Retro Review: C.H.U.D.

Trouble, oh, we got trouble, ‘neath the streets of New York City!

C.H.U.D.

United States. Directed by Douglas Cheek, 1984. Starring John Heard, Daniel Stern, Christopher Cheek. 96 minutes. 6/10

Trouble, oh, we got trouble, ‘neath the streets of New York City! With a capital “T,” that rhymes with “C,” and that stands for C.H.U.D.!

Cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers–or C.H.U.D.s, for short–are kinda like the alligators which are said to live in the sewers of New York. Except they’re not reptiles, they’re homeless people. Or at least, they used to be. They’ve actually mutated into big, slimy, icky monsters with taloned hands and glowing eyes. But the bit about living in New York sewers is accurate, at least.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Lackey,” you ask me, as well you should, “how exactly did homeless people turn into these horrifically cheap-looking beasts?” Well, friend, I’m glad you asked me that. It turns out that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been storing vats of toxic waste in the sewers. (It turns out that C.H.U.D. also stands for “contamination hazard, urban disposal.”) When a homeless person comes into contact with the goo, he becomes a C.H.U.D. Since C.H.U.D.s can spread their affliction through biting, pretty soon you’ve got an army of uncontrollably violent Doctor Who monsters wreaking havoc beneath the city. Of course, they’re eventually going to want to come up for a bite.

Who will save us from the twin horrors of the C.H.U.D.s and a callous, ruthless federal bureaucracy? There’s freelance photographer George Cooper (played by John Heard), who is known and trusted by the local homeless population because he took some pictures of them for a magazine article. There’s gruff police Capt. Bosch (Christopher Curry), whose wife and dog were eaten by the C.H.U.D.s. And there’s “Reverend” A.J. Shepherd, who runs the dodgiest soup kitchen in New York. Along with George’s fashion-model girlfriend Lauren (Kim Greist), who doesn’t do much but looks great in her underwear, our intrepid gang of heroes will defeat the C.H.U.D.s and NRC Commissioner Wilson and save the day!

…yeah, right.

What I hope you’ve taken away from all this is that, yes, C.H.U.D. is stupid, and yes, C.H.U.D. is cheap, but it is also a whole lot of fun if you can turn off the part of your brain that notices logical flaws and plot holes. It is, in its own way, a successor to the low-budget monster movies of the ’50s and ’60s, the spiritual child of Roger Corman’s giant leeches.

And while we’re talking about those monsters…sure, they’re not particularly believable, but there’s something endearing about their design, and it’s clear the filmmakers put more money and thought into it than they did the screenplay. Luckily, you’ve got Heard, Stern and Curry rewriting most of their dialog on the fly and the resulting performances are actually rather naturalistic. Heard and Stern, at various points, seem like they’re trying to channel Michael Moriarty in Q.

Meanwhile, Douglas Cheek’s direction isn’t anything to write home about but he at least has the common decency to give you something interesting to look at every so often, such as the image of Greist apparently performing an abortion on a bathtub drain with a coat-hanger, or the sight of a gaggle of C.H.U.D.s apparently worshiping something that resembles a gigantic pile of melted jelly beans.

It’s pure schlock, to be sure, and sometimes you may find yourself paying too much attention to the plot and noticing, for example, that Lauren’s pregnancy doesn’t seem to have any effect on anything else that happens in the movie, or that Bosch could stop the whole clusterfuck just by arresting Wilson about halfway through the movie, or that the screenwriters seem to have forgotten to write an ending. If you find yourself doing that, just grab another beer and try to get back into the flow and you may find yourself moderately rewarded: C.H.U.D. may be many things, but it is rarely boring.

I also discussed C.H.U.D. with Jason Soto & Nolahn of Your Face! on episode 78 of their podcast, The Lair of the Unwanted.

C.H.U.D. poster

The Hanover House

Haunted houses, family secrets and personal demons go together like peanut butter and jelly

United States. Directed by Corey Norman, 2014. Starring Brian Chamberlain, Casey Turner, Anne Bobby. 73 minutes. 7/10

Haunted houses, family secrets and personal demons go together like peanut butter and jelly, and Maine filmmaker Corey Norman (who’s already impressed me with two short films, The Barn and Natal, serves up a satisfying portion of all three in his feature début, The Hanover House.

