Synopsis: 1984 American horror film in which Kevin McAllister’s Dad and Marv, the burglar, team up to fight mutant cannibals in the sewers of New York City.
I was pleased to see that the film chosen for the honor of kicking off Joe Bob’s new weekly show on Shudder, The Last Drive-In, was C.H.U.D. However, I was a bit shocked by Joe Bob’s low opinion of the movie. In the short amount of time I have been acquainted with Joe Bob’s brand of film criticism, I have come to respect the man’s opinions. I enjoy his take on the movies he covers—and on the number of other topics he inevitably digresses into. He has a unique voice (and I don’t mean his Texas accent), and with his encyclopedic knowledge of movies, he’s always informative as well as entertaining. One of the things I especially like about watching Joe Bob is that he not only adds to the viewing experience, he often makes me like the movie more (or at least appreciate it more) than I otherwise might have. However, while watching C.H.U.D., I found myself questioning if I was mistaken for thinking C.H.U.D. was a solid, more than solid even, piece of low-budget 80’s schlock horror. As I was watching, influenced by Joe Bob’s stinging criticisms of the movie during the breaks, I found myself becoming more critical of the movie. Was it possible that C.H.U.D. was a lesser film than I had previously thought? Was Joe Bob right—was C.H.U.D., in fact, a dud?
I first saw C.H.U.D. many years ago, my guess would be in the late 80’s as young kid. The VHS cover and poster are images I remember well from the days of wandering the local video store with my parents, usually on a Friday night.
Honestly, I don’t really remember what I thought of C.H.U.D. when I first watched it. But I re-watched it about a year and a half ago (I also watched Alligator for the first time in ages around the same time—but that’s for another time). I went into my re-watch with a vague memory of having liked it—or maybe it just felt that way due to the movie’s near ubiquity in pop culture (perhaps ubiquity is overstating it, but it has popped up in a lot of places—most notably for me in an episode of The Simpsons i.e., “the pimps and the C.H.U.D.’s” of NYC).
I was hoping that I would not be disappointed watching the movie all these years later, that I wouldn’t find that it actually sucks, and not even in a good way. I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed. It was, in some ways, actually better than I expected it to be (it was, admittedly, at the same time worse in other ways). A few of the positive things that stood out to me: generally, I think the acting is pretty good; the script is better than I expected (mostly the dialogue); and it’s more intentionally funny than I was expecting.
Regarding that last part, it’s not that the movie is always laugh-out-loud funny—though sometimes it is, intentionally and unintentionally so; however, the movie is fairly clever. When I re-watched it a year and a half ago, I was immediately struck by some of the little things the movie does. One of these things was the subtle (well, maybe not so subtle, but it’s a movie about Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, for Christ’s sake) use of thematically relevant references, by way of character names. There’s a Les Miserables reference (two of the Reverend’s soup kitchen regulars are named Victor and Hugo, respectively) and a reference to Hieronymus Bosch—the 15th century Dutch painter known for his frightening depictions of Hell as a nightmarish, subterranean realm populated by demons and sinners-- by way of the character of Captain Bosch.
These are two for-sure references, and there may even be another Les Miz reference—one of the other regulars is named Val, so perhaps a reference to Jean Valjean, the character in the novel who escapes into the sewers beneath Paris?
Obviously, I did NOT notice these things when I saw this movie as a kid, but as an adult I picked up on them immediately and thought that it was a rather neat and clever move by the screenwriter. I quite enjoyed the unexpectedness of such literate and cultured references in what is ostensibly a cheapo, schlock horror movie. In many ways, of course, that’s precisely what C.H.U.D. is—and that’s not meant as a criticism. However, little details like this prove that cheap schlock and intelligence and wit need not be mutually exclusive.
I know I’m not the first person to notice these little details (C.H.U.D.-bits?), but I’ve read several reviews of the movie that don’t mention them. I expected Joe Bob might though because they seem like things he would notice, and possibly, appreciate. Now, this may be where I was wrong, and why I was surprised to find out how much he dislikes the movie. One of the major reasons Joe Bob dislikes the movie is that he believes the people who made it felt they were above the material and were just slumming between other projects. As he points out, these were people from the world of indie film and NYC theater. From this fact, he extrapolates that they could not possibly have taken the idea of a horror movie seriously, and thus approached the project with a blasé attitude—in other words, they half-assed it. I suppose the presence of references to Victor Hugo and Hieronymus Bosch could serve to confirm what Joe Bob is saying about the movie—essentially, that it was made by artsy-fartsy types with no real interest in the genre—but artsy-fartsy types or not, I don’t think the movie is a totally half-assed affair.
Now, I will acknowledge that not everything in the movie is great, or even particularly good. The C.H.U.D.’s themselves are...underwhelming--but this is clearly a budget issue. There are some plot holes in the script, sure—as Joe Bob is quick to point out. But what low-budget, 80’s monster movie doesn’t have plot holes? Okay, maybe there are some—but they’re the exception. These things notwithstanding—and they are, after all, criticisms that can be made about many of the movies Joe Bob covers—I just don’t see the overall lack of care that he ascribes to the movie. I don’t think anyone involved really phones it in. The cast is all at least solid—in particular, Daniel Stern, far from phoning it in, actually does a fair amount of scenery chewing (and that’s not a bad thing, especially in this kind of movie). The script is at least as good, probably better, than most movies of its ilk—I don’t really care about inconsistencies like whether the NRC would really be the agency with jurisdiction and not the EPA. The direction is nothing to write home about, but it’s not inept either. The music, one of the many things Joe Bob singles out for derision, while nothing groundbreaking, is actually pretty good, in a very minimalist, 80’s synth kind of way.
I’m just not sure why Joe Bob hates this movie. Or rather, I think I understand why he does, but I don’t think it’s quite fair. Maybe the people involved with it did think they were slumming—or at least some of them, anyway. But I don’t think that’s as apparent watching the movie as Joe Bob makes it out to be. It seems to me that he’s bringing a lot of prior knowledge, and the assumptions that go with them, to his viewing of the movie and it’s given him a strong bias against it.
I don’t know, maybe he’s reacting against the fact that the movie has, over the years, become somewhat of a cult favorite, if not a cult classic? Maybe Joe Bob just thinks it’s become too popular? That it’s become overrated? Too eagerly embraced by hipsters? (on that note, I get the sense that Joe Bob feels the movie was made by the mid-80's version of hipsters--poseurs interloping on horror’s terrain). Maybe he thinks C.H.U.D.’s gotten too big for its britches? So, maybe he’s just trying to balance things out? I know Joe Bob likes to champion movies that are less well-known or less well-regarded—even among fans of the genre—and I love that about him. Granted, C.H.U.D. doesn’t fit either of those criteria, but then neither does Re-Animator, for example. This isn’t an argument about the merits of C.H.U.D. vs. Re-Animator, but rather an observation that both are beloved, campy, schlocky 80’s horror flicks—and Joe Bob loves Re-Animator. So, I don’t really think it’s about balancing the scales, so to speak, or playing devil’s advocate. I think it’s more likely that he genuinely thinks C.H.U.D. sucks, as he has every right to. But I can’t agree with him. When I weigh the good against the bad when it comes to C.H.U.D., the good outweighs the bad. So...maybe an actual Criterion Collection release is in the cards? Okay, probably not. It’s not Criterion good. It’s also not as good as Alligator, another movie that heavily features sewers. But...C.H.U.D. is no dud.
I will, however, withhold judgement on this:
And I don’t know what the hell this is about. But there’s no way I’m ever calling these guys:
We also covered another Last Drive-In movie; Castle Freak. Check out our rundown HERE
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