C.H.U.D. has a reputation as one of those cult classics that’s ‘so bad it’s kind of good.’ But it’s not – it’s brilliant.
As Prax Gore wrote about Blast of Silence – Allen Baron’s 1961 New York indy film noir classic – in Incredibly Strange Films: “It looks cheap; it sounds cheap; it’s great.”
That was in 1986. Blast of Silence finally got the Criterion Collection release that it always deserved in 2008. C.H.U.D. has yet to see such honors bestowed upon it, save for a 2011 April Fools Day stunt that will go down as haughty bad judgment when the film finally gets its real due, and the naysayers – like The A.V. Club, that bastion of empty-headed liberal smugness – will have to eat crow.
You don’t need to be a film scholar or a philosopher to understand the genius of C.H.U.D., you just need to understand two things – H.P. Lovecraft, and THE CITY.
Lovecraft and The City
Lovecraft is of course one of the godfathers of the horror genre. But he was also a denizen of New York City in the mid-1920s, and his worldview was definitively shaped (misshaped?) by that megalopolis. Michel Houellebecq wrote:
“New York had marked him definitively. His hatred for the ‘stinking, amorphous hybridity’ of this modern Babel, for the ‘giant strangers, ill-born and deformed, who gabble and shout vulgarly, destitute of dreams, within its confines’ did not cease, during the course of 1925, to exasperate him to the point of delirium. One might even say that one of the fundamental figures of his work – the idea of a titanic and grandiose city, in the fundaments of which swarm repugnant creatures of nightmare – was inspired directly by his experience of New York.”
Lovecraft was obsessed with, among other things, forces larger than human beings, and therefore incomprehensible to humans and quite possibly hostile to us.
The City is a human creation, a joint effort of thousands and millions of people, working and building and procreating and going about their lives, making their contribution, however large or small, to the swirling vortex of energy that certain cities like New York or Hong Kong possess. And yet, despite its human origins – and it could instead be argued that its origins are not human at all, but that humans are merely an instrument of some other, unseen force – The City eludes humanity. Though built by humans, is it really built for them? Modern cities are not human scale, maybe not ‘natural’ at all. The skyscrapers and motor vehicles, the electric lights that blot out the stars, all can give rise to feelings of profound alienation, because The City itself sometimes seems an alien creation. For Lovecraft, “in the very heart of New York … everything announces the universal presence of evil.” (Houellebecq)
C.H.U.D. begins with a shot of an empty nighttime street. The colors, the look of the buildings, the entire atmosphere of the scene all tell us that this can only be New York. The camera begins from an elevated position, but gradually descends, first to the human level, where we see a lone woman walking her dog, and then to the sub-human level. In C.H.U.D., the sewer system is not only the repository of civilization’s waste and filth, but also the symbol of what is beneath.
This beneath can be interpreted any number of ways. The beneath is the shadow side of The City – the poverty, crime, and corruption – inseparable from the light, though always hidden and often ignored. Or the beneath is the subconscious, whose animalistic and destructive urges threaten to rise up and destroy civilization. The beneath is the carnage of war and conquest, the Carthaginian peace upon which civilization is always built in one way or another, the ghosts of which now haunt us, as the ghosts of the Indian burial ground haunt the Overlook Hotel built atop it in The Shining. In C.H.U.D., this waste of war and civilization is nuclear waste, illegally stored under Manhattan, which causes some of the homeless, the ‘human waste’, who live in the abandoned subway tunnels, to mutate into Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers.
After one of these C.H.U.D.s rises up from the sewer and takes the woman and her dog (man’s mate and his best friend) it sinks back down into the sewer. We later learn that the woman is the wife of one of the main protagonists, Captain Bosch of the NYPD, who fittingly has no first name and is always either “Captain” or just Bosch. After this we see the film’s title, which in a moment of advanced technological savvy (in 1984), rotates in simulated 3D so as to appear written not on the screen, but on the street, underscoring the point that C.H.U.D. is the city.
