C.H.U.D. (1983) ***½
Probably the most underrated horror movie of the 1980’s, C.H.U.D. undeniably has its share of problems, particularly in the fields of logic and character motivation. But these shortcomings are more than made up for by solid performances by the cast and by pacing that never gives you much opportunity to pause and reflect on the fact that what you are seeing actually makes very little sense. The really cool monsters don’t hurt either.
C.H.U.D. opens Jaws-style, with a monster attack on what initially seems to be a random person walking her yappy little dog on the streets of New York. The woman’s dog approaches a manhole cover, which promptly opens just enough for something (we don’t see what) to grab the dog and pull it into the manhole. When the dog’s owner attempts to save her pet, she too is pulled beneath the street. As the manhole cover slides back into place, the street resounds with a noise that is somewhere between a human bellow and an animal roar. This takes about 45 seconds, perhaps the most time-efficient monster-attacks-out-of-nowhere scene in cinema history.
Then we begin meeting the characters. George Cooper (John Heard, from The Seventh Sign, the 1982 version of Cat People, and, of all things, Home Alone) is a fashion photographer who sometimes dabbles in photojournalism. Some time before, he won an award for a photo-essay on the Mole People of New York, a group of homeless people who live underground in the city’s subway and sewer systems. Cooper has just moved into a well-maintained tenement with his fashion-model girlfriend, Lauren (Kim Greist of Brazil), who frankly is of little importance to the story, except as a potential victim. Captain Bosch of the N.Y.P.D. (Christopher Curry, who showed up more recently in Starship Troopers and Home Alone 3) is arguably the movie’s central character. He is conducting a probe into a recent rash of missing-person reports in his neighborhood. The woman with the dog from the opening scene turns out to have been his wife, Flora. “The Reverend” A. J. Sheppard (Daniel Stern, who would go on to appear in Leviathan and [that’s right] Home Alone [did that fucking movie start life as an improv sketch at the C.H.U.D. cast reunion party or something?]) is a vaguely hippyish man who runs a soup kitchen out of his rapidly decaying rowhouse (it is entirely possible that Sheppard is a squatter there). Last, and most definitely least, Murphy (J. C. Quinn, from Maximum Overdrive) is a freelance reporter who has begun to suspect that a major story is developing under the city streets.
The process by which all these characters’ lives intersect is a complicated one. Sheppard makes the first move (though not the first move that we see) by calling the police to report the disappearance of several of his regular customers. Bosch goes to the soup kitchen himself, partly because of his personal interest in the mushrooming epidemic of disappearances, partly because he knows Sheppard from an unexplained run-in that the latter man had with the law some five years earlier. Now Sheppard is a pretty smart guy, and his political bent is such that his radar is sensitively attuned to irregularities in the behavior of authority, so he instantly realizes that something more than just some vanished bums must be up for the police to send a captain to do a detective’s work. And his daily contact with the homeless, many of them Mole People, gives him access to information that someone in another line of work would not have. For example, he knows that the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual probe of the sewer, subway, and underground utilities systems has been going on for more than four times as long as usual this year. Combine this with the fact that all of Sheppard’s missing customers are Mole People, and any radical worth his salt will tell you that there is some highly toxic bad news afoot beneath the city streets. Add a personal visit from a police captain to a soup kitchen, and it also becomes clear that whatever that bad news is, it isn’t just the Mole People’s problem. And as a final touch, it turns out that Sheppard has found a few artifacts marked with the emblem of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, including a radiation-monitoring film badge.
Meanwhile, George Cooper finds himself called down to Bosch’s precinct to bail out a homeless woman named Mrs. Monroe (Ruth Maleczech), who was arrested for trying to steal a police officer’s service revolver. It turns out that Monroe, a Mole Person whom Cooper met while shooting his photo-essay, tried to steal the gun in order to give it to her brother, Victor (whose best friend, by the way, is named Hugo-- get it?). Victor (Bill Raymond, from Christmas Evil and 12 Monkeys) wants a gun to protect himself from the “Ugly Fuckers.” In fact, it turns out that firearms are all the rage down in the tunnels this season. When Mrs. Monroe takes Cooper back “home” to talk to Victor, it becomes quite clear why he would want protection from these mysterious Ugly Fuckers-- it seems that one of them took a bite about seven inches square out of the man’s right thigh! Cooper understandably whips out his camera to take a few pictures at this point. After all, this could be important down the road. When he returns to the surface, Cooper meets Murphy, who introduces himself, and tells him that the police had sent someone to follow him when he left the station with Mrs. Monroe. (Murphy, apparently, is in the habit of hanging out at the precinct, waiting for something newsworthy to happen.) Over the next couple of scenes, Murphy tries to convince the photographer that he has found himself on the outer edge of a massive cover-up of as-yet-undetermined wrongdoing, in which certainly the police department, probably the city government, and maybe the feds too, are implicated, and that whatever it’s about, the answer lies down in the tunnels. What finally gets Cooper to listen is the fact that somebody (he thinks it’s Murphy at first) steals the photos he took of Victor’s leg. The two men descend into the tunnels (the ever-resourceful Murphy has the presence of mind to bring a gun), and that’s the last we see of the reporter, who sticks his head into a narrow passageway and promptly gets it bitten off by a green-skinned humanoid with glowing yellow eyes. That’s when Cooper decides to heed the old maxim about discretion being the better part of valor (though he, too, is smart enough to recognize the usefulness of Murphy’s gun).
