Vintage Cable Box: Of Unknown Origin, 1983

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“Watch and weep, you furry fucker.”

Of Unknown Origin, 1983 (Peter Weller), Warner Bros.

1983 was the year of the yuppie. The unusual, one-line Google search engine description defines “yuppie” as a well-paid young middle-class professional who works in a city job and has a luxurious lifestyle. The term, being coined in 1982 by Joseph Epstein, points to the rise of baby-boomers finding employment (usually along executive, financial, and administrative lines) in the big cities; many of them living there, but others succumbing to the phenomena of white flight, the grand mass-exodus of white people to the suburbs when inner-city crime and racial tension was at an all time high. Peter Weller’s Bart Hughes is the test-case of encroaching yuppiedom in New York City (although expertly shot in Montreal).

Living with his wife, Meg (Playmate Shannon Tweed, in her first film), and their son, Peter, in a renovated brownstone, his apartment is astonishingly beautiful, tastefully decorated, with lots of space.  Bart has his sights set on a raise and promotion which will enable him to buy the apartment, and from the beginning of the film, he is depicted as straightlaced, clean-shaven, rocking suits and ties, and glad-handing everybody he comes across (but also, strangely, obsessive-compulsive as my wife observed).  His wife and child take off for a vacation and leave Daddy in the big city to make the money.  This movie is a kind-of Seven Year Itch but with a pesky rodent subbing for Marilyn Monroe.

It only takes a couple of days for Weller to lose the fragile grip he thought he possessed with regard to his controlled world.  It turns out he has a rodent problem.  Contacting exterminators proves futile, as the city is overrun.  With the help of his Super, he starts doing his own research, and in a very interesting scene (a dinner party with guests chewing on Cornish hen), he disgusts attendees with admittedly interesting factoids about rats, about the diseases they spread, about the food they consume.  The scene is revealing to me because the director, George P. Cosmatos, and screenwriter Brian Taggert, are obviously citing parallels between rats and yuppies.

Earlier this month, I chose to watch and review another horror movie about rats called Deadly Eyes.  Compared to Deadly Eyes, Of Unknown Origin is a virtual masterpiece of form.  Deadly Eyes is absolutely dreadful and silly, mainly because the visual representation of the monster in question looks so damned silly.  Little dogs, covered with “rat-like” fur but wiggling and moving like dogs.  As if the obsessive Weller at the end of his rope isn’t enough, we have more parallels; as in when he pounds on his ceiling with a thick copy of Melville’s Moby Dick.

The very beautiful Ms. Shannon Tweed.

By the final third of the film, Weller has completely lost it.  His work is suffering.  He earns the sympathy of his secretary, the ire of his rivals, and the befuddlement of his boss.  He constructs a torture and killing device out of a baseball bat, and he becomes completely obsessed with the idea of destroying the rat, even at the cost of his apartment and sanity.  He learns the logic of his enemy, and he revises his attack, eventually emerging victorious.  The movie reminds me of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) wherein our protagonist must dispense with his own logic in order to survive his ordeal.  This is such a fun popcorn movie, and Weller (as my wife noted, a child of James Woods and Jeff Goldblum in his unique mannerisms) is immensely entertaining to watch.

Sourced from the original 1984 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release (Canadian release – the paper is flimsy and oil-stained, I’ve noted this on the Canadian videos).  Also released on Beta, this movie did not have a release on Laserdisc, but it was produced for DVD.  As of this writing, the movie has not yet been released on Blu Ray,  The accompanying essay claims, “If it can’t scare them to death, it will find another way!”  The essay calls the movie, “… provocative and shocking suspense …”  Next time, we wrap up Vintage Cable Box’s Halloween 2016 Horror Movie Coverage with Drew Barrymore in Mark Lester’s Firestarter from 1984.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Deadly Eyes, 1982

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“The son-of-a-bitch was THIS BIG!”

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Deadly Eyes, 1982 (Sara Botsford), Warner Bros.

Divorced, destitute teacher Sam Groom (great name, like something out of a Mickey Spillane story) takes his class to a museum to hear a lecture about rats.  While an interesting study, the kids are obviously bored, so they begin passing around notes.  What are they?  Like five?  No, this is supposed to be high school, and the kids, while well-dressed and reasonably intelligent, are all about getting laid.  This was the early ’80s, for crying out loud.  Ever since the revelations of Animal House, higher education took a back-seat to sex.  No-nonsense Health Inspector Sara Botsford is issuing summons and taking names, while hapless truck driver Scatman Crothers (who gets a special appearance by credit here)  laughs at big balls of fire.  Wait.  What?  There’s something wacky about the editing here.

