Saturday, October 26, 2019

Hubrisween 2019 :: U is for Of Unknown Origin (1983)

Bart Hughes is a self-made man. Through sheer grit and dogged determination, and without the Ivy League backgrounds of his back-stabbing co-workers, Hughes has left the bottom far behind and carved himself out a moderately successful niche near the top as a corporate trust lawyer. Hughes (Weller) is also a bit of a renaissance man, good with hands, and prideful of his personal endeavors, evidenced by the mammoth Manhattan brownstone building he and his wife, Meg (Tweed), recently bought and are currently in the process of DIY renovating. Thus, it should come as no surprise that even though he also married into money, Hughes has staunchly refused any financial aid from his in-laws to help offset the costs of this money pit as it drains their bank accounts dry.

But there is hope on the horizon, as Hughes’ magic touch and stellar track record of massive profits and minimal losses has caught the eye of his boss, Eliot Riverton (Dane). And if the office scuttlebutt proves true, the reason Hughes recently lost a prestige account to a rival was to clear his slate to oversee a pending and even more lucrative merger between several banks, which would mean a promotion and a huge increase in salary -- and maybe even a partnership in the firm, if he can pull it off. 

And this looming decision from the brass is why Hughes must remain behind while Meg and their son, Peter (Anderson), pack up and head off to Vermont to spend several weeks with Meg’s parents. But after they’re gone and Hughes heads to work, where he does indeed receive that plum assignment, the empty brownstone isn’t so empty as something lurks and noisily scuttles about.

With just two weeks to get the restructuring plan in order, Hughes and his secretary / Girl Friday / and maybe his mistress, Lorrie Wells (Dale), will have their hands full in making the deadline. And so, the last thing Hughes needs right now is for his dishwasher to go on the fritz, which it does, flooding his kitchen. 

With no time to deal with the repairs himself, Hughes brings in Clete (Del Grande), the maintenance man from the building next door, who unearths the problem: something chewed through the washer’s drain hose; either a battalion of mice or one very large rat, Clete suspects. He also talks Hughes out of hiring an exterminator, who would wreck all the work he’s done on the building, suggesting he set out some traps instead.

But the following day, Hughes finds a rat hair on his morning toast while all his traps sit undisturbed, save one, which, along with the bait, has been partially devoured. And as his unwanted guest slithers all over and through his home, Hughes consults with Clete again. Rats can eat through anything, warns Clete, who adds the only way to deal with the vermin is to trap them, poison them, smash them, or shoot them. He also relates his time in the army, where he was witness to one of the early atom bomb tests in New Mexico, which killed every living thing in the blast radius except for the rats.

Thus, Hughes abandons his wooden traps and upgrades to some steel ones, which prove just as useless as he listens to the intruder scurry around inside his walls with impunity. And being the type of obsessive he is, Hughes spends his next few lunch breaks at the library, where he digs up everything he can on what makes a rat tick in order to understand his foe and combat it more effectively. And what he finds disturbs him greatly -- photos of rat bites, faces half eaten, and a video of lab rats turning cannibalistic.

And what he’d seen and read is still bugging him later that night at a mandatory office dinner party at Riverton’s stately manor, where someone makes the mistake of asking what’s preoccupying Hughes’ mind. And then everyone loses their appetites when his graphic Rats 101 lecture begins as his obsessive nature also leaves him without a filter, making me believe Bart Hughes might be a highly functioning autistic or perhaps even suffering from Aspergers Syndrome.

Either way, Hughes regurgitates everything he’s learned: how a rat can tread water for three days, and fall off a five story building and survive; how a full grown rat can squeeze through a hole the size of a quarter; how they can chew through lead and concrete, and the enormous bite strength they have, and how their teeth are like chisels that never stop growing; and how they’re responsible for the destruction of one fifth of all grains produced annually -- over five billion pounds of food; and how rats were responsible for spreading the Bubonic Plague, which killed one in three people during the Dark Ages; and how two breeding rats can exponentially spawn 20 million offspring in less than three years; how they’re a food source in some countries -- they taste like stringy chicken, apparently; and how they’re revered in others; but are mostly seen as vermin and a sign of famine, sickness and death. Not to mention notoriously hard to kill. Needless to say, after this outburst, fearing he’s put too much pressure on him, Riverton will be keeping a wary eye on Hughes and puts a contingency plan in motion.

