Of Unknown Origin

Director: George P. Cosmatos
Peter Weller, Jennifer Dale, Lawrence Dane

As I think I mentioned once before in a past review on this web site, we human beings like to think we are the dominant species on this planet. We've got the brains, we've got the looks, so we can make lots of money. When, for instance, was the last time you heard of a beaver making any kind of monetary amount from building a dam? But while it's easy to think of other examples that suggest humans are perfect, a little additional thought will come up with examples as to how humans aren't totally different than the other members of the animal kingdom. For starters, like every other species of animal on the earth, humans have needs. Some of these needs are basic - we need water and food on a regular basis in order to survive, just like those so-called lowly animals. But we also have another kind of need that your typical animal does not have - interests in certain subjects and actions that are not necessary for our survival. Take myself, for instance. I have had many interests over the years, but the strongest and longest one has been with this web site, with hunting for and watching unknown movies, and then subsequently writing reviews about them and putting them out on the Internet. If you were to ask me why I have an interest in doing all that, I really couldn't explain why. I could only answer that for me, all those unknown movies spark some kind of fascination in me. And why that is, I cannot say for certain. When you think about it, the subject of how we gain and pursue interests seems to be one that hasn't really been studied that much.

All I can possibly say is that if we all have different fingerprints, we all are given while we're growing in our mothers' wombs different frames of mind. And all those different frames of minds explain why human beings not only have such a vast range of interests, but a craving to have some kind of interest. Humans seem to be the only species that easily get bored - and that shows we are not as superior to other animals as we may think. But I would really like to talk about when something becomes more of an interest, and becomes a downright obsession. Certainly, for some people stuff like alcohol or narcotics have become an obsession that's dangerous for one's health, but that's not what I'm really talking about. I'm talking about when one takes an interest that under normal circumstances is harmless, but instead goes over the top with it. Let me talk about a fictional example of this. If you recall the Road Runner cartoons, they involve a coyote with a non stop pursuit of a road runner. Officially, Wile E. Coyote would tell you he wants to catch the road runner to eat it. But film critic Leonard Maltin, an authority of the cartoons, once wrote that for Wile E. Coyote, it soon quickly became all about the pursuit, and that Mr. Coyote knows deep down that he will never catch the Road Runner - he has become obsessed with the chase portion of his so-called plan. Indeed, when you think about a lot, Wile E. Coyote's obsession has clearly made him unable to come up with some simple logic. For example, he could use all the money he spends on Acme products to buy food for a long time. And he's apparently forgotten what zoologists have known for years, that in real life a coyote can run a lot faster than a road runner. (Though I suspect that if Wile E. Coyote realized that and went all out in running after the Road Runner, the Road Runner would instantly realize he was a bird and would fly away.)

Of course, what I have just discussed was a fictional example. Indeed, in the world of the silver screen, when we see portrayals of obsessions, more often than not they too are fictional. Still, when I see one of those fictional examples of a person's great obsession with something, more often Of Unknown Originthan not I find myself interested to at least some degree. It makes me realize that some people have fragile minds. And being a person myself, I wonder if it's possible I could become deeply obsessed with something to the point of coming across as mentally disturbed to others. So I have an interest (not an obsession!) with movies concerning people with dangerous obsessions - I like to get insight into how someone could go around the bend, as well as feel superior to those mentally ill people. That's one reason why I remember liking Of Unknown Origin when I first saw it years ago, and after discovering a DVD copy of it in a pawn shop recently, I decided to give it another look to see if it stood up. The central figure in the movie is a New York businessman by the name of Bart Hughes (Weller, Robocop) who is married to a woman named Meg (former Playboy playmate Shannon Tweed). Not too long into the movie, Bart's wife and young son leave the family townhouse for a vacation. That is okay with Bart, because he is currently up for a promotion at his place of work, and being alone he should have no distractions with a project he's working on that should land him that promotion at work. But not long after his wife and son leave, Bart discovers there is a problem. A rat has invaded the townhouse, and it's no ordinary rat. It's a giant rat, and a smart one as well, one that is smart enough to constant evade Bart and his various attempts to capture or kill it. Slowly but surely, Bart starts to lose concern for his job, family, and home, becoming determined to get his hands on that rat no matter what the cost might be.

