Saturday, May 24, 2008

Of Unknown Origin (1983)

“Did you know that over one fifth of all the grain on this planet is destroyed by rats? Now that’s more than drought, flood, or even insects destroys, did you know that? That’s over five billion pounds of food alone in this country. Can you imagine how many mouths that would feed, not to mention the possible fiscal loss it would mean to a company like this? Yes, it’s extraordinary. In the fourteenth century the rat carried the bubonic plague flea that killed one out every three people from India to Iceland….”
You take your average rat, it can nibble through a hole no bigger than a quarter, swim half a mile, and tread water for three days. They can eat through lead and concrete, with these teeth that are like chisels, they can exert an unbelievable 24,000 pounds per square inch per tooth! They can survive being flushed down a toilet and enter a building by the same route. They can fall five stories on solid ground and run off unharmed and two rats, mind you, just two, will give you twenty million rats in just three years. And they say there are as many rats on this planet now as people…”
Peter Weller spouts off on this three minute long rant to a table of well-dressed dinner guests, mouths agape, in this very memorable scene from his 1983 horror movie Of Unknown Origin.
This film is the epic story of one man, a good man, mild mannered business executive Bart Hughes, and his struggle of man versus beast against the worst that god’s animal kingdom has to offer- The Rat. One large, mean, clever Rat, that takes up residence in his Manhattan brownstone and chews up his mail, knocks over his furniture in the middle of the night, and generally scares the shit out of him and the movie viewer. This is the Moby Dick of rat stories.
It turns into an outrageous battle of wills between the mild mannered Weller, and The Rat. Between the two of them, the entire town house gets torn apart, Weller stops going to work, all his friends wind up thinking he’s crazy.
“You know what’s the matter with you,” says Weller’s overly enthusiastic, rat-hating maintenance man, “You don’t realize that you’re spending maybe twenty percent of your time thinking about him, but he’s spending one hundred percent of his time thinking about ways to outsmart you. ‘Cus he’s a rat. He’s got nothin’ better to do.”
Using some clever camera work and close-ups, the film emphasizes the grotesque-looking, alien-like appearance of rats. One particularly interesting shot is an extreme close up of the underside of a rat’s paw, showing the pink, wrinkly flesh giving way to it’s demonic shaped claws. These shots look especially good on DVD.
The films’ title refers to an illustration in a nature encyclopedia Weller is reading, in which the captions reads “Rat (Ratta, Ratte); of Unknown Origin.” A great title for the film, which points out this is the ubiquitous beast plaguing human habitation, not the great white shark or the grizzly bear.
While researching studying his foe, Weller also watches real footage of rats eating people, each other, and everything in between. Disgusting.
Shannon Tweed stars as his wife, so even though she’s only in the film for about five scenes, one of them is a topless shower scene, about two minut
The director, George P. Cosmatos, also directed Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Cobra (1986), a Stallone renegade-cop movie with some slasher movie elements. Also to his credit are Tombstone (1989), and the excellent Peter Weller sci-fi vehicle Leviathan (1989). Unfortunately, Cosmatos, an Italian immigrant of Greek heritage, died of lung cancer in 2005 having made less than a dozen films.

