The last days of November traditionally are a dumping ground for films that the studios have written off as lost causes. These films are either bad or uncommercial (or both). Thus they are plugged into empty movie theaters, with minimal advertising bother, to mark time before the biggies are let loose.
This last weekend brought us a pair of films that fall neatly into the dumping-ground category. Coincidentally, they share a classic theme of outraged science-fiction movies: the government experiment that goes horribly awry.
In Impulse, an absolutely typical American small town is seized by a mysterious force that causes the residents to alter their behavior. In C.H.U.D., New York City is besieged by toxic-waste monsters in the sewers. If the locales (and the production values) are different, the dynamic is similar: post-Watergate paranoia, fueled by a fundamental mistrust of the government.
The director of Impulse, Graham Baker, says he wanted to pose the question: “What is wrong with this Norman Rockwell picture?” Just after a slight earthquake, the people of the little hamlet of Sutcliffe begin acting up. Kindly old codgers start cussing each other out on the street. A woman enraged by a minor traffic violation rams her car repeatedly into the offending vehicle. The sheriff guns down a little kid for ripping off parking meters.
These weird events are seen by a young couple (Meg Tilly and Tim Matheson) making an unscheduled visit. They’ve been brought to Sutcliffe—it’s Tilly’s hometown—when her mother, while making a venomous and obscene phone call to her daughter, shoots herself.
Matheson, a doctor, suspects a communal neutralization of the human brain’s censor—the thing that keeps us from swearing at inappropriate times or indulging in whatever form of behavior happens to occur to us at any given moment. The censor keeps us reasonable—with it gone, the town goes on an uninhibited spree.
This is Invasion of the Body Snatchers country. Impulse creates horror by unleashing the dark forces into a recognizably decent, upstanding community. The small town, the symbol of thumbs-up American goodness, becomes suddenly perverted. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting, all right, but retouched by Edvard Munch.
Impulse manages to get a few genuinely disturbing scenes on screen before its lame, blame-it-on-the-government ending. The film is also hampered by the less-than-compelling performances by Tilly and Matheson.
But Impulse has quite a bit going for it, including the subversive suggestion—particularly within Tilly’s odd family—that the town already carried the seeds of sickness within itself, long before an outward accident happened to kick it off.
I must confess to a built-in predisposition toward any film whose acronymic title stands for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers.” This C.H.U.D. is a cheap-looking horror flick with two excellent actors in on board: John Heard, the hero of Chilly Scenes of Winter and Cat People, playing a photographer involved with the street people who live in the subways and sewers of the Big Apple; and Daniel Stern, the tall goof from Breaking Away and Diner, who has a wild role as a soup-kitchen employee convinced that something funny is going on underground.
He’s right. Gruesome monsters are gobbling up bag ladies at an alarming rate, and the government is covering up. The trail of clues leads to a huge toxic waste dump directly below the beating heart of Manhattan.
C.H.U.D. takes on the issues of toxic waste, street people, and stonewalling, which is more than you can say for a lot of movies these days. Unfortunately, director Douglas Cheek hasn’t got the right stuff to put this together in any sensible way, and the film barely works as a scare show.
Stern, however, makes the most of his scrungy anti-Establishment role. His performance makes you confident that, in some small way, the spirit of the 1960s lives on. And so, obviously, does the spirit of formula science-fiction filmmaking. We can be thankful for both.
First published in the Herald, December 6, 1984
Well, they’ll always be linked in my mind, anyway. Impulse screenwriter “Bart Davis” is actually Nicholas Kazan, and one infers that the pseudonym is a form of protest; the movie’s got a headed-off-at-the-pass quality that suggests it might have been something pretty interesting at some stage. The weird thing (okay, another weird thing) is that although Impulse is the classier, bigger-budgeted effort, C.H.U.D. actually opened at a downtown Seattle theater, the Music Box, while Impulse was relegated to the Aurora Cinema. And that’s some relegating.