A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #12: “Of Unknown Origin” (1983)
by A.J. Hakari
Of Unknown Origin pits one angry dude against one equally agitated rodent, and sometimes, that’s all you need. Where rampaging animals are concerned, turning them into towering behemoths or giving them some demonic background doesn’t necessarily make them any more frightening. All that’s required is nature’s indiscriminating wrath and Hollywood’s talent for exaggerating the everloving shit out of things, both of which Of Unknown Origin employs to its surprisingly nerve-wracking advantage.
Bart Hughes (Peter Weller) has it made. He has a loving family, a well-paying job, and a roomy brownstone in the Big Apple. So of course things are going to turn to shit for the poor guy, which they do when his wife and son head out of town on vacation. But while Bart stays to work on business, he notices signs of a rat that’s taken residence in his spacious abode. As Bart learns, however, this ain’t no garden-variety pest, as all of his attempts to vanquish the creature only piss it off. Impervious to traps, poisons, and exterminators, the rat only grows more vicious with each attack, driving Bart to insanity and threatening to bring down his entire home in the process.
After Monkey Shines took a crazy-go-nuts concept seriously to a fault, it’s a relief to see Of Unknown Origin acknowledge how improbable it is. Though much of the film is fairly grounded (there’s no magic or science to explain Bart’s foe — it’s just a big freakin’ rat), the conflict grows sillier the further it develops. Eventually, the flick basically states that the rat has sworn a vendetta against Bart, with our protagonist glad to play Ahab to the rodent’s great whale (seriously, Weller goes after it with a copy of “Moby Dick” at one point…now that’s subtlety). But Of Unknown Origin isn’t so out-there as to lose its intense touch or make it impossible to understand Bart’s obsession with taking down the rat. Weller does a solid job of mostly internalizing his character’s increasing frustration, becoming as bent on protecting his family and territory as his verminous enemy.
Of Unknown Origin has a lot of downtime that’s comprised of subplots involving Bart’s workplace troubles and a sort-of attraction for his secretary, but not much of it rings very interesting. Inconsequential as these sections might be, though, they don’t do much damage to the film’s smooth flow of suspense. Of Unknown Origin isn’t a totally sterling flick, but it’s a lean, mean chiller that embraces a mindset I think we all agree with: rats can just go to hell.