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The Movie Night Diaries: C.H.U.D.

The Movie Night Diaries at Where the Long Tail Ends looks at 1984’s C.H.U.D., directed by Douglas Cheek. This Eighties take on the Atom-age creature-feature stars John Heard, Daniel Stern, and Kim Greist.

An image of the poster for the film C.H.U.D.C.H.U.D. — for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers — is another of the several horror or science-fiction films that eluded me in my youth. What better way to recapture my childhood than to feature C.H.U.D. on my little corner of the Web, The Movie Night Diaries? It seems impossible that this one escaped me until now. In my day, this was a VHS mainstay, featured at many a video rental house under the banner of “Horror/Sci-Fi.” Along with its ubiquitous presence on the video store shelf, C.H.U.D. seemed to be popping up all of the time on cable channel re-runs during my teenage years.

Did C.H.U.D. warrant all of this attention, or is it an oddity destined to be relegated to the MST3K, or RiffTrax bargain bin in the sky?

While C.H.U.D. would at first seem to have an almost preposterous premise — homeless people mysteriously turning into reptilian, cannibalistic humanoids beneath the streets of a depressed New York City neighborhood — it has enough going for it that it winds up being an enjoyable entry in the roll call of atom-age creature films. Daniel Stern turns in an energetic performance as the Reverend A.J. Shepherd, a young man who lives among the subterranean homeless of Manhattan, running a free shelter and soup kitchen. Shepherd is convinced that there is something amiss when some of his regular visitors begin disappearing. Enter George Cooper portrayed by John Heard, a socially-conscious fashion photographer who’s been documenting the lives of those same homeless people surviving below the streets. When the wife of police detective Bosch (played by Christopher Curry) disappears, the three begin a hunt beneath the city to solve the mystery. But when it becomes apparent that officials at the city government know more than they let on, and the reports of monsters grabbing people from the city streets begin pouring in, Shepherd, Cooper and Bosch become convinced that there is a plot on the part of the city government to cover up the story of what’s really going on.

What I especially liked about C.H.U.D. is the clever way in which it updates the atom-age horror tropes. Unlike earlier films, it isn’t nuclear testing or the consequences of some fallout that turn human biology on its ear; this time, it’s toxic nuclear waste being secreted away beneath the streets of New York by an unscrupulous city government that has everyone turning into creatures. It taps into the fear of nuclear waste disposal that was so hotly debated in those days when C.H.U.D. was made. Certainly the use of nuclear energy, as well as its attendant consequences, are still relevant today, but I don’t think it is as present in the national consciousness as it was in 1984. So C.H.U.D. not only works as a fun and engaging fright-flick, it also documents the unique fears of an age that has passed us by. In the same way that The Blob (which would be brought up-to-date for contemporary audiences by Chuck Russell in 1988) and Godzilla (which would have its own rebirth for American audiences in 1985) tap into the technological horrors of their day, this film captures some of the very real horrors of that day and has a bit of fun making a horror film out of them. C.H.U.D. was right for its time and place and can still be enjoyed by today’s audience as well.

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