Why you should care

Because you’ve always wondered what’s under that sewer grate. Or who.

In the midst of a 2005 press conference concerning a string of suspicious fires throughout the New York City subway system, then NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly assured a roomful of reporters the fires had not been caused by “any people or creatures living in the tunnels.”

The odd thing about the comment was that no one had ever claimed any such thing. We all assumed it was just the work of rambunctious teenagers. That Kelly felt compelled to say something like that led me to believe the city’s C.H.U.D. — Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers — problem was much bigger than anyone realized.

Even if the monsters resemble unnaturally angry frogs, it still stands out as a classically styled monster picture with unexpected contemporary twists.

Beneath the asphalt and the concrete, Manhattan is honeycombed with thousands of miles of tunnels — an insanely complex maze of subways, sewer and water lines, gas and steam pipes and tunnels whose original purpose has long been forgotten. Whispers that Something Is Down There have been around since at least the winter of 1935, when The New York Times reported that a group of boys shoveling snow in the Bronx had pulled a 6-foot alligator out of a manhole before beating it to death with shovels.

It started people thinking. Over the decades that followed, the stories grew and evolved, and it was only inevitable that the speculative menagerie living under the streets of NYC would eventually come to include people no longer fit to live topside. Nine years before The Mole People, Jennifer Toth’s best-selling account of the homeless population living in the city’s subterranean tunnels, young director Douglas Cheek and screenwriter Shep Abbott took the idea to its logical conclusion, adding a word to the lexicon in the process.

What begins as the fairly routine story of an unexplained rash of disappearances and savage murders on New York’s Lower East Side soon reveals itself to be an old-school monster movie — until the unexpected addition of a government conspiracy gives it that extra twist. Like a Larry Cohen film from the same era, 1984’s C.H.U.D. was shot on location in, around and under New York; focuses on several storylines which come together in the end and features a cast of recognizable (and surprisingly respectable) character actors, including John Heard, Daniel Stern, Christopher Curry, Kim Greist and John Goodman.

For a low-budget monster picture, C.H.U.D. remains a tight, bright and intelligent movie, with a complexity that was rare in ’80s B films, a collection of strong performances you wouldn’t expect and some scenes that will stay with me forever — including an ad-libbed monologue from a wild-eyed homeless man. Even if the monsters resemble unnaturally angry frogs, it still stands out as a classically styled monster picture with unexpected contemporary twists.

Over time, though, the film came to earn an undeserved reputation, becoming a symbol of cheap and bad monster movies. Then “C.H.U.D.” crept into the vernacular. It became a reference on The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy. Today you can stop nearly any New Yorker on the street, ask them what a C.H.U.D. is and they’ll tell you, because that film quietly snuck into our subconscious, giving a name and a form to our age-old collective fear that there really is Something Down There. And apparently, according to Ray Kelly, there is.

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