Sunday, January 18, 2015

Of Unknown Origin

(R, Warner Bros. Pictures, 88 mins., theatrical release date: November 24, 1983)

You have to respect the audacity of a major studio like Warner Bros. back in the early 1980s. Whereas all of their competitors were clamoring to capitalize on the slasher movie boom launched by the success of Paramount's Friday the 13th series, the company rolled out a steady stream of genre movies that didn't revolve around horny adolescents getting hacked to bits by rotting bogeys. Ignoring Eyes of a Stranger from 1981, Warner released anything but the typical Dead Teenager Movie, be they anthology films (Creepshow, Twilight Zone: The Movie), adult psychodramas (Altered States, The Hand) or nature's revenge sagas.

That latter subgenre was surprisingly prevalent for Warner, especially with Stephen King's Cujo, Aussie import Russell Mulcahy's hog wild Razorback and not one but two Canadian productions involving killer rats. The first was the loose James Herbert adaptation Deadly Eyes, which was directed by the same man who made the Joe Don Baker vs. mad mongrels obscurity The Pack for Warner Bros. back in the 1970s.

Apparently seizing upon a non-existent trend, the studio followed the April Fool's Day debut of that film with Of Unknown Origin in late autumn of 1983. Compared to Robert Clouse's predecessor, this particular chiller seemed scaled back and somewhat riskier in several regards. For one, Deadly Eyes depicted a horde of homicidal rodents of the legendary "Dachsunds dressed in rat costume" variety running amok around Toronto. Secondly, that film's screenwriter Charles H. Eglee made no secret about his derivations from John Sayles' script for Piranha, and indeed the multiple subplots involving love triangles, political greed and steroid-polluted grain dates it as a relic of the post-Peter Benchley school of schlock you could call Jaws-ploitation.

Thirdly, as the presence of a Bruce Lee screening in that film makes plain, Clouse was an established journeyman filmmaker whose career was launched by Lee's posthumous Enter the Dragon, securing him steady work for both the Warners and Hong Kong production outfit Golden Harvest for many years, including Deadly Eyes.

Of Unknown Origin, meanwhile, differs not only from Deadly Eyes but also the prior likes of Willard and Ben in that there is but one lone furry foe to deal with instead of a swarm of them. And it ain't no upholstered dog, neither. The screenplay by Brian Taggart, also based on a published novel called The Visitor by Chauncey G. Parker III, confines the action to a single building instead of loosing it on the city at large. And instead of a successful American filmmaker, Canuck impresarios Pierre David and Claude Héroux tapped an unknown European by the name of Yorgo Pan Cosmatos in his first cross-Atlantic project. Best known as George P. Cosmatos to the Anglican public, he would later go on to make a name in the United States with the Stallone collaborations Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra.

Also thrown into the mix was an up-and-coming actor named Peter Weller in his first lead role, following an acclaimed turn as Diane Keaton's new beau in Alan Parker's domestic drama Shoot the Moon. Subsequent roles as Buckaroo Banzai, RoboCop and William Lee (from Cronenberg's film version of Naked Lunch) turned Weller into a reluctant genre icon, but his characterization of proud businessman Bart Hughes here is pretty meek compared to the more forceful personalities of his later fan favorite characters. There's still a sardonic intellect and stoic tension to be admired in Weller, and although the lack of wider location use smells of staginess, Weller is a bracing presence who remains collected within the confined spaces of the narrative.

The resulting film is like a cross between Herman Melville and Hanna-Barbera, with Weller playing the Tom to the sewer-dwelling Jerry and taking repeated thwacks to his equilibrium in the process. The movie opens with Bart Hughes seeing off his gorgeous wife Meg (Shannon Tweed, hardly modest in her pre-soft core debut) and cutesy son Peter (Leif Anderson) as they leave for vacation to visit her father out in Vermont. The workaholic Bart stays behind to focus on the grain deal he's excelling at for his Manhattan trust company post, only to learn that he's been reassigned with a bank branch merger which could signal instant promotion and a hearty raise, provided he meets his two-week deadline.

