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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Of Unknown Origin
Of Unknown Origin
Warner Bros. // R // August 5, 2003
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 9, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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"You know what's the matter with you? You don't realize that maybe you're spending, uh, twenty percent of your time thinking about him...but he's spending one hundred percent of his time figuring out ways to outsmart you...'cause he's a rat. He's got nothin' better to do."

Coincidentally, actors Louis Del Grande, Lawrence Dane, and Earl Pennington also put in performances in the 1981 slasher Happy Birthday to Me.
With such an impressive assortment of genre flicks hitting DVD this month, it's easy to get buried in the shuffle. This past Tuesday alone saw the release of four Critters movies, Evil Dead Trap 2, a re-release of Halloween, The Haunting, House of Wax, a Superbit release of John Carpenter's Vampires, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Man's Best Friend, Nightstalker, The Omega Man, Soylent Green, The Thing from Another World, Tower of Terror, and Wait Until Dark...and that's without touching August's impressive release slate from Blue Underground or MGM. With dozens of notable horror flicks all hitting stores around the same time, a movie about a man pitted against a single rat might have a tough time standing out, but Of Unknown Origin isn't one that should be overlooked.

Peter Weller (Robocop) stars as Bart Hughes, a Wall Street bigwig faced with the daunting task of reorganizing a bank chain in the space of two weeks without his beloved family by his side. His wife Meg (Shannon Tweed, in her first film role) and son Peter are relaxing in a spa with her family for the week, leaving Bart to cobble together the reorganization in their posh, recently renovated New York brownhouse.

It starts with a flooded kitchen. Something happened to the dishwasher...could've just been excessive heat from the machine, or maybe, guesses the super from the building over (Louis Del Grande), it's a rat. Bart thinks little of it, and since he doesn't want to have the home he painstakingly remodeled by hand battered by exterminators, he leaves a few traps scattered around and goes about his life. Rats are a little brighter than people give them credit for, and grandma's ancient mousetraps don't have a shot at getting the job done. As Bart escalates his efforts, spreading around enough poison to knock off half the Lower Eastside and setting traps that seem better suited to ensnaring large woodland creatures, his work suffers. Though his loyal secretary Lorrie (Jennifer Dale) and boss do their best to steer him back on track, Bart is a man obsessed, with every thought consumed with killing the vermin inside his home. As the monstrous rat becomes more brazen and increasingly violent, Bart's sanity starts to slip. Damned if he's going to let a disgusting, insignificant creature dominate his life, Bart arms himself and declares war.

The basic premise of pitting one determined man against a seemingly indominable creature is nothing new, and hell, Of Unknown Origin sneaks in nods to The Old Man and the Sea and Moby Dick along the way. Of Unknown Origin takes this threadbare plot and does an incredible job. Forget about the other characters and various subplots -- this is a movie about a man possessed and the rat that torments him. Peter Weller puts in a great performance as a cocky Wall Street exec, and his downward spiral seems natural and completely believable. Considering that Bart eventually straps on a miner's helmet and assorted protective gear, skulking around his house with a spiked baseball bat, that's pretty substantial praise. Director George P. Cosmatos, who would later go on to helm Tombstone and reteam with Peter Weller in Leviathan, builds an appropriate creepy atmosphere, creating a series of tense sequences and innumerable jump scares. The darkly comedic Of Unknown Origin also crams in so many facts and assorted tidbits about rats that it's practically educational.

Bart at bat in the boiler room.
Warner Bros. brings the fun, suspenseful Of Unknown Origin to DVD with an anamorphic widescreen presentation and a newly-recorded audio commentary.

Video: Presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, Of Unknown Origin looks very nice. The image is sharp and brimming with detail, lacking any noticeable print flaws or much in the way of dust and flecks. Some of the earlier moments of the film sport a bit of film grain, and some very minor edge haloing intermittently crept in. Fleshtones look dead on, and black levels are appropriately deep, given how much of this movie takes place in the dark. There are no problems or complaints worth griping about, and especially given the age and obscurity of Of Unknown Origin, its presentation on DVD is top-notch.

Audio: Of Unknown Origin sports a robust Dolby Digital mono track. Although I don't have any qualms about watching a movie in its original audio presentation, this is a movie that would've greatly benefitted from the multichannel treatment if the original stems were available. One of my favorite sequences had Weller walking in downtown New York, immersed in the deafening sounds of the city, and just as it swells and becomes unbearably, maddeningly high, he steps inside and...silence. That brief scene, as well as more obvious uses like directional rat chitter and Bart trashing his house, would've sounded excellent if the mix had a few more channels at its disposal. But rather than prattle on endlessly about what could've been, let's take a look at what's actually here. The monaural audio is solid, and its dialogue comes through cleanly and clearly. The score by Kenneth Wannberg, who has since settled in as Spielberg's music editor, is appropriately eerie, featuring one resounding bass note that's repeated throughout and helps show off the soundtrack's dynamic range.

Of Unknown Origin is closed captioned, and the disc also includes subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Supplements: The first of the disc's extras is a set of cast and crew filmographies, including highlights from the careers of Peter Weller, Jennifer Dale, Lawrence Dane, writer Brian Taggert, and director George P. Cosmatos.

The film's star and director also contribute an audio commentary. Unfortunately, it's...kind of dry and dull, and it took a concerted effort to keep from nodding off while watching it. Judging by the total lack of interaction between the two and some of the immediate overlap, Cosmatos and Weller were apparently recorded separately and pieced together, though there are still a number of pauses throughout. Neither of them can seem to muster any energy or enthusiasm, and even though I kept a notepad at my side to scribble down some of the highlights, I only managed to fill a few lines. Cosmatos chats about the difficulty doubling Montréal for New York, the origin of the title, the disagreements in deciding what genre to use for marketing, fighting the extreme Canadian temperatures, and his preference for mental storyboarding. Weller likens Of Unknown Origin to Alien, attempts to ensure that Bart doesn't hit the same crazed note repeatedly, not ever acting with an actual rat, and using his martial arts experience in the climax.

Finally, there's an anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer (1:39). Unlike many genre trailers from the early '80s, which leaned towards overwrought voiceovers and really just not selling their films well at all, Of Unknown Origin's is creepy, effective, and doesn't give away anything.

The single-sided, single-layer disc comes packaged in a snapper case. The movie has been divided into twenty-three chapters, and the DVD sports a set of static 16x9-enhanced menus.

Conclusion: Of Unknown Origin is a blast, from Peter Weller's intensity as a crazed homeowner to the countless shots of a rat leaping suddenly onto the frame that never failed in propelling me several inches off my couch. Widely available for $15 or so, Of Unknown Origin is definitely worth picking up. Highly Recommended.
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