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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

VHS Vednesday: Of Unknown Origin

OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN (1983). Directed by George Pan Cosmatos. Starring Peter Weller, Jennifer Dale, and Shannon Tweed.

The classic categories of conflict in fiction, as I learned them: Man vs. nature; man vs. man; man vs. himself. (Although Wikipedia expands the list with additional divisions, let's just leave it at that.) Of Unknown Origin takes the first category and runs with it until it reaches the limit.
The title is something of a misnomer, as the subject of our protagonist's struggle is not an unearthly or supernatural being, but a commonplace foe of mundane origins--an ordinary, everyday rat. Peter Weller stars as Bart Hughes, a successful businessman who has just purchased a huge brownstone for his family. His pride in home ownership is quickly undermined when he discovers evidence of a rat infestation. While his wife (Shannon Tweed) and son (Leif Anderson) are away visiting her parents, Bart tries to eliminate the pest. While he succeeds in destroying the nest of the rat's young, the mother rat proves more resilient. Soon, a seemingly simple task turns into an all-out war between man and rodent, as Bart degenerates into an Ahab-like obsession with destroying the rat.
Director George Pan Cosmatos (of Rambo and Tombstone fame) has crafted an effectively suspenseful thriller, quietly escalating the tension scene by scene. However, it's Peter Weller's performance that truly makes the movie. He remains totally convincing throughout the character's descent into mania, letting his work and social skills suffer as the obsession consumes him (which is where the "man vs. himself" conflict comes into the story as well).
The interesting thing is that the movie does not posit Bart's opponent as a super-rat--although it is large and resourceful, the script makes the point that there's nothing unusual about this specimen. ANY rat could be this big a threat, the movie tells us--and the filmmakers keep the animal's survival skills and intelligence just this side of implausibility. Screenwriter Brian Taggert (working from a novel by Chauncey B. Parker III) knows just how far to go without crossing the line between "unlikely" and "unbelievable."
Who's Leaving This Off Their Resume?
Of Unknown Origin is practically a one-man show for Peter Weller, and as I indicated earlier, he carries it off with great skill. The supporting cast (including such familiar Canadian performers as Jennifer Dale, Maury Chaykin, and Kenneth Welsh) generally manage to make the most of their brief screen time. The most obvious exception is Shannon Tweed (making her screen debut after first attaining fame as a Playboy Playmate); she is literally given almost nothing to do except stand there and look pretty, so it's impossible to judge her acting skills at this point.



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