If you were a hideous monster mutated by toxic waste or radiation, where would you hide? In the warmth of a garden shed? In the car stereo section of Halfords, perhaps? Of course you wouldn’t. Instead, you’d scuttle straight for the nearest sewer, where you can hide safely in the darkness and trickling effluent.
If B-movie cinema is to be believed, the tunnels beneath our streets are positively teeming with all manner of cannibalistic monsters and hideously outsized prehistoric lizards. This list, therefore, is all about the fine sewer systems of B-picture cinema, where some of mankind’s greatest fears lurk…
The classic noir thrillers He Walked By Night (1948) and The Third Man (1949) were probably the first movies to set foot in a sewer, but they’re far too classy for inclusion on this list.
No, Gordon Douglas’ creature feature Them! (1954) is inarguably the movie that kicked off the B-movie obsession with drains and dank drainage systems, and the granddaddy of the other films mentioned in this list, most notably Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic.
Having terrorised residents of New Mexico, and attacked a big boat full of sugar, a colony of atomic-enhanced giant ants is traced back to its nest in the sewers of Los Angeles. There follows a lengthy and exciting gun battle between the army and the giant ant horde; fortunately, the LA sewers are spacious enough for soldiers to drive down them in jeeps, and like most films that would come later, the tunnels are remarkably clean – nobody even complains about the smell very much.
Later, flamethrowers are used to torch the insect queen and her clutch of eggs, and the ant menace is thwarted. No doubt a young James Cameron was watching this sequence, and quietly taking notes.
The 80s were an oddly fecund time for sewer-based monsters, and Lewis Teague’s daft yet fun Alligator was among the first. Based on an urban legend that dates back to the 1920s, the film begins with an unwanted pet alligator (called Ramon) down the loo. And this being a B-movie, said lizard then begins to grow into an 11-metre long, man-eating leviathan in the sewers of Chicago.
Twelve years later, various severed body parts are found floating around by sanitary workers, and pet dogs are mysteriously disappearing. Enter grumpy cop David Madison (Robert Forster) who, along with lizard expert Marisa (Robin Riker), have to find a way to stop Ramon before he eats too many of Chicago’s residents.
Director Lewis Teague didn’t exactly enjoy a glittering career as a director after Alligator (his career highlights so far include Jewel Of The Nile, Navy SEALS and Wedlock, starring Rutger Hauer), but he captures the dank murkiness of Chicago’s sewers surprisingly well, and the film’s shot through with great tongue-in-cheek humour courtesy of screenwriter John Sales (who also wrote the similarly comedic Piranha).
Alligator II: The Mutation followed 11 years later, and wasn’t very good.
Scared To Death (1981)
A quite obscure film that may have inspired the better-known C.H.U.D. (see later), Scared To Death, which is like a low-budget Alien that takes place in an LA sewer. Shot for a reported $74,000, it’s unsurprising that, even by the standards of most of the other pictures on this list, Scared To Death looked rather cheap. This perhaps explains why the mutant creature at its centre is a rather obvious bloke in a suit, and why the sewers it calls home don’t really look too much like sewers.
Scared To Death was followed by Syngenor nine years later, which wasn’t very good.
Like Alligator, the mutant sewer creatures of C.H.U.D (which stands for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller” or “Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal”) have a worrying appetite for dogs. And journalists. And people in general. In fact, the CHUDs will eat just about anything, as long as it’s alive. At least the monsters are thoughtful enough to carefully replace the manhole cover once they’ve snagged their victim – they wouldn’t want someone to trip or fall down and hurt themselves, after all.
Investigating cop Bosch (Christopher Curry) discovers that the CHUDs are, in fact, homeless people who’ve been transformed into hideous, man-eating sewer dwellers by toxic waste, illegally dumped in the New York drainage system. The monsters Bosch and photographer George (John Heard) come up against are great, in a distinctly 80s kind of way – all glistening rubber and glowing eyes, a little like the monster in Michael Mann’s commonly overlooked synth horror, The Keep.
It takes a little while for the protagonists of CHUD to head into the sewers to meet the menace, but when they do, it’s fun, effective stuff – as was the case in Them!, New York cops head down into the darkness with flamethrowers. Why said ‘throwers never ignite any of the various hideous gases that build up in sewer movie sewer systems is never explained, but we’ll gloss over that.
Ironically, gases are used to bring the CHUDs’ reign of terror to an end – in an action-packed finale (which includes a CHUD being decapitated by a samurai sword-wielding Kim Greist), the sewers are sealed up and the monsters are killed by flooding the system with gas.
It’s a gleefully schlocky film, but it’s worth noting that director Douglas Cheek is careful not to over-expose his critters, and the last act of C.H.U.D. largely devoted to shots of dismembered corpses. If B-movies have taught us nothing else, it’s that sewers are filled to choking point dead bodies and severed limbs.
C.H.U.D. was followed by C.H.U.D. II: Bud The C.H.U.D., which wasn’t very good.
