Of Unknown Origin pits local man against rat

Our series exploring Montreal-shot films continues with horror flick Of Unknown Origin, starring Peter Weller as a man disrupted by a single rat.

Peter Weller in Of Unknown Origin


Alex Rose’s Made in MTL is a series exploring films from the vaults shot and/or set in Montreal.

The film: Of Unknown Origin (1983)

Does Montreal play itself?: Montreal is standing in for New York for the umpteenth time, but it might be the least convincing attempt I’ve seen thus far. There’s an early scene where a newspaper seller chomps into a bagel that is clearly a skinny (and vastly superior, it goes without saying) Montreal-style bagel. This is an obvious power play on the filmmakers’ part, implicitly acknowledging our culinary superiority.

Notable local talent: The film was clearly shot in Montreal, and most of the talent behind the camera is local, but the great majority of the cast is from Toronto. Although this film was made and released at the tail-end (no pun intended) of Canada’s glory years as a tax shelter, it shares many traits with them: one of them is the lack of a local industry at the time, Canadian productions being so plentiful that actors often split their time between Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The only straight-up local with any significant screen time is then-child actor Leif Anderson, who plays Peter Weller’s son; Anderson is still an actor today, having appeared in On the Road and The Moth Diaries in recent years.

Most egregious local landmark: Furious pausing and Google mapping still hasn’t helped me locate Weller’s house, a large brown townhouse that’s definitely somewhere around McGill but eludes me to this day. Place Ville Marie stands in as the offices of Weller’s employer and really constitutes the only other location of any import in the film.


One of the more patently ridiculous thriller tropes from the “greed is good” ‘80s is the real estate thriller. These films (the most notorious of which is probably John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights) have the typical thriller structure but concern themselves not with protecting the humans in the home but rather the main character’s investment in said home. Sliced tendons are replaced with sliced pipes, broken bones with broken windows. They seem a bit antiquated in today’s world (especially given the proliferation of home invasion thrillers in which mysterious masked figures torture a family for 90 minutes), but they remain a fascinating relic of the time. George P. Cosmatos’s Of Unknown Origin is particularly mind-boggling because it pairs the real estate thriller with the KILLER RAT GENRE for 90 minutes of yuppie hysteria.

Peter Weller is Bart Hughes, a successful corporate type with a beautiful wife (Shannon Tweed, in her first of countless movies in which she is introduced showering and changing in front of vertical blinds), a bright young child and a sprawling townhouse he’s just finished renovating. With his wife and son away on vacation to Vermont, Bart comes home from work to discover that something has chewed through the dishwasher pipes and flooded the kitchen. Closer investigation reveals one gigantic, vindictive rat that’s taken to terrorizing Bart and wrecking his shit. Hunting the rat stresses Bart out so much that he’s liable to blow the big deal with the Chinese he’s got brewing, but no amount of traps, feral cats or other cockamamie solutions seems to work on the beast.

Of Unknown Origin shoots itself in the foot by relying almost entirely on Weller talking to himself or mumbling to a (usually unseen) assailant for the bulk of the movie; while Weller’s not a terrible actor, he’s not in the upper echelons of stars that can sell lines like “You never said anything about rubber gloves, you bone-headed fart,” convincingly. There’s something inherently hilarious about a man being driven to madness by a tiny, devious critter (this film is really nothing more than a po-faced version of the Nathan Lane movie Mouse Hunt, if you think about it) that’s ill-served by the straightforward approach to the material of irony-challenged director Cosmatos (he of ridiculousness high-water mark Cobra fame).

Nevertheless, it’s that simplicity of purpose that makes Of Unknown Origin watchable nonsense. The scenes meant to flesh out Weller’s character (impenetrable bullshit about mergers and acquisitions and dossiers) are a painfully boring waste of talented character actors like Lawrence Dane and Maury Chaykin that really only serve to highlight the fact that this is a (pretty ridiculous) movie about a man being foiled time and time again by a giant rat of average rat intelligence. Those sequences have a primal appeal that cannot even be undermined by the fact that they mostly consist of Peter Weller whipping at thin air with a baseball bat.

Despite being too serious too laugh at and too ridiculous to take seriously, Of Unknown Origin has the dubious honour of still being better than another Canadian killer rat movie from the ‘80s, Deadly Eyes. That film (shot in Toronto by Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse) used dachshunds in costumes in lieu of giant rats. For all of its flaws, Of Unknown Origin does not skimp on close-ups of the greasy, yellow-toothed critter. If you really must see one cheap, Canadian killer rat movie this Halloween, make it Of Unknown Origin. ■

Alex Rose explores the worst of cinema on his podcast and blog, Why Does it Exist? @whydoesitblog on Twitter

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