AMAD-Horror Edition: Of Unknown Origin

12 Oct

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cinemagrade b+Let’s jump right into Of Unknown Origin. Made in 1983 in Montreal (which was doubling for New York on the screen), the film stars Peter Weller, Buckaroo Banzai himself, as an architect who has just finished renovating a brownstone townhouse for his family and finds a strange, persistent intruder threatening both his home and his ordered existence. The original trailer makes it look like a supernatural thriller along the lines of Poltergeist, with Weller fighting off some sort of demon inhabiting his home and trying to kill his family. That is not at all what is happening in the film. There isn’t a single supernatural element in the movie, although there are plenty of unnatural ones.

 Bart Hughes is a fastidious, up-tight architect who takes serious pride in his beautiful Brownstone apartment building: and why not, since he did all the renovation work himself? The home is gorgeous and indeed something to be proud of. Bart also sank a good deal of money into fixing it, and so he feels pressured to fight for promotion at the architectural firm where he works. Couple this with his ordered, work-obsessed mentality and it results in Bart focused so intently on his projects and office-relations that he isn’t even enjoying the fruits of his labor at home. 

Bart loves his wife and son, but underneath his mannered exterior, he seems a little lost. It’s almost imperceptible at first, as he appears to be living the N.Y. yuppie existence pretty successfully. Then, when his family goes out of town to visit relatives, and Bart stays behind for work, he comes face to face with an agent of chaos intent on ripping (literally) his meticulously constructed little world down around him.

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The agent in question? It’s a rat. Yes, it’s a rat far bigger, mangier, and definitely more maniacal than any real world rat, but its not a genetic mutation, or super-size monster and it certainly isn’t a demonic entity. It’s just a rat. But what it does to Bart puts it so far out of the category of “just a rat”, that what it is to us doesn’t matter. Initially, it simply is just another rat, but to Bart? To Bart, it is The Beast.

 At first, it’s little things. Bart tries to reel in a big project for the company and comes home to find droppings or tiny hairs on his bread; he lays out standard mouse traps to catch the little bugger. The traps don’t work, and he finds them drug through the house and deposited strange places. He consults the maintenance man who lives in the building next door, and he gets stronger poisons to take care of the problem. Bart begins to feel like he is always being watched and mocked, and he starts a dialogue with the rat, a dialogue that obviously is never verbally answered, but the next day always brings a swift retribution to his actions. The important blueprints he is working on are shredded to pieces, and the rat finds a way into the piano where he runs across the keys.

Slowly but surely Bart becomes undone. He finds a nest in his basement, with babies inside, and he kills them in vengeance. This act is quickly followed by an attack and he finds his cat mauled to death on the top of his refrigerator. Bart’s work is slipping, he’s lying to his family who are still out of town, and he’s coming dangerously close to starting a liaison with a co-worker. As the malignant intruder continues his assault, Bart goes even further than that–now, he has declared an all out war on his rodent adversary and he won’t stop until one of them is dead.

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Peter Weller is absolutely awesome in this movie. In 1983 he won Best Actor at the Paris International Film Festival for his portrayal of Bart. He begins as a smug yuppie and starts to break down in ways we wouldn’t imagine. He goes to a dinner party with his boss and while the food is being served he regales them all with a vast history of rats, their disease carrying traits, and little tidbits that are usually better off left to not knowing. As he speaks, with an almost contempt for these people in their posh comfort, we see the other guests curling their feet up out of their shoes, and putting down their forks.

Bart has been ushered out of his comfortable life, and once he is out on those chaotic streets, he grabs a bat, throws some nails in that bad-boy and outfits it with the metal jaws of a trap and goes hunting. When his female co-worker who fancies him comes round to check, she finds not a broken, bewildered Bart but a stony-faced, quiet assassin sitting on his steps in the dark wearing shin-guards, holding his weapon, and waiting. He tells her to leave and get out with scarcely any emotion.

 It’s important that Weller be good. For long stretches of the movie it’s just he and the rat. The creature isn’t that impressive from an fx standpoint, but the late great George Cosmatos, who directed the picture, finds tons of ways to make it menacing. We see shadows of it on the wall, or reflections of it in a toaster, where it watches an unaware Bart. Sometimes we just see extreme close-ups of its anatomy–its webby feet, or jutting teeth–while it waits in the dark to resume its assault. It is a great choice, and it adds such a strong air of menace to the film, that we never stop to consider that this is only a rat. It’s an intruder and it must be stopped.

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 Any film fan will find the final third of this pic more than satisfactory. After building some excellent tension, Bart and the rat go at it in an epic battle worthy of Hemmingway. The brownstone is demolished in the wake of their struggle. We no longer care why this is happening, or how the little beast came to choose Bart, but now its about a battle royal for Bart’s sanity and the viewer is completely invested. Cosmatos was responsible for the great Tombstone, about a stand-off of another kind, and he is doing the same thing here; preparing us for a mythic confrontation, and when it goes down we find we care less about the confrontation and more about the man at its center.

 Of Unknown Origin is a story of a man vs. nature, one of the most simple narrative motifs, but at its heart it’s also telling us a story of modern man and the trap that his luxury and his privilege have become for him. We watch Bart coil into himself as he works endlessly long hours and dotes on his family in only the most surface-level way. His home, the crown jewel of his pride, his comfort and his identity as a male provider, is also his prison. He can’t do anything without thinking of it first. The rat, whatever motives it has beyond, eat, crap, and destroy, manages to both rob him of all that, and free him at the same time. The last line of the film seems to come from a Bart who has weathered the tempest, taken inventory of his loss and counted himself better for it. See this movie.

 Check out the trailer:

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4 Responses to “AMAD-Horror Edition: Of Unknown Origin”

  1. Xiphos October 13, 2009 at 11:50 am #

    Oh man I had forgottten about this movie and I really liked it as a kid. Thanks for the memory jog Jonah.

  2. Nathan Bartlebaugh October 13, 2009 at 11:56 am #

    Yea, I’ve always been surprised that this never gathered a following other pictures did. It’s really a great little film, with good acting, direction and a really twisted sense of humor.

    I still can visualize the little kid putting heaping spoonfuls of rat poisoning on his cereal while humming ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’

  3. goregirl October 15, 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    I’m a fan of Peter Weller. I know I seen this once, but damn if I can remember any details. Maybe it is the cover that is familiar to me? You think I might remember a kid spooning rat poison on his cereal while humming Mary Had a Little Lamb!! Damn smart rats!! I think I have to see this one again (or possibly for the first time)…and soon!!

  4. Continentalop October 21, 2009 at 3:53 am #

    I know I am late commenting on this film, but man I loved this film when I saw it in the 80s. It was like mini-Jaws, but in the best sense. Man vs. Nature, but here the roles are reversed – Man is the big menacing figure facing something small and cunning. It’s like a battle of wits, but man finds out he isn’t always the smartest.
    I’ve got to see this again.

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