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March 16, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #63 - Of Unknown Origin

I don't know about you, but I had principles installed upon me when I was a child.  Some of them - like "show up and work hard, even if you don't want to" - came from my parents; others - like "don't whiz on the electric fence" - came from cartoons.  One of the most important of these is most certainly "sometimes it's best to ignore a pest" - a message that was most certainly hammered home by one of the power duos in the history of 'toonhood, Tom & Jerry.

Very few situations over the years in reality closely echo the game of cat-and-mouse played by T & J (Can you imagine how painful life would be if they did?), but one such battle plays out in Of Unknown Origin, a 1983 film by George P. Cosmatos - who would go on to direct Rambo Part II, Tombstone, and Cobra.  That's right, he directed COBRA.  So, I will admit that I expected something pretty cheesy from Of Unknown Origin from a film by the man who cured crime.  But I got something entirely different, which turned out to be something I kind of loved a lot.
Peter Robocop Weller stars as a successful business man who's married to a beautiful blonde (Shannon Tweed) and has a sparkplug of a young son; the kind of guy who remodeled his New York City home with his own hands, probably while still wearing a tie and sipping brandy from fine drinkware.  But when things start to go wrong around the home - while said family is conveniently away on a trip while he stays back to work on that big project for work - he realizes that he's got a bit of a rat problem.
Being a well-educated man, Weller's Bart Hughes takes a different approach than most movie males would take.  He enlists the help of an expert, he reads books and magazine articles, he stares out his office windows....because he wants to get inside the mind of this vicious rat.  Anyone who remembers Tom & Jerry might assume that a director would take a comical turn with this kind of film, but Cosmatos & Weller go the opposite direction and take the threat very seriously.  Maybe not as seriously as the cheesy theatrical trailer below takes it, but pretty seriously.
Weller does a fantastic job carrying the film.  We can see his obsession with catching and killing the demon rat, but he doesn't go over the top and become a caricature of his businessman character.  As we watch Bart deal with his pest in varying ways - while also trying to keep in touch with his family and impress his boss (Happy Birthday to Me's Lawrence Dane) - he never comes off as a man who's entirely gone mad, he's just stretched to his limits.  The decision to stay serious, to not have Bart going totally Nic-Cage-over-the-top, is a brave one, but it makes Of Unknown Origin a far more interesting film than it would have been otherwise.
 The rat itself is rarely seen, mostly shown through flashes of its gnawing teeth or fleshy paws, but I completely loved how it was presented to the viewer.  We see its tunnels, we hear the frantic pitter-patter of its feet and plenty of other cool sound effects, but we - like Bart - usually really don't know what we're looking at.  Like Weller's character, there were plenty of chances to take the rat over the top and have it wink at the camera and such, but the film stays its course.  The film finds unique ways to show how dangerous the rat can be - ranging from the stories told by the handyman who assists Bart to its effect on the poor cat Bart brings home to help - and this resulted in me feeling like the rat was certainly a dangerous presence in Bart's home.
Of Unknown Origin reminds me of a couple of other '80s favorites - C.H.U.D. and Prince of Darkness come to mind - because it is the kind of horror film whose filmmakers must know that most viewers won't think to take its premise seriously.  Like the people behind those films, Cosmatos, Weller, and crew don't back down from the challenge.  They do everything they can to convince us that this rat, which is of unknown origin, IS a serious threat, and their willingness to commit to the story won me over completely.  This is a surprising hidden gem in the '80s horror pantheon, and I urge anyone who is looking for a fun thriller that doesn't resort to comedy gags to seek it out immediately.  It's the best Tom & Jerry movie EVER.

1 comment:

R.D. Penning said...

It doesn't happen often, but I don't think I have ever heard of this one, and I love Weller.