Peter Weller, the Robocop himself, still acts but has also taught at Syracuse and UCLA. Of Unknown Origin was his first lead role, made four years before Robocop (1987). In 1984, Weller appeared as the title character Buckaroo Banzai, a samurai-cowboy-rockstar-scientist in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, one of the strangest and silliest sci-fi comedies to see a major release. The film is also a virtual who’s-who of 80s actors with John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum, Ellen Barkin, and Christopher Lloyd running around, making me wonder how much cocaine was snorted on the set in between takes.
A Canadian production, it was filmed in Montreal and funded by the Canadian Film Development Corporation, also known as Telefilm Canada, a Canadian government agency that sponsors TV and film productions. What a cool country they have up there! This is the same government agency that helped fund other low budget horror masterpieces such as Videodrome (1983), which also starred Peter Weller, My Bloody Valentine (1981), Happy Birthday To Me, Scanners (both 1981), Visiting Hours (1982), Black Christmas (1974), Rabid (1977), and The Brood (1979).
In general, Canadian horror tends to be a cut above the dime-a-dozen Hollywood low budget fare, and most of their movies deserve a second look.
This film came at the tale end of the killer animal movie trend, after several other films about killer rats such as Ben, Willard, and of course the god-awful Italian “Rats: Night of Terror” that Bruno Mattei made. At least in that used guinea pigs spray-painted black as flame-thrower fodder.
If you watch the trailer for the film, you might notice it says nothing about a killer rat, in fact it makes the movie look like a supernatural thriller. Not even the film’s description on the back of the DVD case spells it out, it just mentions the phrase “rat-race” several times. I got the DVD for about $3.00 used. It’s not an incredibly popular or well-known film, but it’s one of those movies that Warner DVD keeps churning out. There aren’t many extras to speak of, but I guess they weren’t expecting a crowd of followers wanting a special edition. In fact, most people haven’t even heard of this movie.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Last Winter (2006)

“It’s haunted. We’re grave robbers. It’s coming up from the ground. Ghosts. I mean, what is oil anyway? Except… dead plants and animals from a long time ago.” Even as I type these words spoken by Zach Gilford’s doomed character during the film’s climax I get goose bumps.
Haunted oil? Drilling in the Arctic opens a gateway to hell? One could only hope for so much cosmic justice. The Last Winter, an excellent new direct-to-DVD horror film, raised a question posed in another apocalyptic film, 12 Monkeys. As Bruce Willis’ character mumbles to Brad Pitt, “Maybe we deserve to be wiped out.”
I thought this was a great concept for a supernatural horror film. The spirits of the animals whose fossils got turned into “fossil fuels” come back to haunt the creatures destroying the planet. The creatures of course, are us. The film follows the crew of a small oil-drilling rig in Alaska in the dead of winter. Strange things are happening left and right, and, well, the workers that aren’t disappearing are, of course, dying in gruesome ways.
The dramatic setting of the Arctic ice caps alone was enough to make this an enjoyable and absorbing film. The director, Larry Fessenden, had previously directed Wendigo (2001), another snow and ice horror movie. While Fessenden is no beginner, artists definitely have the odds in their favor when making pictures in such stark and barren natural environments. The flat, pure, bright white snow makes a wonderful blank canvas. Such perfect terrain exists the world over, but is neglected by a film industry centralized to urban and sub-tropical locales. Avid viewers will recall some of the most memorable shot on location horror films of the thirty years utilized bleak winter landscapes to convey a sense of isolation and dread. To name a few; The Thing (1982), The Shining (1980), Dream Catcher (2003), and the lesser known but equally ambitious Frost Biter (2000)
I must say I appreciated the ensemble cast of character actors. Genre favorite Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Blade 2) plays a stubborn engineer sent up by the oil company to kick ass and take names. The rest of the cast is also made up of people I remember dying in pretty hideous ways in the other movies they starred in. There is James Le Gros, who played Mike in Phantasm 2. Horror fans will recall he replaced Michael A. Baldwin as the main character only in that single installment in the Phantasm series. Viewers may also recognize Le Gros from his smaller parts in movies like Drugstore Cowboy, Near Dark, and Point Break. And we have Kevin Corrigan, who played Leonardo DiCaprio’s bone-headed cousin in The Departed, and “Goon” in the 1998 independent comedy Buffalo ’66.
As the tiny handful of my readers who watched Cookers, Encounter At Raven’s Gate or Ghosts of the Civil Dead may know, I am a fan of the atmospheric, somber horror films, and this is one of those. They make a nice little change of pace from the mile a minute gore-and-cheese fests I usually write about. I ONLY review movies that I like on this site, and I do it to spread the good word about different examples of B-movie horrors that people may otherwise skip. So check this one out. You may start to believe in ghosts as well as global warming.