The tale of young couple Robert and Shannon Foster, a young married couple who find themselves in a tragic, uncomfortable situation during an uncomfortable ride home from Robert’s estranged father’s funeral, The Hanover House places its emphasis on atmosphere over flashy effects sequences. Largely filmed in and around a purportedly real haunted house in western Maine, Norman squeezes out every last drop of creepy dread his locations have to offer.

The script covers the familiar tropes of haunted-house stories, with a couple of highly memorable creep-out sequences (Robert taking a phone call from his deceased father is a highlight) and the occasional surprise revelation. There’s a strong degree of realism to the character dynamics: as familiar as dysfunctional families are in fictional film worlds, it’s actually fairly rare for a movie to get one exactly right. The Hanover House nails it right on the head, thanks not only to the script but to fine performances from leads Brian Chamberlain and Casey Turner, along with supporting turns from Nightbreed’s Anne Bobby (as Robert’s mother) and David Shaffer (as the less-than-trustworthy Uncle Fred).

The Hanover House looks and feels like a local, low-budget production and a few of the familiar flaws are present. The most notable one, at least to me, is what I’ve come to term “ultra-indie acting.” As good as most of the performances are, the actors tend to wait a bit too long to respond to a speaker during a conversation, as if they’re trying a bit too hard not to step on their castmates’ lines. This tends to give the line-readings a bit of a stilted, unnatural feel (and when combined with rapid cuts between the speaking characters, makes the scene feel as if it Norman cobbled together from different takes in post, even though he most likely didn’t).

The flashback sequences also aren’t as successful as they could be: Norman tries too hard to avoid showing Robert’s father’s face (the voice of the character’s younger version is almost certainly provided by Chamerlain, and I suspect he stood in for the character as well), and the actor playing the teenaged Robert puts in one of the film’s weaker performances. (I also got the feeling that the Norman intended the part for a younger actor.)

Overall, The Hanover House is a solid, entertaining haunted-house exercise with a couple of great scenes. It will make its official début at the Saco Drive-In in Saco, Maine, on May 9, and will hopefully start making the festival rounds shortly thereafter. Worth a watch if it comes your way.

Hanover House poster

My Month in Film: March 2014

Capsule reviews of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Bad Milo, Saving Mr. Banks, and more

This month I watched C.H.U.D. (full review forthcoming), which I have already discussed on episode 78 of Lair of the Unwanted; it will also be featured in the next episode of the Forced Viewing Podcast. My other podcast guest appearance in March was on episode 208 of the LAMBcast.

As for my own podcast, the featured movies in episode 26 were The Cell 2 (the Drudgeon’s pick), Murder Party (Jori’s pick) and Pacific Rim (my pick). John, Zeb and Benny joined us, along with our friend Doug Walker (AKA “That Guy with the Glasses”) as a special guest.

Other films I watched included…

Continue reading “My Month in Film: March 2014”

Podcast guest: The LAMBcast, episode 208

This seems like a fine time to pimp my appearance on the latest episode (#208) of the LAMBcast. The name of the episode is “Ask the LAMB #4,” and involves myself, Jason of Your Face, Jay of Life vs. Film, Lindsay of French Toast Sunday, and the Vern of Vern’s Video Vortex giving smart-aleck answers to film questions posted on Yahoo! Answers.

This seems like a fine time to pimp my appearance on the latest episode (#208) of the LAMBcast, the official podcast of the Large Association of Movie Blogs.

The name of the episode is “Ask the LAMB #4,” and involves myself, Jason of Your Face, Jay of Life vs. Film, Lindsay of French Toast Sunday, and the Vern of Vern’s Video Vortex giving smart-aleck answers to film questions posted on Yahoo! Answers. Since everyone else has used that one picture of Wyldstyle in The Lego Movie to promote their appearances in the episode, I figure I should as well.

“Everything is awesome,” I say, sheepishly; I hope nobody realizes I haven’t actually seen The Lego Movie.

We will address the burning issues of the age, including:

  • Is it weird to have a crush on a fictional character?
  • How much math knowledge do you need to get into the motion picture business?
  • What is the secret subtext of the Bring it On films?
  • Is Lego trying to sexualize their female minifigs?
  • What’s all this about a movie called Citizen Kane 2: Grown-Ups?

Jason later had this to say about the episode:

If he were actually speaking out loud, he probably wouldn’t have pronounced the hashtag.

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh

“Someone else is here. You know who it is.”