Meantime, with the traps not working and his property damage mounting, Hughes decides to escalate things and visits a hardware store, looking for the most effective rat poison. The helpful clerk (Knight) suggests a devious brand that when ingested will cause such a thirst the rat will drink water until its stomach bursts -- literally drinking itself to death. He also hopes Hughes isn’t dealing with a persistent female because they’re even more stubborn and vicious. And so, that evening, Hughes mixes up the poison paste and starts spreading it around -- all the while having a one-sided conversation with his “friend” roaming around in the walls, saying there isn’t enough room in this town for the both of them and perhaps it would be happier living in Brooklyn.

And while he still has a sense of humor about this aggravating situation, after a fitful night of sleep, when Hughes heads to the bathroom to relieve himself in the morning, he opens the toilet lid only to find it occupied! And as his nemesis squeals and angrily lunges for the screaming and backpedaling Hughes, one must really start to question as to who is really hunting who here...

A former U.S. Marine and World War II veteran, who later served as part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Security Council, where he was an adviser to Adlai Stevenson during the Cuban Missile Crisis that nearly led to World War III, with all these vaunting life experiences to choose from it may seem strange that Chauncey G. Parker’s inaugural novel, The Visitor, was instead based on his experiences dealing with a tenacious and destructive sewer rat that he couldn’t seem to kill while renovating a New York City brownstone.

In Parker’s novel, Bartlett “Bart” Hughes is a young executive on the rise at his brokerage firm. He and his family live in a luxurious condo in upper Manhattan, which serves as his castle and “a safe haven of peace and security” against the threat and urban rot of scummy and dirty old New York CIty of the late 1970s and early ‘80s. And when Bart’s wife and children leave for the summer, his refuge becomes a personal fortress of solitude -- until he realized he was not as alone as he thought when an uninvited visitor arrives and starts making a destructive nuisance out of itself. And as the hunter becomes the hunted, Bart soon realizes he is the one who’s been trapped by the rat all along.

First published in 1981, the main lever and fulcrum that moves the plot along in The Visitor is the notion of “has man become too civilized and therefore no longer able to deal with external threats?” This is personified by the building superintendent, Cletus Washington, who shares all his experiences with these particular rodents, selling Bart multiple traps and poison pellets, which do no good. Basically, Cletus does everything but what Bart really wants him to do -- and that’s kill the rat for him. And when Bart finally breaks down and asks him directly, Cletus finally gets to tee off on this pampered rich boy. "You know, sometimes in life, comes a time when people got to get their hands dirty. Even for the book kind like you."

And as his hapless battle against the rat drags on, Bart continues to get advice from others and also grief because it shouldn’t be taking this long to take care of just one measly rat. And as the rat’s behavior grows more irrational, so does Bart’s as he starts to unravel as his nemesis occupies not only every waking hour but plagues his dreams, too. And so, an unhinged Bart decides he must kill the invader once and for all or die trying. Unfortunately for our hero, the angry rat feels the exact same way.

Now, one of the biggest differences between Parker’s novel and George Cosmatos’ cinematic adaptation -- Of Unknown Origin (1983), is that the reader isn’t really and truly sure the rat is real and not just in Bart’s head -- a metaphor for his apparent nervous breakdown, until nearly the very last page of the book.

