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“C.H.U.D.” (1984): A Smart Low-budget Creature Feature That Transcends Its Schlocky Premise

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C.H.U.D. (1984) is a much better film that one would expect from a mid-1980’s low-budget B monster flick. Director Douglas Cheek and screenwriter Parnell Hall‘s tale of monsters in the New York City sewers, while not well received at the time, earns its latter-day cult status. People have been disappearing in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, both the homeless and non-homeless alike. When a photographer, a cop, and a proprietor of a soup kitchen investigate, they find monsters of both the nonhuman and human persuasion. With the use of believable sets combined with location shooting in and under Manhattan, the film has a strong sense of time and place. Underneath its B monster movie exterior is a message about the treatment of the homeless in the Reagan-era that still resonates today. Even so, C.H.U.D. does not lose site of the fact that it is a horror movie; it still delivers effective chills, scares, and monster moments. While not a work of art, C.H.U.D. is a fun creature feature that is better than its schlocky premise would suggest.

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George Cooper (John Heard) is a freelance photographer who is working on a follow-up to his earlier article on the homeless people who live in the network of tunnels, sewers, and underground spaces in New York City. He and his girlfriend Lauren (Kim Greist) have recently moved into an apartment in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan so he can be closer to his work. When one of his photography subjects, Mrs. Monroe (Ruth Maleczech), is arrested for trying to steal a policeman’s gun, he bails her out. She explains that her brother Victor (William Joseph Raymond), who also lives in the underground, requested it after being bitten by something that is also living down there. Meanwhile, A.J. ‘The Reverend’ Shepherd (Daniel Stern) runs a soup kitchen and has noticed that all but one of his “undergrounders” are missing. He files a missing persons report with the police, but does not expect to get any response since the police are generally dismissive of the homeless. He is surprised when Captain Bosch (Christopher Curry) shows up to investigate. (He does not find out until later the captain has very personal reasons to look into the missing person cases.) The Reverend shows Captain Bosch evidence that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] may somehow be involved. As the disappearances increase and body parts start turning up, Cooper, The Reverend, and Captain Bosch realize that something inhuman (or no-longer-human) may be responsible. But, who is responsible for the C.H.U.D. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers), and why is NRC bureaucrat Wilson (George Martin) so interested in keeping a lid on the whole issue?

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New York City is a much cleaner and safer place today than it was in the past. C.H.U.D. does a fantastic job capturing the dirty and gritty nature of the New York of the mid-1980’s. Shooting on location in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, cinematographer Peter Stein showcases both the squalor and the unexpected beauty of the city. New York is famous for its underground spaces, and the filmmakers take advantage of existing locations to build the underground world of the homeless and the C.H.U.D. Spaces such as the vaults under the Brooklyn bridge and a dingy tunnel under a municipal swimming pool are used to provide authenticity and a grand sense of scale. The filmmakers also utilize a sewer tunnel set that they built that blends seamlessly with the authentic underground locations. Clever use of angles and lighting allow them to use this same small section of set multiple times to give the impression of a much more extensive and labyrinthian network of tunnels. One can feel the age and decrepitude of these spaces, adding to the overall feeling of decay and degradation.

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Make no mistake, C.H.U.D. is a low-budget B monster movie, through and through. That said, like many horror films, e.g. Night of the Living Dead, it also carries a socially relevant message. The New York of the 1980’s sees an increase in the homeless population along with increased cultural awareness of their situation. While some are moved by the plight of those that are homeless, others see them as a “blight” and something to be “cleaned up”. It is in this atmosphere that C.H.U.D. is created. In the film, most of the government officials give no thought to the homeless, going so far as to dispose of toxic waste in the tunnels where they live beneath the city. The police take no interest at all in the disappearance of those that live in the underground, that is until they themselves are personally affected by the situation. There are those, such as Cooper and The Reverend, that see the homeless as the people that they are, but much of the rest of society sees them as little more than vermin and an eyesore. When Wilson, the man from the NRC (or is he?), decides to flood the underground spaces with gas to kill the C.H.U.D., he gives no thought at all to the lives of the homeless that call those tunnels home. While this social thread runs throughout the film, it never feels like the filmmakers are hitting the audience over the head with a “message picture”; at its heart, C.H.U.D. is indeed a creature feature, albeit one with something to say.

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C.H.U.D. does not skimp on the horror nor on the creature moments. It does take an old fashioned approach though, which makes it all the better. The film takes its time building the characters, their relationships, and their environments. The audience is invested in these people and cares what happens to them. That is not to say that the monsters are completely off-screen in the first act. They are seen briefly on a number of occasions, with arms reaching out, close ups of lips snarling, and skulking in the shadows. These glimpses help keep the audience from getting impatient for a creature “reveal”, as it is not until well into the film that the first clear view of a C.H.U.D.’s face is shown. The design of the monsters is suitably gruesome, though the limitation of the foam rubber technology of the day makes them most effective during quick shots. Happily, the filmmakers understand this and keep the creatures relegated to the shadows and peek-a-boo shots, for the most part. This helps add to the suspense and mystery of the picture. That is not to say that the film does not deliver gore; this is a 1980’s horror film, after all. The filmmakers use gore sparingly, but effectively, There are some really nice severed heads and half-eaten bodies scattered throughout the film. As with the creature effects, director Cheek and film editor Claire Simpson wisely choose to not linger on these shots, thereby enhancing their impact.

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C.H.U.D. is an old-fashioned B creature feature that rises above its schlocky roots. Combining authentic locations, both aboveground and underground, with realistic and creative sets, the filmmakers evoke the grit and decay of mid-1980’s New York City. Believe it or not, the film has a still relevant message regarding how society sees and treats homeless people, though it delivers it without bludgeoning its audience. Even with its social consciousness, C.H.U.D.‘s focus is horror. A slow build that knows when to show its monsters and when it is best to keep them hidden, the film is a fun mixture of old school creature feature and mid-1980’s gore. Smarter and better than it appears at first glance, C.H.U.D. is deserves its place as a monster movie classic.

C.H.U.D. 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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Paul Cardullo
Paul Cardullo is a North Carolina indy filmmaker and horror fan. His tastes range from art-house horror to low-budget schlock to indie gems to Slovenia killer hillbilly flicks. When not watching films, he helps make them. From actor to boom operator to doughnut wrangler, he makes himself useful wherever he can. Paul believes it is sometimes necessary to suffer for one’s art. He has endured being covered in [censored], having [censored] thrown at him, and spending over a year with muttonchops and a 70’s-style mustache. When not being abused for the sake of his craft, Paul works on computers and watches as many obscure (and not so obscure) movies as he can fit in.
Paul Cardullo
Paul Cardullo is a North Carolina indy filmmaker and horror fan. His tastes range from art-house horror to low-budget schlock to indie gems to Slovenia killer hillbilly flicks. When not watching films, he helps make them. From actor to boom operator to doughnut wrangler, he makes himself useful wherever he can. Paul believes it is sometimes necessary to suffer for one’s art. He has endured being covered in [censored], having [censored] thrown at him, and spending over a year with muttonchops and a 70’s-style mustache. When not being abused for the sake of his craft, Paul works on computers and watches as many obscure (and not so obscure) movies as he can fit in.