Antiques dealer Leon Leigh has become estranged from his eccentric and devout mother Rosalind; yet her will specifies him as sole inheritor of her estate. After her death, he comes to her home to put her affairs in order. As he does so, memories of his unhappy childhood–the death of his father, the emotional abuse by his mother, and the strange cult his parents belonged to–come flooding back, and he has numerous strange experiences during his stay. How did Rosalind Leigh die, and was the cult involved? What, exactly, is the strange animal who prowls the grounds? And does the cult truly possess the secret of communion with the dead?

The Last Will and Testament is the début feature from Rue Morgue founder Rodrigo Gudiño, and it’s a doozy. It’s rare to see a first effort this audacious, visionary and unique. Clive Barker’s assertion that “no precedent” exists for a film like Rosalind Leigh is hyperbole, but not by much.

For one thing, there’s the cast. The only actor we spend more than a nominal amount of on-screen time with is Aaron Poole, who plays the lead role of Leon Leigh. There are a couple of other actors with brief, on-screen speaking roles: Vanessa Redgrave’s Rosalind is only seen in vague flashes; Julian Richings appears in a video clip as the cult’s creepy founding twin brothers; Steven McIntyre shouts fire and brimstone on a VHS recording of a church service.

But in terms of who we actually see, it’s up to Poole to carry the vast bulk of the film. This makes his role the most crucial casting decision, because he has to fit the role like a glove…which he does.

That doesn’t mean that there’s not a gaggle of strong performances here; Rosalind Leigh is very rare among live-action films for having more significant voice-over roles than on-screen ones. Rosalind is to the unseen roles what Leon is to the roles that actually appear, and her understated, slightly mournful narration helps drive the film. And yet, it’s more crucial than most film narration, as it tells a subtly different story than the visuals do. In order to get the full measure of what’s going on here, you have to figure out how to fit the narration and the visuals together.

Other remarkable vocal performances come from Charlotte Sullivan, as Leon’s significant other Anna (I’m not sure whether they’re meant to be married or dating), and Mitch Markowitz as the narrator of a book-on-tape on the subject of communion with the dead. Indeed, the latter performance is one of the most striking and memorable voice-overs in recent memory, calling to mind Lonnie Farmer’s performance as the psychiatrist in Session 9.

The visuals are as strong as the performances. Rosalind Leigh is a remarkable aesthetic effort for a feature début (although Gudiño has directed several short films as well), with breathtakingly beautiful cinematography and design work. (This film actually manages to make angel statues scary in a way that Doctor Who can’t quite manage!) The pacing is a bit of a slow burn, but it fits the story well, and the momentum never flags between set-pieces.

The last singular aspect of Rosalind Leigh is its narrative. By now horror fans are used to both “puzzle movies” where they’re expected to piece what’s going on along with the characters (see: Cube), movies whose natures change  their plot twists (see: Martyrs), and films that either answer seemingly central questions ambiguously or not at all (see: The Blair Witch Project). Rosalind Leigh contains elements of all three, and indeed, is often so subtle that you don’t even realize you’re looking at a plot twist or a crucial reveal until much, much later.

The downside to all of this is that much of the experience consists of things whose significance are far from readily apparent. (What significance does the animal hold, for example? And how is it possible for Rosalind to have died in the way we’re led to believe?) Seemingly insignificant or random details seem to take on grand importance (why doesn’t Gudiño show the face of the man who knocks at the door?).

Even minor production details tantalize: many of the less prominent voice-over roles are performed by Aaron Poole, Julian Richings and Charlotte Sullivan. This mightn’t have been done for budget reasons–certainly Gudiño could have afforded a couple more voice artists with his $1.8 million (Canadian) budget? So was it for convenience…or are we supposed to infer that there’s a deeper connection between Leigh’s agent, the aforementioned visitor, and the cult’s founders (all performed by Richings)?

It’s all very intriguing, to be sure, but one wishes that Gudiño had put a bit more work into assuring the audience that there’s a real explanation behind all the obscurities. More than once, I feared that Rosalind Leigh might fall prey to the worst indulgences of Argento’s back-catalog, in which elements are included because they make pretty visual events, not because they connect with the story. As it is, I commend Gudiño for placing so much trust in his audience’s intelligence, but that same audience has to put a lot of faith in the filmmaker that he knows what he’s doing. The film will doubtlessly benefit from rewatching–but how many in the audience bother is an entirely different question.

