Dec 7, 2019


You’re going to absorb so much information on rats from watching Of Unknown Origin that it’s absurd, and you’ll never see it coming. Like, apparently, a rat’s teeth never stops growing, hence why they chew, constantly, on everything, in an effort to wear their teeth down. 

Now, is that true? I have no idea, but a movie starring Peter Weller told me it is, and I CHOOSE TO BELIEVE IT. 

By film’s end, you will be a walking rat expert and no one will ever date you.

As you settle down to watch Of Unknown Origin, what will resonate with you the most after a while is that it’s honestly kind of good, with an absolutely committed performance by Weller and an almost JAWS-like approach to the material. (There’s even a scene where Weller’s Burt flips through books and photographs of rat attacks suffered by humans, complemented by a similarly moody Williams-esque musical score. It’s a shame none of the pages reflected in Weller’s glasses, or perhaps director George P. Cosmatos figured that might be going a tad too far.)

It’s easy and even kind of understandable to write off Of Unknown Origin if you’ve never had the pleasure, especially when you know that it was a product of the ‘80s, starred a pre-Robocop Peter Weller, and was about one man’s descent into hell thanks to the gigantic rat infesting his New York brownstone. And don’t get me wrong, Of Unknown Origin is silly, but not the kind of silly where you can just dismiss the film out of hand. It’s silly in the sense that it’s man vs. rat, but the concept is taken seriously enough, and Cosmatos is a skilled enough director (let’s pretend that the ghost-directing going on during the shooting of Cobra and Tombstone by Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell*, respectively, were overblown), that the film never feels like outright parody or B-movie stupidity.

And Weller, holy shit — he’s having so much fun with this role, and why wouldn’t he? This is an actor’s dream — the chance to transform, slowly, through the course of one film, starting off as a plain and mild-mannered junior executive and ending the film as a raving madman, willing to go to great lengths to destroy the rat that’s totally ruining his mind — and his own house in the process.

Throughout, Of Unknown Origin maintains a very sly sense of humor, through Weller’s own bemusement with the rodent, as well as the concept itself. And obviously, or maybe not so obviously, it’s also clever satire on the idea of the American Dream — in this case, the perfectly manicured, catalog-ready home: what it says about your status, and the silly lengths one may go to maintain its flawlessness. So, if that’s the case, then what does the rat represent? God knows. How social do you want to get? The scourge of the middle class or the poor? Maybe the homeless? Immigration? (This isn’t far-fetched. Creepshow, more specifically the segment “They’re Creeping Up On You,” in which E.G. Marshall’s hermetically sealed apartment is infested with cockroaches meant to represent the exploding immigrant population in the surrounding city, has explored this ground before.) Weller’s a white, well-to-do, suit-wearing fella who handles “deals” as part of his job, so based on the film itself, the rat can represent almost anything, since white people are everything. I mean, sure, the synopsis refers to “the rat race of Wall Street” and that’s a differing and fair allegory, but much more of the conflict takes place within the rat-infested home, with Weller’s job not suffering that much or causing that much undue stress. (Plus I just like my own analysis better because I’m whiny and proud.)

But if you’re not interested in social commentary, that’s fine, because Of Unknown Origin is still entertaining as hell if you’re taking the movie merely at face value. Only in rare cases do I find the animals-run-amok sub-genre entertaining — I’ll re-mention JAWS as a fave, and Alligator as a dark horse, but I’ll also mention that I find Hitchcock’s The Birds kind of stupid and Cujo extremely dull. Having said that, I’ll happily count Of Unknown Origin among the ranks of one of the good ones. Obviously it’s no JAWS, but it’s a hair better than JAWS 2, and that’s not bad. Maybe because, on paper, you wouldn’t think Of Unknown Origin had a chance, and maybe I like an underdog. Or maybe I expected an easily dismissible bullshit B-movie like the distributor’s prior release of Deadly Eyes and got something much more well rendered.

Be sure to watch it surrounded by your ratta friends that you bought from the local IKEA, to whom you’ve assigned differing personalities, and then talk to them during the movie and pretend they are talking back to you in little unique rat voices because you are just a total, total weirdo.

*Hey, Tango & Cash!

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