The behind the scenes details of the movie Of Unknown Origin are interesting because they make the movie not really belonging to one country. The movie's principle star, Peter Weller, was American. Director George P. Cosmatos (Rambo: First Blood Part 2) was Greek-Italian. And the producers were the legendary Canadian movie producers Pierre David (The Paperboy) and Claude Heroux (Breaking Point). However, officially the movie was branded Canadian due to its two producers. It was made while Canada still had a tax shelter available to encourage investment in Canadian films. While most of these tax shelter efforts had quality be of little (if any) concern, Of Unknown Origin seems to have been a production made with high ambitions in a number of aspects. The musical score by Ken Wannberg (The Philadelphia Experiment), for one thing, puts a sombre mood to the background of what plays out. Even better than what we get to hear is what we get to see; this is a very good looking movie. The photography by the Canadian cinematographer Rene Verzier (City On Fire) is first rate in every situation you can think of, from outdoor scenes taking place in the middle of the day to the darkened yet still clear scenes taking place in the protagonist's basement. The production also had enough money to not only construct convincing sets (most of them depicting various rooms in Bart's home), but to also adequately dress existing locations with enough props and extras to make the world depicted in the movie look extremely convincing.

When it comes to the important factors such as direction and acting, Of Unknown Origin also keeps up that high class air. Director Cosmatos was known on more than one occasion in his career to concede to the demands of his stars or producers on a movie, but I don't think that happened here. I got the impression there was one person definitely in control. The movie slowly builds the feeling of tension as well as the feeling of a loss of control in the first two-thirds, then in the last two thirds successfully moves into what could now be called a living (and believable) nightmare. Also, there are a number of little yet memorable details added here and there (like when Bart takes a few seconds to straighten a hanging picture before going to work) that show that the same person that was in control was thinking about how to keep the audience's attention even when the pesky rat is nowhere to be seen or heard of in a scene. Cosmatos also manages to handle his interesting cast well. He manages to get the relatively unknown Canadian supporting players, most prominently Louis Del Grande (Scanners) and Lawrence Dane (Rituals), to give amusing performances while staying low key. That low key tone is also what he apparently told Peter Weller to stick with for most of the movie. At the start of the movie, Weller is easygoing while a little bland, which I think was the correct tone. If Weller had been more aggressive in this part of the movie, he would have been downright goofy, and that would have been downright annoying. The subdued performance in the beginning also makes it more believable when Weller's character starts to lose his marbles, because we can see a clear contrast between the two extremes. Actually, Weller only starts ranting and raving towards the end of the movie. Until then, Weller's growing insanity is more subtle. We see him frustrated and tired, as well as suffering pain (physical and mental). Seeing Weller's character going through this more subtle discomfort manages to hit home more effectively than if Weller's performance had been severely off the wall.

The script for Of Unknown Origin was written by Brian Taggert (Visiting Hours). However, unlike the production values, direction, and acting, the results in this aspect of the movie are somewhat mixed. Don't get me wrong, the script has some good things to it. What I enjoyed most about this depiction of obsession is that obsession is shown to not only build slowly, but that there can be lulls and valleys in the journey temporarily stopping the climb into dangerous territory. Very realistic, I think. There are also some genuinely humorous moments here and there as well, the best being when the crumbling Bart during a business dinner starts to gross out his dinner companions by spouting a near-rant about how rats plague mankind. However, the screenplay has some weak spots that should have dictated a rewrite or two. There is some awkward and forced exposition at the beginning of the movie. And the subplot in the movie concerning Bart slowly losing favor at work because he is spending too much time obsessing about the rat is near the end of the movie resolved in a deus ex machina manner and then promptly forgotten about for the rest of the remaining running time. But I think the biggest problem with the screenplay is that, even at eighty-nine minutes, it runs a little too long. While I did appreciate the movie's work of showing obsession building slowly, at the same time things eventually gets somewhat repetitive, with one or two too many failed attempts by Bart to get rid of the rat. A rewrite might have managed to find a more comfortable balance. But the script problems in Of Unknown Origin are not only compensated by the well made nature found in other aspects of the movie, but by the movie's original nature. You don't see a movie every day about a man battling a formidable rat. After seeing so many movie formulas done over and over, I am more than open to something new, even if it's not done perfectly.

(Posted October 31, 2020)

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See also: Crawlspace, Rats: Night Of Terror, A Rat's Tale