Cut to daytime, and a shot of the once-standard metal garbage cans that I still miss so much, lining the side of the road. (Can anyone imagine Sonny Corleone in The Godfather beating up Carlo with a plastic trash bin? Or Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets fighting with the lids of – what? The plastic ones don’t even have detachable lids.) A streetcleaner passes by the garbage cans, sucking in litter and dirt from the pavement, which seem to disappear in its bristles. But nothing truly disappears, as the knowing look of a homeless man watching the vehicle pass by seems to say. We see the shoe of Mrs. Bosch from the night before, left on the street, all that remains of her above ground.
When I was a boy, I was scared of the unlit basement at my grandparents’ home. Whenever I had to go down there alone to fetch something, I would always get a vaguely uneasy feeling as I descended the steps down into the darkness. The feeling only left when I finally reached the bottom of the stairs and was able to turn on the lights. Then, when I had to leave, there was always the ritual of walking up the first three steps – the highest I could go while still being able to reach the light switch on the wall – then flicking off the lights and making a mad dash up the stairs, as though racing against the returning darkness, and whatever lurked in it.
C.H.U.D. plays on these primal fears of underground darknesses, and uses them to good effect, such as when the character of Lauren Daniels has to go down to the basement storage unit of her apartment building. She hears something, behind the walls, or under the ground, but she doesn’t know what it is. The city is always full of noises of unknown origin, and city dwellers mostly learn to ignore them, except in those moments of quiet solitude, when their strangeness intrudes too forcefully upon the silence. That it might be a large rat is an uncomfortable thought (see Morgan Spurlock’s “horrormentary” Rats) but what if it was something much worse?
Later, a man and his daughter are walking down the street at night. It’s dimly lit, just the like the one in the film’s opening, with a phone booth (insert second waxing nostalgic here) and … a manhole cover. The man goes into the phone booth to call his son, and we hear that he is lost. Lost in the city – another primal nightmare. His son attempts to give him directions, but it’s too late. A C.H.U.D. emerges from the sewer and attacks him in the phone booth. The City consumes another victim.
Later, we learn that the C.H.U.D.s were once human, the same homeless tunnel dwellers whom they now prey upon. But something changed them. At the lowest levels of urban society, it is always like this. The poorest of the poor cannibalize each other – with robbery, with drug-dealing, with pimping and prostitution, and with murder. And those at the higher levels of society, those above ground, always fear – yet are fascinated by – those cannibal elements that live below, those who, deprived of other nourishment, have learned to prey on other humans.
The Mole People
One of the remarkable things about C.H.U.D. is that it was based on a real phenomenon, but one that went unreported until almost ten years after the film. According to an article by Taylor Prewitt, “Homeless New Yorkers sought shelter in tunnels under Manhattan as early as 1980 when freight trains gave way to a lean-to town under Riverside Park. The most popular gathering place was a 2.5 mile stretch, home to about 100 occupants in between 72nd and 122nd streets.”
But the reality of the “mole people” did not become widely known until the next decade. In 1990, the New York Times reported on the existence of the Riverside Park community, which by then had already existed for fifteen years. In 1993, Jennifer Toth published The Mole People, which claimed to be a factual, anthropological account of the underground dwellers. Though the accuracy of Toth’s book has since been questioned, it nonetheless kicked off a spate of other books and documentaries on the subject. Teun Voeten’s Tunnel People and Marc Singer’s Dark Days are noteworthy examples.
But none of these existed in the early 80s when screenwriter Parnell Hall wrote C.H.U.D. How did he know? Well, Ezra Pound said that artists are the antennae of society, and Hall must have been tuned in to what was happening underground in NYC. It’s remarkable how the real story of the tunnel people came to feature elements of C.H.U.D., after the fact, as though the film somehow wrote the subsequent reality like in a story by Borges or an essay by Baudrillard. The soup kitchen run by “The Reverend” (superbly played by a young Daniel Stern) shows up as Holy Apostles soup kitchen in Manhattan, which feeds some of the underground dwellers. “The Reverend” himself, a sort of young idealist caught between the hippie and punk movements, finds a partial mirror in Marcus, a former bio-chemistry student who lives in the tunnels and follows a macrobiotic diet.
“The Reverend” is the sort of character who would fit right in with Food Not Bombs, a free food distribution collective that began in the early 80s, and which grew out of the anti-nuclear movement in Massachusetts. In addition to the fears of the urban environment and the primal fears of what lurks in the darkness below, the other great fear touched on by C.H.U.D. is the fear of nuclear power that has been with us since 1945.
