What’s weird about C.H.U.D. is how much it’s like a real movie. An '80s horror flick, it has the feel of one of those '70s movies shockers that doled out the horror pretty sparingly, but spent a lot of time building characters and solidifying its premise. Partly this is because of the New York location shooting. Partly it is because the actors, particularly David Stern and Christopher Curry, rewrote large swatches of the script to turn their cut-outs into real characters.
The title is an acronym meaning Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. And it’s not a surprise these C.H.U.D.s are working their way through the population of homeless who, themselves, dwell underground. The first scene is of a woman, walking her dog late at night, who is snatched from the street as she passes by a manhole.
C.H.U.D. is a terrifically weird movie, though by no means a terrific movie. It’s a monster feature with some semblance of a social conscience, and an indie aesthetic and feel to it that should have translated into something really magical. But, again and again, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
The first problem is with the creatures. Caught in glimpses, the C.H.U.D.’s can be kind of scary. Out in the light, much less so. Far too often the spooky shots are of very cheap-looking rubber gloves poking out from sewer grates. In one scene in a sewer where there's four of these guys, just standing around, hanging out, doing some stretching in front of some goop and not being at all spooky. No suspense, no terror.
Secondarily, the plot is haphazard and doesn’t seem to be quite sure what it’s doing. It starts more promisingly than most horror/sci-fi films of its ilk and era, with characters that might resemble, on some level, human beings. This was well before the modern era of monster movie (most alive today on the Syfy channel) which all seem to take their explicit cues from Jaws, and only Jaws. C.H.U.D. tried to find its own rhythm and for maybe half of the picture, it succeeds. There’s two main branches of the story - fashion photographer George Cooper (John Heard) has been trying to make a more serious name for himself with his pictorial of New York’s homeless, particularly those who live underground. When a bag lady of his acquaintance is arrested for trying to steal a gun, he’s interested - why are these people trying to arm themselves? What are they afraid of?
The other branch follows police captain Bosch (Curry), who has been told to keep a recent rash of missing persons cases strictly under wraps, and he complies… until his wife (the unfortunate woman snatched at the beginning of the picture) becomes one of the missing. He teams up with the proprietor of a local soup kitchen, Reverend A.J. (Daniel Stern) to figure out just what the hell is going on, and why so many homeless, regulars to the kitchen, are suddenly missing.
There’s government cover-ups, conspiracies, all the fun stuff of '70s cinema holding off into the mid '80s… and then in its second half, the movie moves towards its climax, and C.H.U.D. becomes just another monster movie, except none of the monster scenes properly chill or terrify. It’s one of those movies that is probably more famous for its pretty cool poster and its premise than its execution. Still, even as a monster movie it falls flat, being neither gory enough nor suspenseful enough nor interesting enough in its final stretch for most audiences to give it more than a tepid, “It was all right” response.
Part of the responsibility for the lackluster second half might be sourced in the movie's troubled production. C.H.U.D. was substantially re-written before shooting, and the rewrites were apparently so bad that at least two members of the cast (Stern and Curry) rewrote practically every scene they were in. On the bright side this meant their characters had some interesting things to do and say. However, story structure was apparently not one of the things that they knew much about, because they second half is flabby and listless, and there are some “revelations” (such as an alternative definition of C.H.U.D.) that make absolutely no sense.
There’s still a lot of fun to be had here for a film buff. The performances for a movie like this are well above the normal level, and it’s no surprise that many actors here went on to much better things. There’s several small cameos by several interesting actors, including Patricia Richardson in a wordless role as an ad executive, a Jon Polito about 200 pounds lighter than he ever was in one of his great roles in a Coen Brothers movie, and, near the end, John Goodman and Jay Thomas show up as cops in an ill-fated late night diner run. Kim Griest is in her debut here, showing a world of charm and coquettishness that she rarely showed in later roles.
Unfortunately, whatever happened in the production of C.H.U.D. doesn’t get much illuminated by the extras on disc in this Arrow release. As is typical for Arrow, the presentation is impeccable, and there’s a healthy amount of extras on the Blu-ray: three new video shorts, about the production design, creature effects, and revisiting the New York locations. There are also two commentaries, one with the cast and crew, the other with the composers. The latter is interesting because it is an extensive (30 minute) interview with the composers of the fine (if you dig synth music) score for the film, followed by the score in its entirety. The cast and crew commentary… sounds like they had a lot of fun making it. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more joking around and just watching the movie than there is discussing the production. Problems with the screenplay and the producers are alluded to, but most of the running time is taken up with cracking jokes, or trying to figure out which cut of the movie they’re watching. Maybe the best moment on the commentary is when the head of Captain Bosch’s missing wife appears from a sewer drain. The actress (Laure Mattos) is Mrs. Daniel Stern, and it’s amusing, though not in a nice way, to hear Daniel get really upset at seeing his wife’s severed head on screen. Included in this release is a director’s cut (96 minutes) and the original theatrical cut on a separate disc.