I’m not a fan of rats.  They can hide and get into places we can’t.  I don’t think I’m much of a fan of movies about rats, either, but my job here at Vintage Cable Box is to remember those movies I watched as a kid on cable television (which unfortunately means I’ll be watching Of Unknown Origin as well).  An idiot is playing electric broom air guitar while dreamy cheerleader Lisa Langlois looks bored.  Lisa has a thing for Groom (she’s almost psychotically obsessed with bagging him), which can’t end well.  If I’m understanding the story correctly, Botsford orders grain to be destroyed (the fire I mentioned) because it contains harmful amounts of steroids.  I don’t know how that happened, but I’m going with it.  A rat infestation grows to humongous size.  They flee the fire and take to the streets.

I remember a few years back, when I was a kid living in Philly, there was a garbage strike which went on for weeks.  Despite the fact we were living in a luxury apartment at the time, we could hear the rats scuttling around inside those walls as the garbage piled up.  There’s a terrible scene early in the movie with a child in a high-chair and a cluster of enormous rats (actually dachsunds wrapped in fur) that tip the chair over for a late snack.  Did I mention I hate rats?  In this movie, they tend to be way more predatory than in any given realistic set of circumstances.  Most rats I’ve seen in real life scurry away when discovered.  I did see an enormous rat one time walking across a train platform in Williamsburg.  Imagine that!  Just walking around like it had a Metrocard!

Back to the movie, Lisa tells Groom she’s in love with him.  Seriously, they’re going to get into a lot of trouble.  She honestly doesn’t understand his rejection of her.  I don’t either, but that’s me.  I love me some Lisa Langlois!  Apparently, they were gonna make him God, but he was too good-looking!  The movie turns into a little bit of Jaws when one of Groom’s students receives a nasty bite from a mysterious source.  Seems like it could be a rodent, but we can’t be sure, damnit!  At the hospital, he meets Botsford (whom you may remember as the killer in Still of the Night) and they hit it off fairly quickly.  Botsford orders the Scatman to inspect the tunnels before the grand opening of a new subway line.  He does so, under protest, but he bites it.  Rather, they bite him!  Scatman is always dying in horror movies.  Why?

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This is an incredibly silly movie.  The “visual” effects (that of dressing those poor dogs to look like rats) fail, especially in close-up shots of rodent-like faces chewing, gnawing, and screeching accompanied by Henry Manfredini-like violin stings.  In wider shots, they run in packs but their strides don’t resemble those of rats, but … well … dogs.  It reminds me of a call-back to the movies of Bert I. Gordon.  Gordon was known for movies about giant spiders, giant tarantulas, giant ants, giant teenagers (yes, giant teenagers), and made with just as much care for reason and believability.  In the middle of a serious movie about a lonely high school teacher, forbidden lust, and health inspections, we have giant rats.

Legendary director Robert Clouse (Enter the Dragon, Game of Death) directs a screenplay based on the book, The Rats, by James Herbert.  Herbert was a writer I enjoyed immensely.  He was known for writing disaster/horror novels with characters that ran the gamut from insane to altruistic, who would then turn, behaviorally, into polar opposites.  Among the books I enjoyed from him were The Survivor, Sepulchre, Lair, Domain, Haunted, ’48 (a stand-out for me), and his bizarre, libidinous fairy epic, Once.  He passed away in 2013.

Thanks for reading! Next time, I watch and dissect the first sequel in a big franchise; Friday the 13th Part 2 from 1981.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

NEW PODCAST: “The Creature That Touches Heaven”

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There were three “King Kong ” movies made, original “King Kong” movies, same plot device, few useful derivations, but basically getting on the boat, taking the boat to Skull Island, having a hot blonde lady for company, running afoul of natives, abduction and big apes, or chimps, or monkeys, I can’t tell which, I have to ask Bronwyn again because I always mix those bastards up! Bronwyn knows everything I don’t know, so she knows everything! Bronwyn knows everything! If anybody has a question, I’ll give out her private email address, and put in the subject line: “I want answers” in all-caps.

I am so looking forward to this. I wanted to do more fun stuff on BlissVille for a long time and now here we are!