The Blob (1988)
An 80s remake of the 50s film of the same name, The Blob was an early piece of screenwriting from Frank Darabont. Kevin Dillon took over from Steve McQueen in the role of a rebellious teen who takes on a sentient lump of carnivorous slime that emerges from a crashed meteorite.
While much of The Blob takes place in the streets and houses of a small Californian town, it isn’t long before the gelatinous antagonist does what all B-movie monsters should, and heads down into the drains.
Once again, The Blob features a remarkably clean network of sewers – I can only assume the citizens of California don’t go to the loo – but the surprising death of a small boy during a tense escape sequence does much to distract us from this.
The Blob, I’d argue, is one of the more underrated horror flicks of the 80s. There are some great post-The Thing deaths, with the blob capable of sprouting vicious tentacles, and its victims undergoing some spectacular mutations before death. There’s also a great sequence where a man’s pulled headfirst down a plughole.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
This adaptation of Eastman and Laird’s hit indie comic book series proved that not all sewer-dwelling mutants had to be evil. A different rendering of the same ‘pet lizard flushed down loo’ urban legend as Alligator, TNMT sees a quartet of turtles mutate into humanoid, pizza-munching kung-fu superheroes.
If the New York depicted here is to be believed, the streets of 90s New York were far more dirty and insanitary than the drains beneath – the turtles manage to keep their colour-coded eye masks remarkably clean, in spite of the rather soggy place they call home.
More sewer action, this time with a human/alien hybrid designed by the master of macabre, HR Giger. The presence of the Swiss artist and an unusually starry cast, including Forest Whitaker and Sir Ben Kingsley, of all people, did much to hide the fact that this is a 50s-style B-movie at its core.
It’s a mystery, in fact, how a schlocky script about a promiscuous alien seducing the unwary men of Los Angeles managed to get such a distinguished group of actors, but with a relatively lavish budget of $30million, Species at least achieved the glossy visuals its increasingly poverty-stricken sequels couldn’t replicate.
After a batty chase around the hotels and nightclubs of LA, the motley crew of alien hunters, who count Alfred Molina and Michael Madsen among their number, chase their shape-shifting quarry into the city’s sewers.
In the grand tradition of B-movies since the 1950s, our heroes are armed with automatic firearms and flamethrowers, and find themselves in a drainage system that is apparently odour and excrement-free. The sewer is, however, the home to three rats. One is eaten by a mutant alien baby (don’t ask), while another is cunningly used as a way in for a sequel – though oddly, Species II didn’t feature a giant alien rodent hybrid, but a rampaging astronaut.
The inspiration for this list, Guillermo del Toro’s second feature served as a love letter to several decades’ worth of monster movies. The sewers of New York are subjected to a nasty infestation of giant, human-imitating cockroaches, and it falls to scientist Susan (Mira Sorvino) to exterminate them – which is only fair, since the whole sorry scenario was her fault in the first place.
Seminal creature feature Them! is an obvious influence, but del Toro may even be paying a subconscious homage to C.H.U.D. here. Mimic shares that film’s plot strand about an underclass dwelling underground (which features far more prominently in the Mimic Director’s Cut, out at the end of October), and the cockroaches are even despatched in a quiet similar manner.
The real star of Mimic is del Toro’s direction. Under his watchful eye, the film’s creatures are brought convincingly to life, and the network of atriums and sewers beneath Manhattan are cluttered and full of cockroach poo. Beautifully framed by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, Mimic contains some of the most well-lit and downright attractive-looking sewers in B-movie history.
Blade II (2002)
Guillermo del Toro returned to sewers for Blade II. As this list proves, most B-movie creatures lurk in the sewers of New York or Los Angeles, but Blade II bucks this trend by having its new breed of flexible-jawed vampires, the Reapers, hide out in beneath the streets of Prague.
As in Mimic, there are some seriously seductive sewers on display in Blade II – all glistening and bathed in blue light. They’re also huge, with water so clean that, when a Reaper bursts from it to give Wesley Snipes a fright, he doesn’t have a bit of soggy loo paper stuck to his head.
Alien Vs Predator: Requiem (2007)
By the time of this second Alien Vs Predator effort, the once venerable alien franchise had completed its descent from A-grade classiness to B-grade trash. How can we tell? Simple – sewers. The Strause brothers’ Requiem sees a ridiculous-looking hybrid between alien and predator scuttle into the sewers of Colorado, where they impregnate a bunch of homeless people.
We’re a huge fan of so-bad-it’s-great films here at Den of Geek, but when you have an Alien film apparently taking inspiration from C.H.U.D., you know the franchise is in serious trouble. As depressing as it is to see these once electrifying creatures indulging in Street Fighter II-style fights in blue-hued drainage system (where it occasionally seems to be raining, for some reason), it at least provides a worthy lesson – that all monster movie franchises, however respected, will eventually end up in a sewer.
Honorable mentions: The Rats (1982), Slugs (1988), The Phantom Of The Opera (1989), Creep (2005).