Ah yes, C.H.U.D.. Beneath the asphalt and the concrete, Manhattan is honeycombed with thousands of miles of tunnels—an insanely complex maze of subways, sewer and water lines, gas and steam pipes and tunnels whose original purpose has long been forgotten. Whispers that “Something Is Down There” have been around since at least the 1930s, when The New York Times reported that a group of boys had pulled an eight-foot alligator out of a manhole before beating it to death with shovels. Nobody had been expecting that, that’s for sure, but it started people thinking. Over the decades that followed the stories grew and evolved and it was only inevitable that the speculative menagerie living under the streets of NYC would eventually come to include people who were no longer fit to live topside.
In Escape From New York, John Carpenter imagined roving gangs of cannibals crawling out of the sewers in search of food, but they were only atmosphere. Three years later—and nine years before The Mole People, Jennifer Toth’s bestselling journalistic account of the homeless population that really did live in the tunnels—young director Douglas Cheek and screenwriter Shep Abbott took the idea to its logical conclusion, adding a word to the lexicon in the process.
In many ways, 1984’s C.H.U.D. is reminiscent of a Larry Cohen film of the same period. What begins as the fairly routine story of an unexplained string of murders on New York’s Lower East Side soon reveals itself to be, in fact, a monster movie—until the unexpected addition of a government conspiracy gives it that extra twist. Also like a Cohen film, C.H.U.D. was shot on location in, around and under New York, focuses on several storylines which come together in the end and features a cast made up of recognizable (and surprisingly respectable) character actors: John Heard, Daniel Stern, Kim Greist, J.C. Quinn, Christopher Curry, John Goodman, Eddie Jones, Jay Thomas and several others.
George Cooper (Heard) is a photographer married to a fashion model (Greist). He’s working on a magazine story about the people who live in the tunnels and starts to hear some strange and frightening stories. One of his subjects even has an ugly bite on his leg to prove there’s something more than rats and albino alligators lurking down there.
While investigating the rash of disappearances, Capt. Bosch of the NYPD (Curry) follows a lead to a local soup kitchen run by an old hippie (Stern,) known as The Reverend. It seems over a dozen of his regulars, all of them living in the underground, stopped coming by for soup a couple weeks earlier. Making things even more worrisome, before they disappeared they’d been telling him that men from the NRC in HazMat suits had been spending a lot of time in the tunnels and when he went looking for his regulars he found a discarded Geiger counter that seemed to reveal some powerful radioactive sources moving about in the darkness.
In a meeting with Bosch and The Reverend, the NRC Commissioner (George Martin, a familiar face from ‘70s TV commercials in an unexpected villainous role) dismisses their concerns, but by the meeting’s end admits that he’s aware of the C.H.U.D. problem.
Yes, the C.H.U.D.s—the Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. (Or is that really what it stands for?)
Meanwhile, more and more people are being snatched out of phone booths and diners and more severed heads are being found. (It seems C.H.U.D.s like everything but the head.)
In the original version of the script, the C.H.U.D.s were homeless people driven mad and grotesquely mutated by the toxic waste secretly being stored under Manhattan. It could have made for a much more disturbing picture, but as is so often the case, the producers decided that wasn’t good enough and brought in the rubber monster suits. Although we never get more than a quick glimpse of them (though they get more screen time than anyone really needs), C.H.U.D.s turn out to be squat, almost reptilian creatures with wicked claws, flat heads, glowing eyes and wide, dripping mouths filled with long curved fangs. They’re pretty silly, but they can apparently do some damage. The producers also brought in a new screenwriter who all but started from scratch, adding a number of subplots along the way, together with an obligatory shower scene.
In spite of the troubles, the fact that Cheek wasn’t making the picture he set out to make, for a low-budget ($1.3 million) monster picture, C.H.U.D. remains a tight, bright and intelligent movie, with a complexity that was rare in ‘80s B films; a collection of strong performances you wouldn’t expect to find in a rubber suit movie and some scenes that will stay with me forever—including two remarkable monologues, one from Bosch after the discovery of his wife’s head and one from a wild-eyed homeless man with a knife. On top of everything, the film doesn’t take itself terribly seriously, but never resorts to broad, dumb jokes (see the unrelated and unfunny, sequel). Even if the monsters in question are ridiculous and resemble unnaturally angry frogs, it still stands apart from its competition at the time as a classically-styled monster picture with some very interesting contemporary twists.
Upon its release, the film did quite well and many of its stars went on to bigger things (Greist would co-star in Brazil while Stern, Heard and Curry would all appear in the Home Alone pictures—which to be honest would’ve benefitted from the addition of a few cannibalistic humanoids). But over time a funny thing happened and the film came to earn an undeserved reputation, becoming a symbol of cheap and bad monster movies—so much so that as an April Fools joke designed to terrify their regular customers, the snobs at the Criterion Collection posted a press release announcing they would be putting out a remastered two-disc special edition. My own theory is that this is due less to the reality of the film itself than to the fact that “C.H.U.D” is easier to say and simply sounds funnier than, say, Parasite or Creature, or some other mess from the period. But after being used as the punchline for so many jokes, C.H.U.D., as well as what the acronym stood for, crept into the language. It became a reference on The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy. Today you can stop nearly any New Yorker on the street, ask them what a C.H.U.D. is and they’ll be able to tell you, because that film quietly snuck into our subconscious, giving a name and a form to our age old collective fear that there really is Something Down There.