Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Recommendations :: Arrow Video Plumbs the Depths of Douglas Cheek's C.H.U.D. (1984)

We open well past the midnight hour on a quiet urban street, where a woman walks her insistent dog, looking for a place to relieve itself. Unbeknownst to them, a manhole cover has slid open, moved by unseen inhuman hands from below, and opened just enough to snatch the dog and pull it into the darkness with a distressing yelp. And when the owner, still attached by the leash, moves to save her pet, whatever snatched the dog decides to just take her, too, before she can even scream. But even if she did, the horrific roar coming from below probably would’ve drowned it out -- not to mention the follow up noises that can be best described as someone -- no, make that some thing, messily “masticating."

And after that fantastic opening salvo, next, we kinda get a rapid character dump in a meanwhile, meanwhile, meanwhile sense, beginning with George Cooper (Heard), a burnt-out fashion photographer, who is now branching out into photojournalism with a soon to be published expose on New York City’s “Mole People” -- the homeless who live underground in the subway and sewer tunnels, and his girlfriend, Lauren (Griest), who have just moved in together and are currently celebrating the news of their impending parenthood; then we move to Bosch (Curry), a captain in the NYPD, who has been heading up an investigation into a rash of robberies by homeless people and a disturbing amount of missing persons reports filed in his precinct, which takes on a new sense of urgency with that latest victim from the opening sequence -- who just so happens to be Bosch’s wife; and then there’s “The Reverend” A.J. Sheppard (Stern), a muck-raking rabble-rouser whose rundown soup-kitchen is mysteriously running out of customers; and finally we have Murphy (Quinn), a reporter who has stumbled onto something big going on beneath the streets of their city and is >this< close to cracking the case wide open.

And from there, all of these plot threads start converging, including a few stray prostitutes and a couple of lost tourists who meet the same gruesome, manhole-originating fate, when the highly volatile Sheppard gets a visit from Bosch. Seems these two have a history, which is why Bosch is still listening while Sheppard raves about how he knows why so many people have been disappearing and it has something to do with the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been doing an “extended study” of the sewers and subways most of his constituents call home. His evidence: torn pieces of a hazmat suit with a Nuclear Regulatory Commission patch and a Geiger-counter, which starts ticking louder and louder the deeper they go into the sewers, meaning something highly toxic and deadly is going on right beneath their feet.

Meanwhile, meanwhile (-- see what I mean?), Cooper gets a call from a Mrs. Monroe (Maleczech), one of the Mole People he photographed for his article, who got arrested while trying to steal a cop’s gun. Cooper pays her bail, and she takes him to see her brother, Victor (Raymond), in one of the many underground nooks and crannies; and here, we find out why the homeless have been trying to steal any kind of defensive weapon. Seems they need them to fight off the Ugly F@ckers, one of which bit a huge chunk out of Victor’s thigh! Always with a camera in hand, Cooper snaps several shots of the wounds but cannot glean any more information on exactly what an Ugly F@cker is.

When he returns to the surface, he runs into Murphy, who claims the police had Cooper followed when they left the station. From there, the reporter convinces the photographer he is about to break open a vast conspiracy as to what is really going on and it traces all the way up to the Feds. And now all he needs is some concrete proof that he hopes to find underground -- an area Cooper is somewhat familiar with and who knows some of the witnesses he needs to talk to. With that, the two head back into the sewers, where Murphy does indeed find his proof -- which promptly eats him...

Perhaps unjustly overlooked as a prime example of 1980s schlock -- that also just happens to be a smart and effective social and political satire, first (and only) time director Douglas Cheek really gets his Larry Cohen by way of early John Sayles on in C.H.U.D. (1984); and when one considers the troubled production history of the film the effective end result appears nothing short of a minor miracle. Now, the exact nature of this trouble is shrouded in some mystery but what we can glean from a raucous commentary track it had something to do with the film’s script, credited to Parnell Hall, which was extensively rewritten with new characters and sequences by stars Daniel Stern and Christopher Curry, claiming 50% of the finished film is theirs but remain unjustly uncredited. This battle over the shape of the film continued in post production when the film’s producers re-cut it, eliminating about eleven minutes, before selling it off to New World for distribution. But when the film made it to TV, a lot of what was cut out wound up back in the film, causing some mass confusion among loyal viewers, especially the location of the pivotal diner massacre sequence, where several fresh but familiar faces meet a gruesome demise.