In the film version, Cosmatos lets the viewer know right off the bat the rat is real and a clear and present danger. And in Brian Taggert’s adapted screenplay, which was collaborated on further by Cosmatos and star Peter Weller, who added a lot of humor and levity, Bart Hughes, as a character, is no longer quite so insufferable as they basically chucked Parker’s central conceit, which allowed audiences to read and interpret the film on many different levels -- none of them wrong, according to the director, who purposefully wanted the film to be that ambiguous with blatant references to Melville’s Moby Dick, a copy of which Hughes uses to bang on the ceiling to scare the rat away, and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, of which the Spencer Tracy film version is playing on the late, late show when the rat makes one of his many surprise visits in Hughes’ bedroom while he sleeps.

And as Hughes obsession with the rat only continues to grow after a vicious encounter in the boiler room, where he discovered the rat’s nest and her litter of pups, he then makes the mistake of getting in between them and their mother. When the rat attacks, the pups are killed as they are dumped over a grating, slip through, and disappear into the boiler. In the novel, Bart kills the litter on purpose, which convinces him the rat is out for revenge. 

In the movie, this is played off as more of an accident as a startled Hughes drops the box containing them when the mama rat attacks him -- perhaps in an effort to keep the audience sympathies with our protagonist. Which isn’t easy with him being a definitive Type-A personality, meaning his work on the merger starts to suffer along with his personal appearance, affecting others around them, especially poor Lorrie, since he is completely preoccupied and target-fixated with his rat problem.

And seeing his mind is clearly somewhere else, his boss, who genuinely likes the guy, calls him out on his lack of focus, saying whatever the problem is at home Hughes needs to settle it, like, yesterday. With that, in an effort to catch up, Hughes takes Lorrie to the brownstone to pull an allnighter. But Lorrie clearly doesn’t have work on her mind, but they’re interrupted when she hears some strange noises. 

Claiming it’s just “house noises” and things settling after the extensive repairs, Hughes has no time for extramarital affairs right now, quickly escorts Lorrie out without much of an explanation, and gets back on target: to beat the rat, he must be smarter and more cunning than the rat.

This is easier than it sounds since the guy isn’t sleeping all that much anymore -- his deranged dreams plagued by the rat attacking his family, which causes his overtaxed brain to hallucinate even more rat attacks during the day. And after he recruits a stray alley cat into his arsenal, which ends in a gory fatality, Hughes finally does what he probably should’ve done in the first place and hires an exterminator, leaving a check for services rendered on his record player. 

But when he returns home from work that evening and announces, Honey, I’m home, he wasn’t expecting an answer; but he gets one when the baby grand piano starts playing itself as the rat moves across the wires inside. And when a livid Hughes calls the exterminator, he gets a blistering earful and is told no services were rendered because he didn’t pay upfront like they’d agreed. Here, Bart sees the chewed remnants of the check under the table. The rat is definitely on to him.

Thus and so, after one more night of harrowing dreams where his son laps up some rat poison he carelessly left out and his wife is attacked and tore up while they make love, and then waking up to see what little is left of his paperwork on the merger after the rat got through with it, a disheveled Hughes heads to the office, where he ambushes Riverton in the lobby and announces he will be taking an indefinite leave of absence until he finishes “that thing” at home. And once it’s finally finished, then, and only then, will he deliver the needed proposal. The boss agrees to this demand and, instead of firing Hughes, like he has every right to, Riverton stands by him and sets to work on getting a deadline extension on the merger.

Meantime, Hughes returns home and starts training to be some kind of Yuppie Commando, armoring himself up in catcher’s gear and MacGuyvers himself a mace by driving several spikes into the fat end of a baseball bat. When Lorrie shows up at the front door to announce the good news on the extension, Hughes won’t let her in, screaming, Leave us alone. Thus, the stage is set for our climax, where it’s just Hughes and the rat, mano-a-ratto, who meet in the basement for one final, fatal showdown...

While screenwriter Taggert stuck pretty close to the source novel as Of Unknown Origin played out, I think he made one tactical blunder. In the book, Bart has five children, most of them girls, for which Bart has a large dollhouse in the basement playroom. This is important because, like in the book, the same model house plays a pivotal role during the final fight in the film, too; only here, Hughes only has a son and the model, a miniature replica of the brownstone, is just kinda there with no real explanation for its existence. 

