1 Hr., 28 Mins.
C.H.U.D. June 20, 2019
here are bad things going on underground. The characters of many a horror movie would tell you so. In What Waits Below (1984), a group of soldiers explore a Central American cave after one of their radio transmitters goes out only to find out that a coterie of ancient, bloodthirsty cannibals has settled in its annals. And in The Descent (2005), spelunkers are ambushed by vampiric humanoids after
deciding to peruse an uncharted grotto. Maybe, too, you might think of The Phantom of the Opera (1925), in which the titular character lives underneath a Parisian opera house and lets an obsession marinate, as living up to the aforementioned sentiment.
By now, there are enough movies to I suppose make “underground” horror movies — in a literal sense — a veritable subgenre, if one which gets additions only sporadically. Earlier this year, interest in it was temporarily revived when Us, Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort, hit theaters. In the movie, the antagonists, which are exact replicas of the main ensemble, come from underground. Critics and audiences, who spent much of its aftermath dissecting its meaning and hidden clues, punctually looked for the antecedents.
After the film was released, C.H.U.D., a brainy sci-fi horror film from 1984, started getting invoked a lot, for a couple of reasons. One had to do with the fact that, early in Us, we catch a glimpse of the movie’s videotape in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot, sitting and waiting to be spotted. The other had to do with the fact that both films involve dangerous beings from the underground threatening its over-stratum counterparts, and that both seem to be aiming to be viewed as allegories of sorts.
If Us is obliquely about the perils of the class system, then C.H.U.D., which sees mostly the unhoused getting horrifically victimized by creatures of the night, is a parable on homelessness and how inertly the government has historically tended to the crisis. Us is the better-made and freakier of the two. But C.H.U.D., whose storyline is cleaner and whose writing is less deleteriously complicated, is better if we’re talking about which of the movies pulls off the characterization of being a horror movie with a lot on its mind. There’s an urgency, and even a prescience, that’s made the film’s messages, however hysterically presented, more chilling. This is a 35-year-old movie whose analogies have become even more full-bodied with time, even if much else about it bears the same kitschiness of many B-movies from the era.
In the New York City-set C.H.U.D., John Heard is George Cooper, a former fashion photographer who, fed up with the materialism of his subject of choice, has recently taken to naturalism. Specifically, he has changed his beat to portraiture of the homeless. When the movie begins, he has begun a new project in which he’ll be spotlighting “undergrounders,” or unhoused people who have taken to various tunnels in the city in order to get off the streets.
The main conceit of the movie is that John, along with a commiserate police officer (Christopher Curry) and a homeless-shelter owner (Daniel Stern), will discover that a recent bout of disappearances has to do with the troubling — and wonderfully absurd — reality that there might be monsters also living underground. In a 1950s sci-fi twist, however, we find out that the monsters are actually humans, just ones who have been affected by some illegal toxic-waste dumping on the part of the government.
In a brief piece about Us and its relation to C.H.U.D., James S. Murphy, of Vanity Fair, pointed out what horror movies, especially ones in sync with these films, are so good at doing: “living in the tunnels of culture, bearing truth about America … emerging into the light.” C.H.U.D. may be tacky in places — its first misconception being its bewildering acronym title and its rather pedestrian characterizations (good versus evil is at its blackest and whitest) — but what it gets right is its anger, and its sneaky ways of jabbing at the various false virtues of the Reagan era. Watching it now, it’s surprising how well it holds up. So much of its ugliness and its fury is both of its time and ours. B