The first anti-nuclear movement came after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and was largely an anti-war movement. In the fifties and sixties, people primarily feared the next mushroom cloud, and they thought that going underground, into one’s own private fallout shelter, was a solution, a way to hide from the nuclear problem and wait out the apocalypse. A young Bob Dylan criticized this attitude in his song “Let Me Die In My Footsteps.”
I will not go down under the ground
‘Cause somebody tells me that death’s comin’ round
And I will not carry myself down to die
When I go to my grave my head will be high
But in C.H.U.D., the underground is no kind of shelter, but rather the breeding ground for a new kind of nuclear monster, born not from the fallout of a bomb’s explosion, but from the waste generated by nuclear energy production. This was the second anti-nuclear movement, born from the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. If Godzilla is the symbol of the bombs dropped on Japan, the C.H.U.D.s are America’s reckoning for having produced them. It was called the Manhattan Project after all, wasn’t it?
The C.H.U.D.s were once human, but it was exposure to toxic nuclear waste that transformed them into flesh-eating monsters. (It’s not scientific, I know, but at the end of the day, it’s a friggin’ movie. Unless you also have a problem with “gamma rays” turning Bruce Banner into The Hulk, shut up.) The main villain in the film, apart from the C.H.U.D.s themselves, is Mr. Wilson – again, no first name – of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It turns out that the C.H.U.D. acronym began as the more innocuous “Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal,” but conveniently lent itself to its other, more frightening explanation after this disposal plan went seriously wrong.
Wilson knows what’s happening underground, but is determined to keep it from the public, mostly for the sake of his and his agency’s reputation. He misleads and obstructs Captain Bosch and the Reverend, sending a very 80s looking young yuppie agent of some sort to tail the latter and prevent him from going to the press with the information he has about the C.H.U.D. program.
Wilson then attends a secret inspection of the corpse of a dead C.H.U.D., after which he must try to figure out how to contain this problem. (I suspect that the set and props for this scene were retained for later use in the 1995 Alien Autopsy video, but I digress.) The rest of the film largely takes a race-against-time structure, as two of the three good guys – the Reverend and photographer George Cooper, played by John Heard – struggle to find their way out from the subterranean tunnels, all the while being chased and hunted by the C.H.U.D.s.
An A+ For the B Movie
One of the marks of a B movie is its ability to generate viewer comments along the lines of “Why on earth are they doing that? Can’t they see that’s not a good idea?!?” After watching the Reverend, and Cooper, and his girlfriend Lauren all going down under the ground, some of them with full cognizance that there be C.H.U.D.s, one certainly has this feeling. But, remembering that this beneath also symbolizes an aspect of the city and an aspect of ourselves, the question is elevated to a psychological or even metaphysical one. Why do human beings continuously indulge this shadow side of our selves? Why, as St. Paul asked, do we see the good but do it not, while finding ourselves virtually powerless to resist impulses that we know will lead to detrimental effects? We know we shouldn’t eat that unhealthy food, but we do. We know we should exercise, but we don’t. We shouldn’t be in this part of town at this time of night, but here we are. At the collective level, we know we shouldn’t build atomic bombs, but …
If Cooper and Lauren and Bosch and the Reverend cannot resist their temptations to go down into the darkness, then neither can we sometimes. And just as we hope we can emerge relatively unscathed from our dalliances with the dark side, so do we root for the heroes to beat the clock, and the bad guys, and emerge victorious before the final credits role.
Which – spoiler alert – they do, of course. One of the great things about C.H.U.D. is that, all these years, it’s been hiding in plain sight. It deals with all these serious issues and themes, which can all be completely ignored while just watching the movie, digging the cool street scenes of 80s New York, and laughing at the ridiculous monsters. C.H.U.D. rises above its B movie status not by aping the characteristics of supposed ‘A level’ movies – their slow, sullen seriousness which all too often masks their simply being boring – but rather by bringing some of the higher qualities of cinema into the ‘lower’ genres – down into the beneath – and showing that serious issues needn’t always be addressed seriously.
Douglas Cheek, Parnell Hall, and everyone else responsible for C.H.U.D. have gone too long without getting their due for this monstrously good film. When it finally does happen – and it will – remember that you heard it here first at Mean Street Cinema.