And on top of that, director Cosmatos pulls a reverse on the novel’s final revelation as the battle reaches its apex, where we barely see the rat trapped inside this model home as Bart smashes it to pieces and finally kills the damnable thing. Maybe.

Yeah, see, at this point in Of Unknown Origin, the rat no longer matters and is not important. No. What’s important to Cosmatos is the destruction of that dollhouse as Hughes, a castaway in his own home, strips down and destroys what little is left of the material things that used to be important to him. And the running battle that led up to this kinda takes on an almost Looney Tunes like tenor as Bart tries to smash the rat, chasing her all over the house, accumulating a staggering amount of property damage, like Wile E. Coyote chasing after the Road Runner or Elmer Fudd trying to blast Bugs Bunny. I swear, I kept half expecting the rat to go “Meep! Meep!” whenever it gets away or stop and address the audience directly to announce, Of course, you know, THIS means war!

But then we reach the basement and it all falls apart. It’s a little bit too on the nose, destroying the symbolic effigy of the brownstone, and caused some massive problems with the Warner Bros., who demanded confirmation that the rat was dead on screen. Cosmatos resisted, and a compromise was reached of sorts on some insert shots that at least showed the rat being skewered by those nails but we still never actually see the carcass, leaving the audience guessing as to whether it was really dead or not -- or if it even existed. 

And lofty metaphors aside, I think the ending desperately needed this cathartic moment as a payoff after such a great build-up. And without it, even though we all know the rat is most assuredly dead, I’m sorry to say the film kind of fizzled on me there at the end and the final punchline had me hoping the rat wasn’t really dead and would start rampaging again if I’m being honest.

Cosmatos was of Greek and Italian origin, who made a huge splash as the writer and director of the World War II drama, Rappresaglia -- a/k/a Massacre in Rome (1974), which starred Richard Burton and Marcello Mastroianni and was based on the Ardeatine Massacre, where the occupying Germans in Rome carried out brutal reprisals for a partisan bombing that killed 28 SS troops by gunning down 360 prisoners in retaliation. He then followed that up with a couple of blockbuster British-Italian co-productions with The Cassandra Crossing (1976) and Escape to Athena (1979).

The director then made the jump to Hollywood when Verna Fields, the editor on JAWS (1975), and currently an executive at Universal, recommended Cosmatos to Warner Bros. to direct Of Unknown Origin. And then followed that up with a couple of pictures for Sylvester Stallone -- Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Cobra (1986), and then Cosmatos teamed up with Peter Weller again for the underwater creature feature, Leviathan (1989). Then, in 1992, on Stallone’s recommendation to producer Andrew G. Vajna, Cosmatos took over the direction of Tombstone (1993) when the original director, Kevin Jarre, was fired off the epic western, which retold the legend of Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and Doc Holiday (a career defining performance by Val Kilmer), resulting in the crown jewel of the director’s all too brief career.

For even though the ending kinda let me down, and I get what Cosmatos and company where trying to do, honest, there is a lot to love about Of Unknown Origin. It’s wound-up tight and ready to roll from the get go but is very deliberate as things escalate between Hughes and the rat. And the results can be read on many levels: it can work as a horror movie, a term both Cosmatos and Weller cringe at, but it also works as a suspense thriller, terms they both preferred. Creepy and atmospheric, both Cosmatos and cinematographer René Verzier have a keen eye for mesmerizing compositions and I kinda love how they set up both Hughes’ home and his office as a laboratory maze the man has trapped himself in.

Thus, it also works as a parable in a biblical sense. And as the rat tries to break him out of this malaise and blind devotion to materialism, the film also works as a character study as Hughes mentally disintegrates during the course of the film and then rallies and fights to redeem himself. This ambiguity, of course, played hell while trying to promote the film, as the trailer and advertising materials try to sell Of Unknown Origin as a The Amityville Horror (1979) knock-off, explaining why a film this good has been ignored over the years by those who haven’t found it yet.

