Wednesday, October 15, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: C.H.U.D.


C.H.U.D. was a staple of my horror viewing in the 80's. I must have seen it fifteen or twenty times. Even now I'm not sure exactly what it is about the film that was so entertaining. Don't get me wrong - it's full of low-budget monster-movie fun - but there were plenty of other horror films in the 80's that could have made it into heavy rotation on the VCR but didn't.

Having seen it so often, C.H.U.D. became like a shorthand for discussing horror movies. "Better than C.H.U.D. " could mean that it was actually a good movie or it could mean it was so bad it became fun. "Worse than C.H.U.D." was something you really did not want to be watching.

I used to have a VHS copy of the movie, but that's disappeared. I gave a bunch of my horror movie tapes to my brother Scott when I switched to DVD, so it's possible he still has them. One of these days I'll have to pick up a copy again. (Criterion once posted that they would be releasing a special edition on Blu-ray with a ton of extras but, alas, this turned out to be an Aprils' Fool Day prank.)

C.H.U.D. is also the archetypal "good actor in a bad film" movie - with John Heard the nominal star. I think this was also the first movie I ever saw John Goodman in.  Daniel Stern was probably the bigger name at the time the movie was made, though, having done Breaking Away and Diner. I was just looking at the IMDB entry for the movie and was surprised to see Christopher Curry - Captain Bosch - is in one of my wife's favorite shows, Hart of Dixie. (I've never been able to watch it, myself.)

"Should I be wearing this shirt? Probably not, huh?"

The Medium
In the absence of a DVD, I watched C.H.U.D. on Netflix streaming. It's still there - go now!

The Movie
C.H.U.D. opens with a creature attacking a woman out walking her dog. It's late at night, the street is filthy and litter strewn and slightly damp. As she passes by a manhole a leathery, taloned hand reaches out and grabs her. Then we're treated to the longest sequence involving a street sweeper in modern cinema. I mean it seems to last at least as long as that fight scene in They Live. It passes by several homeless people before finally sweeping over the manhole and the woman's shoe - the only thing that remains.

There are two storylines in C.H.U.D. - one follows a photographer, Cooper(Heard), who has foregone a fashion industry career to document a segment of the homeless population who live underground. He even helps bail out one of them, a woman named Mrs. Munroe who tried to steal a cops pistol. He follows her underground to talk to her brother - who rants about being attacked by creatures before showing Cooper his leg, which has been severely bitten.

"No, we're not Disney Urchins, we're Undergrounders!"

The other storyline involves a Police Captain named Bosch (first name Heironymous?) who has been ordered to ignore the increase in disappearances in his precinct. Once his wife becomes one of the missing, however, Bosch hooks up with "The Reverend" Shepherd (Stern), a man who runs a soup kitchen and has been reporting a large number of his patrons as missing - particularly those who live underground. Together they confront authorities - including a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commision - with evidence pointing to... something happening underground. They're laughed out of the room of course, but it turns out there IS something down there that's snacking on the homeless. It's a Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller - a C.H.U.D.!


Man, I forgot how grimy this movie is. It's very much an eighties horror film, but it sometimes feels like a throwback to the 70's. Everything looks like it's decaying and falling apartment. The streets are always damp and there's trash and graffiti everywhere. I almost expect to see The Warriors walking through on their way back to Coney Island. Even the social commentary - the real bad guys are, of course, the government - feels like it's from an earlier time.

The monsters, when we finally see them (which takes way too long), are fairly decent, especially for such a small budget film. The glowing eyes are a nice touch and I kind of wish they'd made more use of them, with lots of glowing eyes appearing in darkness or showing in the background of a dim scene.

There's a lot of crazy in this movie. The NRC guy puts a tail on Shepherd and, to intimidate him, the guy swallows a quarter. That's it. He swallows a quarter. Later on this guy - in Izod shirt and Aviator sunglasses - locks Shepherd underground and I thought, "what, was he carrying a shiny new padlock with him the whole time?" There's the C.H.U.D. that attacks Cooper's wife Lauren (Kim Greist), ignoring everyone else in the building and then growing a super-long neck for no reason I can tell. It does make it easier for her to chop its head off with the sword that is conveniently hung on the wall, though.

"Dude, a quarter was actually worth money in 1984!"

That's part of the fun, though. It doesn't have to make sense. Would the NYPD used flamethrowers underground, where pockets of methane sometimes accumulate? Probably not, but who cares? There are monsters to be had, there's toxic waste and gunfights and chase scenes in the sewer. C.H.U.D.s even attack a diner (bringing the problem to the attention of the rest of the city) - though, unfortunately, we don't get to see that attack. I really wanted to see John Goodman and Jay Thomas struggling with the rubber monsters.

By the time we get to the finale, with gas flooding the sewers and Cooper and Shepherd trapped underground with a horde of C.H.U.D.s, you've either full committed to the insanity or you've moved on to another movie with higher production values - like Street Trash, maybe. The ending does disappoint a bit - I really wanted to see manhole covers exploding into the air like in Alligator - but the whole movie is a bit of an up-and-down experience. There are moments of low-budget joy, like when the C.H.U.D.s all line up at the front of the diner, window shopping for their next meal. But these are often followed by moments of disappointment, like the attack on the cops and the NRC guys in the sewer - screams and a screen going to static? Cheap out, guys - give us some gore!

Just a little gore? Please?

The Bottom Line
I don't know if I can recommend this movie, but I love it anyway. It's grimy and falling apart and barely makes sense (not unlike some of the actors), but it's still a b-movie gem. It's gory and funny and weirdly earnest. I can't tell you why I like it, just that I do.

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