Of Unknown Origin directed by George P. CosmatosOf Unknown Origin directed by George P. Cosmatos

Of Unknown Origin directed by George P. CosmatosSpeaking as a native New Yorker, I would hazard a guess that the two things my fellow residents here fear the most, when it comes to their apartment or dwelling place, are (a) bedbugs and (b) rodents. Those bloodsucking little insects were on the wane for many decades, but have unfortunately made a comeback in recent years, and while not disease carriers, are notoriously difficult and expensive to eliminate. As for the latter, well, the sight of a scurrying mouse in the house is surely enough to startle even the toughest of Big Apple dwellers. But the thought of a rat — the larger-size rodent that most New Yorkers only see on the subway tracks underground — getting INSIDE one’s residence is one that is certain to engender nightmares. This fear was only made worse a little while ago, with the online emergence of a video showing how easily the whiskered horrors can climb up the plumbing of a house or apartment building and enter one’s abode through the toilet! Thus, it was with a feeling of facing my own worst fears that I sat down to watch the 1983 Canadian film Of Unknown Origin the other night, a film that spotlights just such a conundrum faced by one very unfortunate New Yorker.

In the film, the viewer meets an up-and-coming young executive named Bart Hughes, played by the immensely likable Peter Weller, here four years before his megabreakthrough role in RoboCop. Bart would seem to have it all: a beautiful blonde wife (former Playmate of the Year Shannon Tweed, here in her first film), a cute little son, and a job at a major banking company, Commercial American Trust (CAT?), at which he is working on a big promotion and a $25K raise. He is also the owner of a gorgeous NYC brownstone (in truth, the building looks more like a castle than anything else, and the film was actually shot in Montreal) that he has recently renovated by himself.

When his wife and son go away to Vermont to visit her father, Bart is left alone to concentrate on his latest work project, but the only thing is … he is not QUITE alone. A chewed-through wire in his dishwasher, weird pattering noises, ripped-up bags of food in the pantry, and other hints lead Bart to the inescapable conclusion that a rat has somehow gained entrance to his “House Beautiful” sanctuary. He leaves traps, which are shredded by the creature; he leaves poison, which is ignored; he ensconces a street cat in his apartment, and the cat is later found to be a bloody corpse lying on top of his refrigerator! Bart later discovers a clutch of baby rats in his boiler room basement, by which fact he knows that he is dealing with a female rat … the more vicious of the breed. And after Bart is repeatedly attacked and bitten and scratched by the creature, and after his office work begins to suffer due to his obsession at home, he decides to gear up and do final battle with the darn pesky invader once and for all…

For anyone who has ever dealt with an unwelcome animal intruder in his or her abode, Of Unknown Origin will surely be a nerve-racking experience. I concur wholeheartedly with my beloved Psychotronic Video Guide in its pronouncement that the film is “better than you’d expect,” and would even go further to say that this is one absolutely terrific little exercise in horror and suspense. Director George P. Cosmatos, who had previously helmed The Cassandra Crossing and would go on to direct the Stallone films Rambo: First Blood, Part II and Cobra, expertly ratchets up the tension here, while his leading man remains perfectly cool.

Indeed, Bart manages to stay much more levelheaded than most New Yorkers would when faced with the situation of a super-intelligent, squealing, and exceptionally malicious rodent in his/her apartment. When Bart walks into his house, he yells out “Darling, I’m home;” when the Rattus rattus (or whatever the hell the thing is) chews through his pad’s electrical wiring, plunging the place into darkness, Bart, casually munching on a pickle, mutters, “Well, I wondered when you’d get around to that.” He is exceptionally well suited to deal with his household menace, as it turns out, especially when he does suit up at the end — with hockey leggings, a miner’s hat with flashlight attached, and a baseball bat equipped with nails as a makeshift mace — to engage in battle royale.

If I had one small problem with this film, it is that we never get a good solid establishing shot of the rat in question, with the exception of a few shots toward the end, when the darn thing jumps onto Bart’s back, and we see that it is the size of a large house cat! Until then, we’d only seen the thing in extreme close-up shots of its ugly face, and via Jaws-like POV shots through its own eyes. But this is a minor matter. Of Unknown Origin essentially does for rats what Jaws did for sharks, and avoiding one’s own apartment is a lot more difficult than avoiding the ocean! As for Bart, I will reveal that he does seem to be in store for that $25K raise. And he’ll be needing it … to fix up his battered town house again! You know, it just occurred to me that you can’t spell “Bart” without the letters R-A-T…


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....