This was the first headlining role for Peter Weller, who is fantastic as Bart Hughes, bringing a dry wit and a needed sense of humor. I love the earlier bits where he struggles to get his head around what he’s facing at the dinner party. It just does not compute. And some of the best scenes are of Hughes trying to get some work done while yelling at the intruder scurrying around inside the walls -- almost making friends with it. But my favorite bit is toward the climax, when a curious Clete comes in to see what Hughes is doing, sees how he’s lost it, dressed like an ersatz gladiator and silently gives a hard, Nope, and, I’m out, and then vacates the scene without a single word.

Weller’s co-star was former Playboy Playmate and future Skinemax softcore legend, Shannon Tweed, making her screen debut. And since the film was shot in Montreal, subbing in for New York City, we also get a couple of classic Canadian character actors with Kenneth Welsh and the great Maury Chaykin. But it’s the quirky Weller who carries the picture with ease, and it’s easy to see how and why he was about to really break out in a couple of genre pictures, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) and Robocop (1987).

The film was shot in the middle of winter, too, which caused some problems in a couple of scenes, especially in the flooded basement during the climax since there was no hot water to be had. And after shooting with his actors during the day, Cosmatos would spend his nights with the second unit, prodding 40 different rats through a series of sets built to look like tunnels bored through the walls of the Brownstone. And as the production wore on, with the accumulation of rat piss and droppings, the smell became nearly unbearable.

Also, being a fan of JAWS, Cosmatos wasn’t afraid to not show anything and left it up to sound-designer Peter Burgess to paint a horrid mental picture for the audience. Thus, sounds and simple POVs were used for the majority of the action, with some effective forced perspective and macro-lense work on the real rat as it invades the house, chews through the electrical and telephone lines, which were coated with peanut butter, destroys the pantry, wrecks some furniture, and chews several large holes in the walls and ceiling. For the close-combat scenes, the production employed a combination of close-ups of a real rat, a puppet rat head, and a disguised opossum to be thrown at Weller when the studio once more butted in, insisting the rat be of an abnormal size.

My personal take on Of Unknown Origin is I see it as a man facing a midlife crisis; a man who isn’t sure how he got to where he is right now. He’s saddled himself with a huge house that needs a ton of work; has accumulated a ton of debt over this boondoggle; and he loves his family dearly and yet he’s about this close to borking it all up to have an affair with another woman; and his life’s work, all pooled into this house, is being destroyed from the inside out by one tiny invader. This, he then blows out of proportion a bit, making a whole lot of something out of a whole lot of nothing. And it could’ve been rectified right away, but he decides not to as a form of self-punishment. But the longer he takes to deal with it properly as things escalate, the more dangerous this all becomes.

And so, Bart must face his inner demons by annihilating an outer demon. Deceptively simple, but highly complex as he winds up destroying everything that came before and is reborn on the other side a brand new man. It works. And it works well. And all it needed was a close-up of a pulped rat at the end and then it would’ve been perfect in my book.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween! 26 Days! 26 Films! 26 Reviews! And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage as The Fiasco Brothers and Yours Truly countdown from A to Z all October long! That's 21 reviews down with just five more to go! Up Next: When Gothic Chills Moved to the Suburbs.

Of Unknown Origin (1983) Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) :: Famous Players Limited :: Les Productions Mutuelles Ltée :: Warner Bros. / EP: Pierre David / P: Claude Héroux / D: George P. Cosmatos / W: Brian Taggert, Chauncey G. Parker III(novel) / C: René Verzier / E: Roberto Silvi, Hubert de La Bouillerie / M: Kenneth Wannberg / S: Peter Weller, Jennifer Dale, Lawrence Dane, Shannon Tweed, Leif Anderson, Keith Knight, Louis Del Grande

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