People are going missing in the Lafayette Street area of New York City. Captain Bosch (Christopher Curry) and local soup kitchen proprietor Shepherd (Daniel Stern) investigate. Meanwhile, photographer George Cooper (John Heard) and his life partner Lauren Daniels (Kim Griest) are drawn into this mystery due to Cooper’s work shooting the local homeless people. But the C.H.U.D.s, as the film’s tagline states, aren’t staying down there anymore.
I’m not even going to bother trying to hide it; I have a tremendous amount of love for Douglas Cheek’s C.H.U.D. The story, the monsters, the characters, the sly sense of humor, it all works in spades for me. It bears a gritty New York feel to it stemming from not only the texture of how it was filmed but also in how it portrays the city. It’s a dangerous, lonely place to live. A great many of the exterior street scenes have almost no background people in them. The characters in the film die alone almost exclusively, even in the company of others. Just look at the opening hook of the movie. A woman walks her dog along a wet, empty street, as a sewer plate steams in the foreground. When she stops to pick up a baggie she dropped (assumedly loaded with dog poop), a clawed hand erupts out of the sewer and snatches both she and her dog down into the depths beneath the city. They will both play rather grim roles later in the film.
Aside from it being wildly successful as a creature feature, C.H.U.D. contains subtexts that elevate it above the standard horror films of the day (this is when slashers were heavily in vogue), aided by the fact that all its characters are adults and it doesn’t have sex on the brain even slightly (there’s nothing wrong with gratuitous sex and nudity; but it’s refreshing to get a break from it sometimes). Oh, there’s a shower scene, but it’s the furthest thing from titillating you can imagine. I will now bore you with my very mundane thoughts on these very obvious themes.
The homeless and how they are treated is front and center from the film’s opening credits. As they roll, we see a man turn a corner talking animatedly to himself, clearly a member of the lunatic fringe. He passes by a woman slumped in a doorway, her eyes staring out at nothing. A street cleaner scours the road of detritus, scooping up the shoe of the woman from the film’s first scene. They and their fates are ignored by the city at large, a constant reminder of the state of affairs that more affluent people would rather put blinders on then pay attention to. Cooper, on the other hand, stares at them through the lens of his camera from his upper floor apartment. He was a fashion photographer who has changed his focus to more “relevant” topics, including a recent article about the homeless who live underground. This change of calling is signified by the replacement of a framed photo on his wall of a model with one of a homeless person. His editor/collaborator Derek is dying for new photos and a story to follow up on their first team up to the point that he’ll “fudge it” if Cooper just gives him anything at all. And yet, Cooper is not as involved with his subjects as he could be. Yes, he bails out Mrs. Monroe (Ruth Maleczech) and takes bandages down to her brother Victor (Bill Raymond), but Cooper has no skin in the game. The homeless are something to feel bad about and devote himself to from a distance (i.e. from behind his camera). He pities them but doesn’t truly understand them.
Contrast this to Shepherd (the name alone has meaning). He refers to the homeless who come to his soup kitchen as his “family.” He is bowled over when one of his “flock” gives him a single flower as a gift. He takes food down to his basement to feed the more “shy” people who reside under the streets. Shepherd lives among these folks. He even refuses to leave when he’s told his life is in direct danger because he has to get dinner started for his people. Further, he’s the center of the film’s religious aspect. Aside from his church/kitchen and its significance, there are characters like Val (Graham Beckel), who quotes from the Bible’s Book of Revelations. Later, Shepherd witnesses a groups of C.H.U.D.s worshipping at a rather unholy altar.
Bosch sees the homeless and deals with them every day, and he is willing to listen to what they have to say. He and Shepherd both have a vested, personal interest in what’s going on. The police under Bosch mirror the city’s indifference and enmity toward the homeless and toward their own responsibilities. Sanderson (Cordis Heard) rolls her eyes whenever Bosch gives her an order. Jackson (Gene O’Neill) won’t follow Cooper and Mrs. Monroe down into the tunnels off the subway because of the smell. He has no dedication, and the task is more or less beneath him (no pun intended). Officer Crespi (Sam McMurray) is outright hostile to the homeless and their allies, trading barbs with Mrs. Monroe (“How do I know you didn’t take anything?” “How do we know you didn’t give us anything?”) and telling Cooper to “get the hell outta here!” The disparities between these viewpoints is what allows the monsters to do their thing and flourish. After all, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
Which brings us to the other prevalent matter in the film, the conspiracy/paranoia angle. This is represented by a triumvirate of power: Chief O’Brien (Eddie Jones), the Commissioner (John Ramsey), and government stooge Wilson (George Martin). Like the mayor of many a town in monster movies, O’Brien and the Commissioner blow off Cooper and Shepherd’s story, more interested in saving face and maintaining the cover up as they have been ordered to from on high. This cover up even included Cooper, who clearly has a guilty conscience over this but has been willing to go along up to a point. The bureaucrats look down their noses at people like Shepherd, and this will, of course, come back to bite them. More than this, though, is the truth behind everything that’s actually going on (and if you don’t know the film’s big reveal, I won’t ruin it for you here). The highest echelons of government cannot be trusted, because they only care about their own needs. The people under them (read: everybody else) don’t matter until they and their problems become inconvenient. The government heads in the film are dirtier on the inside than the outside of the homeless people they disdain. Their callousness feeds the apathy of the general populace that allowed the monsters to come into being.
Arrow Video’s bluray of C.H.U.D. is outstanding, to say the least. First of all, we finally get a high def copy of the film’s theatrical cut along with the integral cut. The differences between the two are noteworthy, though they both have their own virtues. The integral cut develops the relationship between Lauren and Cooper significantly. It follows up on the film’s opening scene, which fuels some of the emotion of the finale. It deletes the voiceovers that the theatrical cut uses as New York City flavor, reinforcing the loneliness and ennui of the city. Most importantly, it changes the placement of the film’s diner scene. In the theatrical cut, this comes at the film’s end, but in the integral cut it comes at the start of the third act (it’s also extended a bit). In the former, it’s a stinger ending that plays to the creature feature nature of the film. In the latter, it escalates the tension of the story as it rounds third base, so to speak. Likewise, the integral cut’s final moments resonate more on an emotional level, in part because there’s nothing coming after them. We’re left to dwell on the aftermath of the experience and how it has affected the characters. This is augmented by David A. Hughes’ wonderful synth score. The disc also contains a couple of fun interviews, one with production designer William Bilowit and one with special effects makeup artist John Caglione, Jr. There is a featurette on the film’s locations featuring Michael Gingold, who also provides writing about the film’s production in the illustrated booklet included in the package. The bluray case has reversible cover art from Dan Mumford along with the film’s original poster art. There are also a couple of commentary tracks, one of which focuses on the score with isolated selections and the other of which gathers the director, writer, and the three leads for one of the most entertaining commentaries I’ve ever heard for a film. The film itself looks great, as would be expected with all the grain and grit that informs so much of its aesthetic. As far as I’m concerned (and I don’t see anyone ready to dispute me on this) this is the definitive release of one of my favorite monster movies of all time.
MVT: The film’s depth and sense of maturity, combined with its sense of fun.
Make or Break: The film’s cold open provides a terrific setup of both story and tone.