The Chronicles of Horror Movie Night: ‘Of Unknown Origin’ (1983)

Posted by Damon Swindall - May 28th 2012 @ 2:00 pm

After starting in Washington D.C. nine years ago Horror Movie Night has expanded to include chapters in Austin, Dallas and Chicago. Horror’s Not Dead’s own Brian Kelley is the originator and programmer of this illustrious weekly Wednesday night tradition which features a “classic” horror film. Each week I will be reviewing/commenting on the past week’s selection so do your best to find the film, most of which have not made it past VHS, and follow along. Better yet, start your own chapter!

Rat Scratch Fever

Alright guys, this is going to be a rarity for my good ‘ol Horror Movie Night column. Over the past – however long you’ve been reading – you’ve seen me praise the ludicrous and gory, all the while condemning the low-body-count-plagued snoozefests. This week we have a film that has a body count of zero. Yep, not a single person bites the dust here, but I’m still going to sing the high praises of the 1983 film Of Unknown Origin. It is possible to have a horror film, or in this case a bit more of a thriller, with little to no death, yet be able to retain a feeling of terror and keep you interested while on the edge of your seat. Thanks to director George P. Cosmatos that is exactly what we get here. 

Bart Hughes (Peter Weller) is a family man alone for a few days, putting in long hours at work while his wife and kid go out of town. One night, while sitting alone in his newly renovated brownstone, he hears something and then finds that the dishwasher has exploded all over his kitchen. When the handyman from a nearby building comes to take a look it becomes evident that this is more than a plumbing issue, there’s a rat on the loose. Various traps set seem to do nothing, as the rodent gets increasingly more vicious toward Bart which begins to take a toll on the man’s sanity. His life becomes consumed with this rat and the end result is a violent, somewhat humorous, decent into madness as he sacrifices everything to get the rat.


The first time I saw this film was probably around ten years ago. I was an active member on a horror message board where we had a viewing club that would watch movies during the month picked by a random member. In the great animal themed film month I was introduced to this film and was shocked at how much I enjoyed every last bit of it. This is only, I think, the third time I’ve watched it, but this screening has only solidified and rekindled my love for some rat terror. There are other movies involving the furry creatures that go a bit overboard.

Take Italian director Bruno Mattei’s 1984 film Rats – Night of Terror for instance. In the true spaghetti horror fashion of the time, this takes place in a future ravaged by disease and post-apocalyptic bands of maniacs and looters after a nuclear assault. As if this weren’t enough, a group of roving scavengers comes across an old research facility filled with some pretty evil and feisty rats. For the rest of the film they are inundated with hordes of vermin all leading to a ridiculous finale. Such is not the case with Of Unknown Origin. This film succeeds in its simplicity. Dozens of rats don’t pour out of the walls onto Weller, instead we are subjected to just one lone rat causing tons of physical and psychological damage. One film is awesome in a over-the-top drive-in sort of way, while the other is a higher level of terror, one that is not common to HMN.

Weller means business

Part of what makes this film so great is Weller’s portrayal of Bart as he becomes consumed with this activity. He starts off in a very reserved fashion, trying to work hard and be the family man everyone knows him to be. As he realizes this rat spends all of its time concentrating on how to fuck up his life, he knows he must do the same to eradicate the pest. Bart’s delving into the dark, insane place he travels is something almost magical to watch. You really feel a part of this maddening and want him to kill that goddamn rat!

This is not to say the film is without any scary moments caused strictly by atmosphere. There are some damn fine jump scares that will have you thinking twice about investigating when you hear a noise in the middle of the night . The most cringe-inducing has to be when Bart gets up in the middle of the night to head to the bathroom and opens the toilet lid only to be greeted by a big fucking rat lunging at his junk! Now the thought of a vicious animal attacking my member is frightening enough, but it’s just wrong to happen from the toilet when you’re groggy and just want to get back to sleep. When I was a kid, and would go camping, I was always afraid of spiders, poisonous or not, crawling up my buyt whilst sitting in a latrine. If I had seen this then, toilet rats would’ve freaked me out too. And I’m not one to get spooked by stuff from movies, but this just makes my skin crawl. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t slowly open the toilet lid that night after re-watching this flick.

This film is not all serious though, there are quite a few moments of levity throughout. From some great dream sequences to Weller’s mind breaking, you’ll definitely be entertained. As Bart’s mind begins to totally crack into full rat mode he gets into some grisly details about the species over a nice dinner with colleagues. Watching them try to swallow their food as he talks is hysterical. There is also Bart’s little conversations he has with the vermin and the strange things he taunts it with. After demolishing a toy with a new super trap he warns “watch and weep you furry fucker.” This is only made even funnier by the medieval rat traps he buys. You know you mean business when the large steel toothed traps are attached to thick chains.

Toilet rat cam

Special attention must be made to a couple of the smaller players in the film; scene-stealers in the form of the helpful handyman and the guy at the hardware store. Both of these Canadian character actors deliver some fun and helpful performances that are so outlandish compared to Weller’s rougher, more reserved turn on screen. The handyman is played by Lawrence Dane a man not unknown to horror fans having roles in such films as Happy Birthday to Me, Scanners, and one of HMN’s picks from last year Rituals.

It should be mentioned that many people, including one of my Dallas cohorts Reel Distraction, have a theory that there was no rat at all. At the beginning of the movie we find out that Bart is having some troubles at work, is being looked over for some big assignments, and his home life might be a big stagnant as well. I guess it’s not inconceivable that he could just be losing his mind and hallucinating this rat as part of his breakdown. I still like to think that there was a real rat, maybe just not as crazy or large as the one we see onscreen. I know rats can squeeze through some small places but at times this creature looks as big as a small dog. I find that a tad excessive.

Even though this has a non-existent body count I still highly suggest you give Of Unknown Origin a shot. There are so many wonderful moments as Peter Weller faces off against such a clever and malicious rat. The old Warner DVD is still available, though it does come in a pretty shitty snapcase. Small price to pay for seeing such a wonderful film.

Until next week – is it weird that even though that rat was horrible I felt really sad when he was finally defeated?
Body Count: 0 (unless you count the cat and the rat)
First Glimpse of the Rat: 10:54
Best Dream Sequence: Rat bursting through a birthday cake!

Coming soon to Horror Movie Night (Chronicles are posted one week after screening):
-5/23/12: Deadline (1984)
-5/30/12: Memorial Valley Massacre (1988)
-6/6/12: Pinocchio’s Revenge (1996)
-6/13/12: The Carpenter (1989)

Happy birthday kid, have a killer rat.

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  1. Bobby
    October 11th, 2012 | 7:17 pm | #1

    I was looking for this movie forever. Me and my brother remember watching it on T.V. once when we were kids. The scene with the rat flying out of the cake is just rediculous lol.

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