The newfound privacy in his self-renovated brownstone ought to clear up Bart's anxieties about the sudden transfer, but he is startled by the leaking water pipe behind the dishwasher. The plumber he hires, Cleve (Louis Del Grande), deduces that the marks on the busted vein could have come from an army of mice, or at least one iron-toothed rat, something Bart scoffs at but takes heed of anyway when he starts placing mousetraps that are soon mangled beyond repair. Cleve tells him that whatever he's dealing with possess a frightening survival instinct, and may God help Bart if that rat turns out to have babies.

Bart also starts to show signs of distress at his bank office, taking lunch breaks to research the history of rat infestations and voicing his knowledge at a dinner party, almost as a rebellion against the grain project being taken over by his insidious rival James Hall (Kenneth Welsh). Bart's boss Eliot Riverton (the ever-prolific Lawrence Dane) and faithful secretary Lorrie Wells (Jennifer Dale) watch with shock at his increasing instability, and as the battle of wits between Bart and the vermin escalates, complete with ransacked pantries and mutilated kitties, Bart becomes a fanatical yuppie Ahab who must finally take matters in his own hands.

Cosmatos' direction is a tricky mix of the somber and silly, stylistic enough to effectively portray the rat as a shadowy menace capable of a few uncomfortable surprises (you might think twice before you ever lift your toilet cover again) but also drawn out to ludicrous degrees. It's all designed to illustrate Bart's slow-burning insanity and the violent deconstruction of his civilized demeanor, and there are even a couple of domestic nightmares and allusions to Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea. But the plot progresses with lackadaisical leisure, to the point where even the proverbial final straw is rendered mundane.

But maybe that's part of why the movie works as well as it does, its anti-supernatural gravity, urban ennui and pervading isolation going against the typical community-minded terror of its brethren. It's a character piece first and foremost more than a mere string of shopworn shock, kind of like Roger Christian's overlooked and astute The Sender (1982) which benefited from a multi-dimensional lead performance by Kathryn Harrold. In that regard, Peter Weller's performance is all the more entertaining and credible, his constant lapses in mood from enervation to nonchalance consistently amusing given how economical the conflict is.

The film grasps at metaphor by depicting Bart's frustrations at work ("This isn't a trust company, it's the court of Louis XIV") as a parallel to the rat chase which consumes him. The dinner party spiel, where he prattles off a series of queasy statistics and cultural idiosyncrasies involving rats, is the cornerstone of his alienation from his stuffy social standing. Eventually, in the midst of his mania, he delivers an ultimatum to his manager, who demands he sort out his affairs at home, and nearly makes a pass on his typist, a cursory nod to the allure of "while the cat's away" infidelity. The latter aspect has no true repercussions, though, and comes across as padding.

Beyond that, Cosmatos ratchets up the tension between homeowner and home wrecker, employing a diversity of POV shots, split-diopter widescreen framing and some excellent camera tracking to break up the monotony. But there comes a point where Bart makes such blunders as sending a stray cat in to do his bidding, leaving a check for an exterminator which is duly clawed or fishing in his townhouse's model for a steel trap (thus fulfilling the meager gore quota after it snaps) that the film grows repetitive in the worst way. Of course, it's all in service of the nutty final ten minutes, where Bart gears up in miner garb and augments a baseball bat with sharp objects to violently swat at the rat and thus destroys his architectural pride and joy.

Of Unknown Origin may not have been as easily marketable as Deadly Eyes or earlier animal attack films like Piranha, Tentacles or Ants! The trailer itself grandstands to a degree where it could be misconstrued as yet another Amityville film. Maybe it's a result of the film's inherent dryness, as it is far from the broad comedy of the later Mousehunt and less sensationalist than any of Pierre David's other horror co-productions. Yet Cosmatos' foreign sensibilities do work to his advantage here, especially compared to the hackneyed slickness of his subsequent Stallone actioners. And in Peter Weller's infallible commitment, Cosmatos has hit the rare jackpot in championing character over carnage. Let this be unknown no more.

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