George P. Cosmatos’ Of unknown origin is an obscure home invasion movie from the early 80s – a chilling horror film depicting one man’s fight against a voracious and untamed plague. Peter Weller’s first leading role, he would play one of science fiction’s most iconic heroes four years later in Paul Verhoeven Robotcop. Of unknown origin also functions as a character study, focusing almost exclusively on Weller’s protagonist, Bart Hughes, as he attempts to defeat a monstrous, evil rat that has invaded his New York home.
Weller, who received positive reviews for his performance, is perfect as Hughes – a successful businessman and loving husband and father. With a casual charm that eventually morphs into an image of haggard obsession and intensity, Hughes becomes utterly engrossed in his battle with the film’s clever and malevolent rat. On the surface, Of unknown originWeller’s premise may sound silly, but Weller’s acting – combined with the creative direction of Cosmatos – elevates the plot and makes it a weird, claustrophobic nail-biter.
Peter Weller hit the ground running in his first leading role
The most of Of unknown origin is Hughes alone – his wife and son leave to visit the family near the start of the film. Hughes’ comfortable environment, which is repeatedly mentioned in various conversations, is the result of his well-paid job as an investment banker in New York. Just as the rat begins to make its presence known – chewing wires, eating its food, punching holes in walls – Hughes is given a career-crucial mission at his company.
There are several other characters in the film, like Hughes’ secretary Lorrie (Jennifer Dale), his neighbor and handyman Clete (Louis Del Grande) and his boss Eliot (Lawrence Dane), but Weller essentially carries the emotional stakes of the film. story with his increasingly manic performance. (In an interesting cinematic anecdote, just two years before Of unknown originDel Grande and Dane appeared in David Cronenberg’s seminal body horror film Scanners.)
Of unknown origin is a modern variant of Moby Dick – Except with rats
For long stretches, the audience watches Weller alone as he goes to aggressive extremes and ends up destroying almost every square inch of his home just to kill the rat. With another actor, this being the film’s central conflict could have easily become satire or just plain slapstick. Weller’s intensity helps make every nuance of her character feel real, emotionally grounding the film.
Effective horror that appeals to its audience often does so by successfully establishing believable and likable characters (which this movie does) and/or creating a specific, powerful environment in which the story unfolds. Of unknown origin excels in this regard, too – the angles and configurations of Cosmatos transform the brownstone of the Hughes family into a disorienting and claustrophobic place, taking the fear out of every shot. By showing some of the action through the rat’s perspective (and sometimes zooming in on the rat to the point where its teeth or eyes fill the screen), Cosmatos gives this wild, nameless attacker a hint of character, further emphasizing the battle of wills at the heart of the story.
Peter Weller transforms from caring dad to ruthless rat killer
Beginning with mundane family scenes, Of unknown originlike many other great psychological thrillers in the same vein as David Lynch’s blue velvet or that of Mary Harron American psycho, manages to pull the rug out from under the viewer with startling efficiency, revealing something sinister and dangerous about the hustle and bustle of everyday life. There’s plenty of dialogue (as well as scenes of Weller talking to himself or the rat), but Cosmatos uses both overt and subtle visuals to further convey the film’s tone – as well as illustrate the massive change. which Hughes crosses.
First a clean, well-dressed man, Weller descends (figuratively and otherwise) into a state of madness and despair, something that is reflected in his clothes, mannerisms, and even his hair. In the end, his battle with the rat leaves him in a complete mess – distraught, tired and, as Weller does well, emaciated and haggard-eyed. As his wife and son return home, the once-beautiful brownstone is a wounded, war-torn battlefield. Of unknown origin leaves the viewer with a complete view of self-destruction – a graphic and emotional metamorphosis that punctuates the film’s many shocking and violent moments.
George P. Cosmatos takes a closer look at rats – with horrific results
Of unknown origin underperformed at the box office and fell into general obscurity, but Cosmatos and Weller continued to do extremely popular work throughout the 80s (Costmatos would direct Sylvester Stallone in both Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra). At the time of its release, Of unknown origin won Weller the Best Actor award at the Paris International Fantastic and Science Fiction Film Festival in 1983. Legendary horror scribe Stephen King is said to have quoted Of unknown origin as one of his favorite horror movies.
Although it is not as well known that its star turns into Robotcop, Buckaroo Banzai’s Adventures Through the Eighth Dimension Where Star Trek Into Darkness, Of unknown origin is a shining example of Weller’s craft. The actor would team up with Cosmatos again in 1989 with the movie Underwater Monsters Leviathan; this month, Weller returns to horror with Cabinet of curiosities by Guillermo del Toro, currently streaming on Netflix. In the end, Cosmatos created a highly suspenseful, well-crafted film on a relatively small budget, taking a simple idea and talented performers and making every aspect of the production work in multiple ways.