Of Unknown Origin (1983)

MARCH 29, 2009


Man, THREE New York monster movies in a row! I swear I don’t plan this shit. Even stranger, I swear that the house that at least serves as the exterior for Peter Weller’s home in Of Unknown Origin is the same one at the end of Q where the new egg is about to hatch. But I can’t be sure, they never offer an aerial or even a really wide shot of the place, and that’s all we got in Q.

But what they DO offer is a fucking awesome man vs. rat movie. I love how stripped down it is: the family is shipped off in the first few minutes, and there’s only one rat. There are a couple of side characters who you think might end up as rat fodder (the building’s handyman, Weller’s hot secretary) but nope. It’s always down to Weller and the rat, which is giant enough to be threatening but not giant enough to make the movie feel silly.

That’s not to say that the movie isn’t humorous. On the contrary, it’s pretty damn funny. But intentionally so. Weller more or less spends the entire movie alone, talking to himself, and he’s got some great lines throughout (when the rat chews out the electricity about an hour or so into the film, he mutters “I was wondering when you were gonna get around to that...”), and there are some terrific sight gags as well. It’s never set up or foreshadowed, so when Weller is chased by the rat into his bedroom and he dives onto a newly installed hammock, I laughed out loud. And even though it’s slightly obvious, I couldn’t help but grin when he grabs a copy of Moby Dick to pound the ceiling where the rat is chewing away.

It’s also a nice showcase for George P. Cosmatos, who got stuck doing a lot of lackluster movies in his later years (such as Leviathan, or his final film, Shadow Conspiracy, which also ended Charlie Sheen’s theatrical starring role career). He does a lot of rat point of view shots, which are all pretty solid. They are all scaled up sets, obviously, but the effect is sold quite well. He also creates some truly unsettling shots using a diopter, putting the rat’s foot in focus on one side of the frame as a poor cat (the movie’s only casualty) wanders around in the other side. The only blunder is that he never quite manages to really clarify how big the rat is in relation to Weller (seems about the size of his head), nor does he provide an explanation for how it seemingly can get into even tiny cupboards without making a hole.

On the commentary, Cosmatos explains this, citing the old Jaws example. I buy it for the first hour, but eventually you saw that the shark was big enough to eat Robert Shaw. The scenes where Weller is physically attacked by the thing are presented in quick cuts, and often in the dark. Weller’s also on the commentary (they are not together though), and it’s certainly worth a listen. Weller’s a pretty smart guy, and hilariously honest (he points out how it was hard to focus on his suitcase prop when Shannon Tweed, as his wife, was showering one room over). Cosmatos also explains that the movie wasn’t shot in New York, which ends my “house from Q” curiosity (I wrote the first half of the review before I watched the commentary, and I'm too lazy to scroll up and edit). They occasionally lapse into narration or silent mode, but it’s a pretty interesting track overall, and they point out things I had missed (like how Weller’s character walks perpendicular to the anonymous extras when things are going well for him, but parallel later in the film). Neither of them provide any explanation for the film’s otherwise awesome trailer, which ends on a suggestion that the house about to vanish into the next dimension or something. Watch it below, it’s fucking amazing if you’ve seen the movie, and needlessly misleading if you haven’t.

I am pretty sure I caught the end of this movie when I was like four or five. I know I saw a killer rat movie that had a conclusion in a basement, and I seem to recall water (the pipes have burst) as well. But the guy I had pictured in my head was a more mild-mannered type, like Dennis Christopher in IT or something. So I dunno. If there’s another early 80s killer rat movie that’s as good as this, I would certainly like to see it.

Also I’d like to quickly offer an aside about The Room. I admit to being quite late to the party (seeing as how everyone in the theater, even those claiming to be watching it for the first time, knew every line and were armed with spoons), but goddamn, if you have an opportunity to see this epic in theaters, you must. It’s not horror by any means, but it transcends any genre one could assign to it (if someone held a gun to my head, I’d call it a romantic drama, but that would be slighting it). It’s indescribable, and even if you’ve watched clips, you’re not getting anything even close to the right context (especially since the scenes exist without context in the film anyway). I went at 11:59 pm on Saturday (the word “midnight” should just be removed from the English language to avoid confusion), and was amazed to discover that the theater showed it on FOUR screens to meet the demand, despite having been shown once a month for years now. Even Rocky Horror doesn’t command that sort of treatment. I didn’t watch Of Unknown Origin until like 9pm today because I was too wired from The Room to fall asleep until like 6 am, which sort of shifted my daily routine by about 5 hrs. Anyway, I plan to go next time it comes around; if you’re in LA you simply must join me.

What’s new with you?


  1. I love the silhouette of the house at the end of the trailer! I want to see THAT movie... but I netflixed it anyways because you make it sound compelling... and funny.

  2. This is one of my all time favorite flicks. Just a great thriller and enjoyable over and over. It also I believe led to my fear/distaste for rodents of any kind. As BC said Weller is pretty great. It never seems corny to me and is quite a solid movie. Most people I know have never seen it however.

  3. "I HAD A PARTY". this movie is amazing.

  4. i love me some good critter movies, espeacially
    when a dumb girl gets eaten by the critters.
    i love gore

  5. Not that it matters, but the movie you are remembering catching the end of as a kid with the rat and the burst water pipes and all, if it wasn't actually this film, is likely an old 80's made-for-tv anthology called "Nightmares". The final seg was somewhat similar to this film. The star was Richard Masur.


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