Now, about those stolen photographs... Sheppard (who remembered Cooper from the photo-essay) and Bosch had stopped by Cooper’s place to talk to him about the increasingly obvious cover-up about which Murphy was so obsessed and in which Bosch has gotten sick of taking part. Unfortunately, Cooper wasn’t home, so the two men decided to let themselves in and have a look at his pictures. In the darkroom, they found the recently developed shots of Victor’s leg-- jackpot!-- and decided to borrow them for a while. You see, they have a date with the chief (Eddie Johns, of Q and The Believers) and commissioner (John Ramsey) of the N.Y.P.D. and a certain Mr. Wilson of the N.R.C. (George Martin), and it would be useful if they had some solid evidence to present if they are going to go around accusing these men of a dastardly cover-up. Now, this is where we first get some idea of the nature and dimensions of the conspiracy. All three honchos-- though they try hard not to admit it-- know about the over-long E.P.A. probe. The reason for its duration stems from a months-old scandal in which the N.R.C. attempted to transport radioactive waste through Manhattan, via the sewers and subway tunnels. By the time the court order enjoining them from doing so was handed down, they had already taken the stuff halfway across the city, so that the actual effect of the injunction is to prevent the N.R.C. from taking the waste out of Manhattan! Of course, the chief, the commissioner, and Wilson all refuse to concede the possibility that the presence of tons of radioactive material in the sewers has anything to do with the disappearances, and they outright ridicule the suggestion that reports of “monsters” in the sewers be given any credence, until Sheppard becomes disgusted and storms out of the meeting, vowing to take the story to the press. In the ensuing confusion, a file falls out of Wilson’s briefcase and onto the floor next to Bosch and the chief. The file is marked “Confidential” and is entitled simply “C.H.U.D.” Just as Wilson is trying to convince the policemen that the file is meaningless, he receives a phone call that leads him to give up the game. It seems his men in the field have found a “C.H.U.D.”-- a Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller-- in a subway tunnel. Wilson grudgingly takes the cops with him to view its carcass, and at right about the time that he’s trying futilely to sell his companions on the idea that the dead C.H.U.D. is the only one in the world, we cut to the aforementioned scene of Murphy’s demise.
What follows is reminiscent of the climax of Them!, as an N.R.C. team, accompanied by flamethrower-wielding policemen, descend beneath the streets to search for any more C.H.U.D.s. Unfortunately for the cops and feds, the result more closely resembles the middle of Aliens than the end of Them!. As Bosch and Wilson watch in stunned silence over the video feed from the N.R.C.’s cameraman, a horde of C.H.U.D.s massacres the team. Wilson’s Plan-B is almost worthy of a George Romero movie in terms of paranoid visions of government disregard for public safety. He intends to seal off the tunnels in which the monsters have been seen, flood them with gas from the city utilities system, and blow the whole network of tunnels to kingdom-come. The final phase of the movie threatens to go completely over the top, as an increasingly megalomaniacal Wilson goes to ever greater lengths to conceal the true extent of his organization’s crimes (it’s much worse even than it looks), Cooper and Sheppard become trapped in the soon-to-be-detonated tunnels, and the C.H.U.D.s take to the streets.
A lot of horror fans seem to really hate this movie, and I’ve never quite understood why. Sure, it’s stupid, but if you really like horror movies, you’re more than used to that by now. Okay, the characters’ actions often defy explanation, but again, that isn’t exactly a novel situation for a horror fan to find himself in. And C.H.U.D. has so much going for it otherwise. The only truly bad actor in the movie is George Martin as Wilson, who seriously overdoes it toward the end. I suppose Kim Greist’s Lauren is no great shakes, either, but she has-- what?-- four lines in the movie? It’s hard to put in much of a performance when your only function in the movie is to be menaced while taking a shower. And I can’t think of a single bad thing to say about anyone else in the cast. The otherwise-unheard-of Douglas Cheek did a marvelous job holding together what has to have been an extremely difficult script to direct; I particularly like his use of intercutting within scenes to hold audience interest. Very few scenes in C.H.U.D. play all the way through without interruption. Most of the time, you’re actually watching two or even three scenes at once, chopped up into alternating segments. This has the effect of making the film move much faster than it would if edited more conventionally. All told, I think this movie deserves much more credit than it has thus far received.