It starts with a flooded kitchen. Something went awry with the dishwasher, and...I dunno, could be that it's running too hot or some other frustratingly routine mechanical failure. Maybe, guesses the super from the building over (Louis Del Grande), it's a rat. Bart (Peter Weller) practically snorts in response. A rat?! In this immaculately maintained, palatial brownstone?
Anyway, this is Bart's house in every sense of the word. This Wall Street hot shot and his wife (Shannon Tweed) found this place. They renovated it themselves – no contractors and, hell, no machines. We're talking four hands and elbow grease. Despite Meg's impossibly wealthy folks offering to cover the mortgage, Bart insists on paying for it himself too. He'll be damned if some hairy little bastard is going to wreak havoc here, and he's certainly not going to let some two-bit exterminator tear up the walls or gouge the tile either. His place, his problem. The timing's a hassle since he's fighting an absurdly tight deadline to restructure a bank, but whatever; he'll take care of it. At least the wife and kid are gone for the week and don't have to put up with any of this.
"You know what's the matter with you? You don't realize that maybe you're spending 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."
A few slices of cheddar off the block and a handful of grandma's wooden traps? C'mon. If that had worked, you'd be seeing the end credits roll after ten minutes. Not gonna be that easy. So, Bart spreads enough poison to knock off half the Lower Eastside. He sets steel traps with teeth that look like they could stop a cougar dead in its tracks. He takes in a stray cat to play mouser. You name it, he's tried it, for all the good it does. The bastard is too smart, too fast, and too strong. As Bart escalates his efforts, the rat gets more and more aggressive, and when he finds where mama's been keeping her babies...! Neither one of 'em will stop until the other's dead. This obsession wholly consumes Bart, threatening to destroy his career, his sanity, and even the damned house he was trying to protect in the first place.
Of Unknown Origin has a similarly singular focus. Man. Rat. House. War. It doesn't get distracted by an excess of supporting characters. Whoever else shows up and whatever subplots they're entangled in are only introduced to serve this struggle for primacy: to further Bart's battle or to show what he's willing to risk in the pursuit of victory. Maybe you're rolling your eyes at the prospect of one guy squaring off against one rat after the likes of Willard had already unleashed entire armies of rodents. Of Unknown Origin doesn't just make it work; this is a wildly effective thriller and a longtime favorite.
While it shouldn't be mistaken for a horror movie, Of Unknown Origin is photographed like one: ample POV shots, quick flashes of something in the background, ominous shadows cast, unnerving reflections, and something close enough to a monster left largely to your imagination for a healthy chunk of its runtime. Cinematographer René Verzier (who'd shot Deadly Eyes the year prior) and director George P. Cosmatos take pains to ensure that Of Unknown Origin is consistently compelling visually. Its splashes of personality and humor are greatly appreciated. It's just enough to infuse some additional color, never obnoxiously mugging for the camera but consistently scoring the laughs it's aiming for. Peter Weller is brilliant in the lead. He's the calculating sort to rise to whatever challenge he's pitted against. As time goes on, he almost ceases to be surprised by the rat; Bart knows what's almost certainly coming because he ceases to think about anything else. His dry sense of humor and his one-sided conversations with the creature help to lend this repulsive rodent something close enough to a personality. The increasingly extreme measures that Bart takes...everything he's willing to lose because of his obsession: it's equal parts impressive and heartbreaking. Weller has me emotionally invested in an unnervingly intense, 90 minute game of chess with a rat, and that's no small feat.
...and the rat itself! Even though this marked my fifth time through Of Unknown Origin, I genuinely couldn't tell you the last time a movie made me jump this hard, this often. Its scares linger beyond its runtime too, to the point where I was dreading lifting up that toilet lid. That a fair amount of time is devoted to the rat swiftly navigating the spaces between walls and through pipes...many shots of it quietly observing its prey...to sometimes even not attacking Bart but just making it known beyond any doubt that he's not safe anywhere he goes: it's not a thing but a capable and deviously intelligent adversary, and that's why the suspense hits as hard as it does.
Whenever Warner Archive would announce an underappreciated genre title on Blu-ray, I couldn't help but perk up, thinking I was that much closer to seeing Of Unknown Origin in high definition. Better still, it's instead wound up in Scream Factory's hands, following the It's Alive! trilogy as one of the first titles they've licensed from Warner, which means a new slate of extras we never would've been treated to otherwise. I'd have been over the moon even if the disc had wound up being bare-bones, but this...? Highly Recommended.
Warner Bros. remastered Of Unknown Origin earlier this year – in 2K from an archival interpositive, according to the liner notes. This means we're looking at effectively the same presentation we'd have seen if Warner Archive had issued this disc themselves. I could tell you how much of a knockout it is, or you could click a couple of times to see yourself just how dramatic an improvement this is over Warner's 2003 DVD:
Detail and clarity consistently impress, and its fine sheen of film grain is resolved quite nicely. Its palette looks marvelous throughout, and I prefer the warmer timing here over the original DVD release. Of Unknown Origin still looks fantastic even throughout its dimmest shots, with shadow detail remaining robust. There isn't any damage or speckling worth noting either. Of Unknown Origin has been on my Blu-ray wish list for ages, and this release from Scream Factory proves to be worth the wait and then some.
Unlike the original DVD which opened up the mattes a bit, Of Unknown Origin is slightly letterboxed to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The movie and its extras arrive on a BD-50 disc.
Presented in 24-bit, two-channel mono, Of Unknown Origin's DTS-HD Master Audio track is so much more booming and full than I would've expected. Admittedly, the fidelity of the dialogue doesn't exactly belie the film's age, and the overbearing chaos right at the 23 minute mark can't help but sound a bit distorted. Some faint background noise creeps in at the very beginning and returns for the climax, but it's either absent or completely unintrusive for the overwhelming majority of Of Unknown Origin. Still, I'm thrilled overall with what Warner and Scream Factory have delivered here, especially the rat's shrill, piercing shrieks that'll take me a long while to fully recover from.
Of Unknown Origin's commentary gets the 24-bit lossless treatment as well. Also along for the ride is a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
Along with the commentary from the 2003 DVD release, Of Unknown Origin includes three newly-produced featurettes. The video quality isn't as polished as what I'm used to seeing on a Scream Factory title, but all three are still very professional productions and well-worth setting aside 45 minutes to watch in full.
The Final Word
Man versus beast in a battle for primacy – it's one of the oldest stories there is, and damned if Of Unknown Origin doesn't rank up there with the best of them. Highly Recommended.