hunters, as if the rat was a great white whale, he was Ahab, and Bart was Ahab, Jr. Surely it was no coincidence when Bart grabbed a copy of Moby Dick off the shelf to read. Indeed, many sources call this movie an “urban Moby Dick”, which isn’t that far off the mark.

By the end of the film, what had first seemed to be an idyllic life for Bart now seemed like an illusion. You grew to understand how much of his time was consumed by the remodeling project and by his job, and how little of it was spent with his family. But in the wake of the rat invasion, both the career and the house that had dominated Bart’s time for so long are virtually destroyed. When his family returns, he has obviously never been so happy to see them, and they can begin to rebuild their lives from the ground up.

Meaning that the rat wasn’t there to end Bart’s life, no matter what the script may have you believe. Rather, it was there to save it.

Close-up of the rat from 1983's Of Unknown Origin

Despite any minor complaints, this is still a fantastic and relatively obscure gem, quite possibly the ultimate Man Vs. Rat movie (which is a dubious honor, to be sure). Bart’s character arc even seems believable, which is quite an accomplishment, seeing as how he’s fully decked out in battle gear and swinging a weaponized baseball bat for the final confrontation. Sometimes it is the little things in life that drive us mad.

OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN was based on the novel The Visitor by Chauncey G. Parker III, an English professor with a long standing role in politics, who served as an adviser to U.N. representative Adlai Stevenson during the Cuban missile crisis. He wrote only one other novel, In Sheep’s Clothing, of which very little information seems available. Parker died in 2013 at the age of 86.

It was adapted to the screen by scriptwriter Brian Taggert, who also wrote the made-for-TV CARRIE clone THE SPELL (1977), the Michael Ironside thriller VISITING HOURS (1982), POLTERGEIST III (1988, with Gary Sherman), and THE OMEN IV: THE AWAKENING (1991).

It was helmed by director George P. Cosmatos, who worked with some vintage beauties in his day—Raquel Welch in THE BELOVED (1971), Sophia Loren in THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1976), and Claudia Cardinale in ESCAPE TO ATHENA (1979). He traded in the beauties for beefcake in the Sylvester Stallone action flicks RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985) and COBRA (1986), followed those up with the western TOMBSTONE (1993), and ended on a low note with Charlie Sheen in SHADOW CONSPIRACY (1997).

Shannon Tweed, who portrayed Meg Hughes, fits squarely into the director’s wheelhouse of lovely ladies. She had appeared on the soap operas DAYS OF OUR LIVES and FALCON CREST, and the television movie DROP-OUT FATHER (1982), but this was her first theatrical role. She continued to guest star in countless TV shows and appear in B-movies and erotic thrillers, including CANNIBAL WOMEN IN THE AVOCADO JUNGLE OF DEATH (1989), NIGHT EYES II (1991) and THREE (1993), and VICTIM OF DESIRE (1995)—though I like to think the highlight of her career was an appearance on HOMEBOYS FROM OUTER SPACE in 1997. A cursory glance at her IMDB page shows that she has played a doctor an inordinate amount of times—at least nine—and I’m willing to bet that most if not all of them were practitioners of erotic medicine. She was Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in 1981 and Playmate of the Year in 1982. It’s no wonder that Gene Simmons from KISS snatched her up… once Hugh Hefner was done with her.

Bart’s secretary Lorrie was played by Jennifer Dale, who appeared in the penile dysfunction drama YOUR TICKET IS NO LONGER VALID (1981), played Jacqueline Kennedy in the mini-series HOOVERS VS. THE KENNEDYS: THE SECOND CIVIL WAR (1987), and starred in the serial killer thriller PAPERTRAIL (1998). She has a substantial amount of geek cred, as well, for appearing in episodes of the ROBOCOP television series (1994), TEKWAR (1995), and MUTANT X (2001), and for supplying numerous voices for the animated X-MEN (1992-1996) and SILVER SURFER series (1998), as well as a pair of X-MEN video games.

The eyes of Peter Weller, as seen in 1983's Of Unknown Origin

The role of Bart was filled by Peter Weller, who is of course best known as ROBOCOP (1987), but also starred in THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION (1984), and NAKED LUNCH (1991). He also had a stint on season 5 of 24 (2006), season 5 of DEXTER (2010), and season 7 of SONS OF ANARCHY (2013), and he voiced Bruce Wayne/Batman in the animated films BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, PART 1 and PART 2 (2012, 2013). He teamed up with director Cosmatos once again in the 1989 flick LEVIATHAN, but sadly the rat was not invited back.

The rat, who unfortunately was never given a name, may have gone on to bigger and better roles, but it is hard to tell in the world of animal actors. All we know is that the animal talent was supplied and handled by Bob Tschanz and Bob Dunn of Los Angeles, and this appears to be the only film that Tschanz provided such services for. Dunn, on the other hand, went on to work on BACHELOR PARTY (1984), JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO (1990), OUTBREAK (1995), and ACE VENTURA: WHEN NATURE CALLS (1995), among others, while his company, Bob Dunn Animal Services, has credits on GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (1990), DOLLMAN (1991), CANDYMAN: DAY OF THE DEAD (1999), and more. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame is that Dunn took in Bubbles the chimpanzee after Michael Jackson could no longer care for him in 1990, appearing (in archival footage) in the 2010 documentary MICHAEL JACKSON AND BUBBLES: THE UNTOLD STORY.

As for the rat herself, we’ll just have to be content with the disgusting close-ups in this film of her greasy fur, soulless eyes and gnarled feet, and the absolutely terrifying scenes of her lunging out of the toilet and bursting out of a cake at a children’s birthday party…and all of the interminable nightmares that such things doubtlessly bring.


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