The F*cking Black Sheep: Of Unknown Origin (1983)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!



Well friends, here we are on August 3rd and the reviews for THE DARK TOWER are finally in. And ouch, they're pretty f*cking painful. It's become very clear that after all of the anticipation, the result is yet another disappointing big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s work, this one his long thought un-filmable opus. For a first ballot horror hall of fame scribe, dude sure has a spotty batting average when it comes to movies made out of his books. Then again, a career average of .300 (3/10) will get you to Cooperstown. Frankly, King’s been there for years!

Off of the sports metaphors, I recently read that one of Stephen King’s favorite horror movies is a killer rat flick from 1983 called OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN. No doubt an obscure title, I recall seeing the DVD in the bargain bin for $2 at Big Lots a few years back…always this close from blindly buying at and giving it a chance. I never did, but thankfully, happened to record this sucker on the DVR not too long ago. Straight up, King is dead right, OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN is an extremely tight and lean, economically efficient, blackly comedic, terrifyingly claustrophobic, f*cked-up nasty rat picture that deserves far more attention than it’s received over the years. Not to mix metaphors even more, but yeah, Rats can be F*cking Black Sheep too!

Before he was donning the metal as ROBOCOP and terrorizing Corey Haim as a coked-up stepfather in FIRST BORN (anyone see that shite?), or even fighting underwater creatures in LEVIATHAN, Peter Weller first hooked up with director of the latter, George P. Cosmatos, for OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN. The story is so simple. Weller plays a New York architectural ad-man named Bart Hughes who is about to close a huge deal that will ensure his promotion. Problem is he has only two weeks to deliver the package and close the deal. Pressure is on. At home, his sexy ass wife (Shannon Tweed’s first role) enjoys the personally renovated brownstone that Bart practically built by hand. The place is meticulous. Or is it? Bart soon calls the resident plumber to check his leaky dishwasher. The plumber insists it could be a rat, and that Bart ought to equip the place with industrial rattraps to keep the dirty bastards out.

When his wife and kid leave for vacation, Bart becomes obsessed with all things Rat. He researches the rodent, horrified to realize how intelligent, resilient and destructive the vermin can be. Rats can eat through lead and concrete, chew through pipe and electrical wire, can swim for half a mile, tread for three days straight, can survive a fall from 5 stories, they can multiply from 2 to 2 million within one year, etc. They carry fatal disease and plague, the kind that can and has obliterated a third of the human population in the past (more than guns, bombs, you name it). And the female species is twice as vicious!

There’s both a hilarious and disturbing scene where Bart relays all of this information over a highfalutin dinner party, the result of which leads to the guests’ inability to appetize (Maury Chaykin included). Of course, it is a humongous dog-sized FEMALE in Bart’s house, one that has already given birth to baby rats. Bart dispatches of the offspring and pisses the mother off so bad! All this leads to a spiraling mania of extermination. Bart begins fashioning homemade weapons, spiked bats, gnarly perforated mallets and the like, and sets out to kill the big filthy rat-bastard once and for all. Even if it means destroying the handcrafted apartment he built himself!

What I love so much about OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN, aside from featuring my favorite Peter Weller performance, is just how centered and focused it is. There’s no filler, no nonsensical tangents, no unneeded subplots. Every scene functions to serve what comes directly before and after it. What we have here is a man driven to the brink of insanity by a rodent home invasion and his dogged attempt to rid that dirty sumbitch for good. The rat wins some battles, Bart retaliates with his fair share of victories, all of which leads to a jaw-dropping confrontation inside the boiler room where the rat has given birth. No joke, there are some genuinely effective, truly frightening exchanges between the two, much of the FX done practically and therefore realistically. Authentic rats are used in the filming (though never harmed), close-ups of its slathering maw, its sharp chisel-like teeth, those beady red eyes, etc. Shite’s unnerving!

Along with this laser-like focus and horrific efficacy is just how entertaining it all remains to be. At a brisk 88 minutes, there isn’t a boring moment in the film. The script by Brian Taggert (VISITING HOURS, POLTERGEIST III) from a novel by Chauncey Parker (The Visitor) keeps the action coming in constant waves of amusement. With only a couple of sets and few characters, we spend most of the concentrated time with Bart inside his home, where the sense of claustrophobic dread mounts to the point where the poor guy has to sleep in a suspended hammock to remain unfettered. The hunter becomes the hunted, and the slow realization of this by Weller is as brilliant as it is unsettling. The concomitant set-pieces are exquisite too, particularly the harrowing finale where the boiler room is flooded from the overhead fire-sprinklers. Shite turns into something akin to LEVIATHAN in the final moments. The only thing worse than a giant rapacious rat? A giant rapacious WET rat!

Seriously, who are we to disagree with the King of horror? If Stephen says it’s a favorite film of his, then we should unconditionally trust the horror elements in OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN are worthy of widely feting. Perhaps it’s the word UNKNOWN in the title that has rendered it as such over the years, but goddamn it, there’s no way in hell OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN should be as unheralded as it is. Honestly, if you want a F*cking solid Black Sheep of a movie to see…go find this one ASAP. I know if I ever see it at Big Lots again, I’m dropping twice the price to cop it!


Extra Tidbit: Have you ever seen OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN? Thoughts?
Source: AITH



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