FOR RATS’ EYES ONLY: Reviews of Movies About Rats
OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN (1983)
By L.L. Soares
Welcome to the new column “For Rats’ Eyes Only.” One subgenre of the horror film I’ve always enjoyed is the one that involves rats, strangely enough, and there are enough of these movies so that I can review one every once in awhile.
We begin with 1983’s OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN starring Peter Weller, before he starred in the cult classic THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BONZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION (1984) and his most famous role, as the titular ROBOCOP (1987).
Here, Weller plays Bart Hughes, a high-powered businessman on the verge of a promotion and a possible partnership in his Manhattan firm. He is given a job restructuring their Los Angeles office, an assignment that will decide whether he gets that promotion or not. Meanwhile, his wife Meg (Shannon Tweed in her first feature film role, after some work on television) is going on vacation with their young son Peter (Leif Anderson) to visit Bart’s in-laws for awhile. The understanding is that he’ll join them at some point, when he’s done with his assignment. However, things don’t go as planned.
It begins when Bart’s kitchen gets flooded after something damages the water hose in the dishwasher. At first it seems to be a freak accident, until the local handyman, Clete (Louis Del Grande) takes a look and tells Bart that it looks like something chewed through the hose, and he might have a vermin problem. “Have you seen any mice?” Clete asks. How about rats!
Sure, Bart’s house is beautiful. But this is the big city, and rats are everywhere, Clete explains, whether or not we can see them.
Bart finds it almost impossible to believe he has a rat problem. His house is pristine, and he did all of the renovations himself, but he takes Clete’s advice and gets some mouse traps, just to be safe. He even cuts big pieces of cheddar cheese to put in the traps. When he starts finding the traps untouched, but the cheese missing, he starts to realize he might just have a rodent problem after all.
So he gets bigger, more vicious looking traps. When those don’t work he gets two kinds of poison. And the situation escalates more and more, and Bart finds that he is not dealing with a simple, everyday rat. He’s dealing with some kind of super rat that is always one step ahead of him, anticipating his every move, and avoiding all of his attempts to kill it. So two things happen. The rat gets smarter and more aggressive as Bart tries to kill it. And Bart begins to get obsessed with getting rid of the rat, so much so that he stops paying attention to his work or his family. He’s up all night, so he gets hardly any sleep. And when he is awake, he’s looking online for ways to get rid of rats, or calling exterminators who never pick up their phones (“They’re probably overworked,” Clete suggests).
The title refers to a photo of a species of rat that’s “of unknown origin,” that we see briefly while Bart is doing research and collecting all kinds of books and magazines on the subject.
Eventually, it becomes all out war between Bart and the rat. His entire life seems focused on eliminating the creature. He won’t evacuate the house he spent so much time renovating – it’s a matter of principle—and the rat isn’t going anywhere either. It has chewed an intricate maze of tunnels throughout the house, in the walls and the ventilation system. When Bart chases the creature and tries to kill it, it even attacks him, digging its teeth into him, slashing him with its claws, and it’s pretty big—about the size of a large cat. In fact, there’s a scene where Bart adopts a cat, attempting to use the animal to get rid of his nemesis. Let’s say it doesn’t work out very well.
There are some scenes that play out almost like comedy. Bart’s single-mindedness in hunting the vermin down, and the way it constantly eludes him, takes on the feel of an old Warner Brothers cartoon at times. But every time it seems funny, the movie shows us a close up of the rat’s drooling fangs, and we realize this thing means business.
In a pivotal scene, Bart ends up in some home-made armor of sorts, with a miner’s light duct-taped to his head, protective equipment on his body, and a baseball bat with protruding nails as a weapon. By this point, he has almost lost his mind in his striving to rid his environment of this intruder.
OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN isn’t the best rat-related movie I’ve seen, but it is a good one. And you get caught up in the story, just like Bart gets caught up in his mission.
I give it three cat-sized rodents!
© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares