If you are currently experiencing an infestation of vermin of one kind or another (bugs, raccoons, those horrible immortal silverfish things), I highly recommend you view Of Unknown Origin, a Canadian horror movie about one man’s war with the toughest rat ever committed to film. It will put all your household pest woes in perspective.
In Of Unknown Origin, Bart (Peter Weller, a.k.a. Robocop) is left alone in his newly renovated townhouse as his wife and child leave for a ski weekend. Whatever Bart does (it involves mergers, trusts and accounts), it’s his busy season, so he plans to hunker down in the big city … until one determined rat ruins his work staycation.
The movie is so Canadian, it might as well have ‘A Part of our Heritage’ running before the credits. The cast – Jennifer Dale, a svelte Maury Chaykin and ‘introducing Shannon Tweed’ (gratuitously nude in the opening scene) – and city scapes are pure maple syrup, they could pass for deranged episodes of Today’s Special. But the protagonist’s descent into madness also shows shades of Canadian horror director David Cronenberg. When the rat makes its first strike (an assault on Bart’s dishwasher), the local handyman tells him, ‘An exterminator? That’s for old ladies – people afraid to get their hands dirty!’ And so it begins.
Our rat villain ramps up his antagonism, often depicted through elaborate ‘rat’s-eye-view’ shots and other innovative camera techniques (Paw shot! Extreme rat close-up!) causing further damage and foiling Bart’s rat traps. The hawkish handyman, having encountered rats during his army service, is unsurprised: ‘You’re spending maybe 20% of your time thinking about him; he’s spending 100% of his time trying to outsmart you.’ Wise words heeded, Bart sets actual bear traps in his house, then hits the local public library. There, he discovers an illuminating (and not-at-all alarmist) book, The Rat: Lapdog of the Devil. The library also has (for reasons I think are obvious) numerous 8 x 10 glossies of people attacked by rats and microfiche or rats eating other rats. (And Doug Ford wants to cut back on our public library system!)
In a tragic turning point, Bart, in the basement with a replica of the building he lives in (for some reason), discovers the rat’s young. The rat attacks, and in the ensuing struggle, the rat babies get dumped down the sewer. As the rat, time and again, proves nigh invulnerable, Bart begins to lose it, starts dropping rat factoids in polite dinner conversation, like some adult Jonathan Lipnicki, and buries himself in Moby Dick (subtle this movie is not). But who could blame Bart? The rat (which seems to have no clearly defined size, at times normal-rat-sized; at others, more dog-like) is jumping out of the toilet at him, killing his cat (!) and ripping up the cheque he leaves for the ineffective exterminator. Still, he persists in his one-man battle. ‘Just keep it up,’ he cries, ‘I got friends in Jersey!’ (Author’s note: I was raised in New Jersey and haven’t a clue how to kill a rat.)
His employers think he’s unfocused (he’s lost a lot of sleep from the rat battles and really tripped-out nightmares of rats hiding in birthday cakes). A concerned co-worker, noticing Bart’s T-shirt and all of one-day’s stubble growth on his face, warns him, ‘Don’t let the staff see you like this.’ But his assistant (Jennifer Dale) must think the strung-out look is attractive, since they start making out following a work party before the rat (Bart’s conscience?) interrupts.
Finally, after dreaming about his family threatened by the rat, Bart decides enough is enough. He starts doing leg lifts as part of his rat-killing training, puts on a leather vest and nails spikes into a baseball bat. Decked out in Robocop-like protective gear, he goes on the offensive, trashing his new house in pursuit of the menacing rat. Can Bart destroy his arch-nemesis without losing himself? Where did this super-rat come from and why is it so intent on ruining Bart’s life? These and other questions remain unanswered as the movie draws to an unfortunately pat and disappointing conclusion. Which is too bad, as the ride up until that point – though incredibly loopy – was creepy and fun.
Worth watching: yes, unless you’re deathly afraid of rats. (This will only make matters worse.)
Best casual racism: ‘I’m gonna’ bring in the Orientals. They’re great profit people.’
Memorable Cameos: Shannon Tweed, Maury Chaykin