The bottom line is that those trusting and patient enough will find The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh to be an enchanting, enigmatic, obsession-inducing gem, and one certainly hopes that its reputation grows in future. Even if it doesn’t, it’s still different enough from the ruck and run of modern horror movies to justify giving it a chance.

Starring Aaron Poole, Vanessa Redgrave, Julian Richings, Charlotte Sullivan, Mitch Markowitz. Directed by Rodrigo Gudiño, 2012. 80 minutes.

THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF ROSALIND LEIGH poster.

Twins of Evil

One of Hammer’s weaker Gothic vampire films.

Beautiful twin sisters Maria and Frieda Gellhorn have traveled to a distant village to live with their uncle Gustav after the deaths of their parents. The pious, devout and strict Gustav is the leader of a vigilante group, the Brotherhood, dedicated to stamping out the evil of witchcraft in the region, mostly by organizing burnings of suspected witches. Politics prevents Gustav from acting against the decadent Count Karnstein, a libertine who indulges in Satanic rituals–but enjoys the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor. But the Count’s activities bring him to the attention of his vampiric ancestor Mircalla, who transforms him into one of the undead. Soon, the Count turns his gaze to the Gellhorn sisters, particularly the rebellious Frieda. Can Maria save her sister from the vampire’s ministrations, or is her soul already damned?

The “ruthless witch hunter” horror sub-genre popular in the late ’60s (Witchfinder General, 1968) and early ’70s (The Bloody Judge and Mark of the Devil, both 1970) offered opportunities for filmmakers to indulge in period settings and erotically charged psychological set pieces. So right now the question going through your head should be, “So surely Hammer Film Productions would have made one of those movies at some point, right? With added vampires?” And the answer to that question is, of course, “Yes.”

1971’s Twins of Evil is the final entry in Hammer’s “Karnstein Trilogy,” a loose series of films based on (read: “borrowing character names from”) J. Sheridan le Fanu’s Gothic novel Carmilla. You don’t need to be familiar with its predecessors (The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire) to understand what’s going on here; indeed, Mircalla Karnstein–the primary antagonist of the first two films–is little more than a sideline here.

Twins isn’t as strong as Hammer’s other vampire films of the period. Largely this is due to the characterization: most of the characters simply aren’t particularly memorable or well-drawn. This is somewhat to be expected when it comes to the “good guys,” which include the virginal Maria, the twins’ aunt Katy, and Anton Hoffer, the choirmaster at the local girls’ school. But Freida and the one-dimensionally evil Count suffer from this as well. Uncle Gustav should provide an interesting source of moral ambiguity, but instead makes a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn from baddie to reformed baddie halfway through the third act; there’s no real “redemption arc” here. And I was personally disappointed that screenwriter Tudor Gates didn’t use his premise to comment on the gender and generational issues of the time.

The films’ other major weakness comes with its stars, Mary Collinson (as Maria) and Madeline Collinson (as Freida). The Collinson twins were Playboy’s Misses October 1970, and their performances are pretty much in line with what you might expect from former Playmates. The fact that they can’t consistently keep their German accents going for more than a few words at a time could become the source of a drinking game. Indeed, one wonders why they’re bothering with the accents at all, considering no one else is. The lack of acting skill is less of a problem for Madeline (who’s given little to do but vamp) than for Mary, who’s got an actual character portray. Still, at least they look great in cleavage-enhancing corsets.

Despite a limp script and unconvincing leads, Twins does have a bit going for it in other departments. The supporting cast, particularly Damien Thomas (Count Karnstein), Peter Cushing (Uncle Gustav), David Warbeck (Anton) and Kathleen Byron (Aunt Katy) are excellent. Director John Hough isn’t quite as much of a stylist as his contemporaries at the studio, but the direction is solid. The production design is gorgeous and the photography lush, two Hammer trademarks, and several of the effects sequences are better than you might expect from a film of this budget and vintage.

Still, one can’t quite shake the feeling that Twins of Evil doesn’t quite live up to its potential, and can only be recommended to diehard Hammer fans. For everyone else, it’s significantly less than essential.

Starring Peter Cushing, Madeline Collinson, Mary Collinson, Kathleen Byron, Damien Thomas, David Warbeck. Directed by John Hough, 1971. 87 minutes.

TWINS OF EVIL poster