Thankfully, Arrow Video has seen fit to include both versions of C.H.U.D. in their fantastic two-disc release of the film, which is available on DVD and Bluray. Frankly, I prefer the extended Integral Cut (96-minutes) over the Theatrical Cut (86-minutes), where that aforementioned diner massacre makes much more sense when it happens earlier in the film, which signifies the C.H.U.D.s are out of the sewers and invading the surface in search of more fresh meat.

Yeah, for those of you under thirty, C.H.U.D is an acronym for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers”. Actually, what it really stands for is “Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal.” See, under the supervision of some bureaucratic weasel named Wilson (Martin), since New York would not allow the NRC to move toxic waste through the city limits, they decided to just store it in those abandoned subway tunnels, where it subsequently breached containment and started mutating all those Mole People into a horde of savage mutations, which are realized pretty effectively and rather gruesomely by the FX team; which is one change I think the producers got right as the cannibals were originally conceived as nothing more than glorified zombies instead of the rubbery, eye-glowing gooey grotesques we got.

And as Wilson conspires to throw a discrediting net of denial over the whole disaster to stifle those who know the truth and clandestinely works to clean up his mess and eliminate all the proof of the mutants (and a few stray witnesses), his first attempt with a team of flamethrowers goes staggeringly awry and ends in another massacre. But, fear not, his backup plan is to flood the sewers and tunnels with gas, where Cooper and Sheppard are currently trapped, and then toss in a match. What could possibly go wrong, right?

Once again, Arrow Video jam packs this release with all kinds of bonus features. As mentioned already you get both versions of the film. (Both work, the extended cut works better.) And then there’s that audio commentary with director Douglas Cheek, writer Shepard Abbott, who came up with the original idea, and actors John Heard, Daniel Stern and Christopher Curry. And while it is a lot of fun listening to these guys crack on each other and the film, it is a little disappointing on the nuts and bolts aspect of the film, like how we wound up with two different versions; but all involved essentially refused to discuss it. There’s also a second commentary track with composer David A. Hughes.

Featurettes include A Dirty Look: an interview with production designer William Bilowit; Dweller Designs features creature creator John Caglione Jr. with plenty of hilarious anecdotes on putting those monsters in motion; Notes From Above Ground is a tour of the film’s New York City locations with Michael Gingold and Ted Geoghegan as your tour guides. There’s also a trailer, a gallery of stills and photos, and one deleted scene with Kim Greist, which extends the shower sequence that kicked off her solitary battle with the C.H.U.D.s as they invade her apartment.

Grim, grimy, gross and gritty, and a helluva lot of fun, if you missed C.H.U.D. the first time around, despite what you’ve heard based on the title alone, I highly recommend you check it out as soon as possible. And as a public service announcement, I implore you all, each and everyone, to avoid the truly awful sequel, C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D. So that’s a yes on one, and a no on two, Boils and Ghouls. Until then, keep watching those manhole covers.

C.H.U.D. (1984) C.H.U.D. Productions :: New World Pictures / EP: Larry Abrams / P: Andrew Bonime / AP: Thomas H. Field, Alfonso Tafoya / D: Douglas Cheek / W: Parnell Hall, Shepard Abbott, Christopher Curry, Daniel Stern / C: Peter Stein / E: Claire Simpson / M: David A. Hughes / S: John Heard, Daniel Stern, Christopher Curry, Kim Greist, Ruth Maleczech, Bill Raymond, George Martin

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