C.H.U.D. Lives! Joel Harlow Brings a Cult Classic Back to the Sewers of New York!

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It’s 1984, peak of the VHS monster-movie boom and C.H.U.D. has just hit my local video store. The film was a standout in a time of the straight to video monster flicks. With lead actors like John Heard, Daniel Stern and Kim Greist, as well as cameos from John Goodman and Jay Thomas (not to mention the C.H.U.D. vocal talents of Kevin Haney), it became a legitimate cult classic of the highest order.  

As an aspiring make-up effects artist slowly building a portfolio in my home town of Grand Forks, North Dakota, I was particularly inspired by John Caglione’s monster creations for the film, as well as the gore effects (such as the Hugo character dead body) handled by Edward French. Both of these inspirations I would attempt to duplicate as a young artist, with less than ideal success. 

Jump to 2019. Materials have changed, techniques have changed, and I’ve grown as an artist. I had even moved to New York to attend the New York School of Visual Arts right out of high school, majoring in animation. 

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As we head into March, I’m asked to attend IMATS New York to speak on Friday evening at the pro event, but that was the extent of my involvement for this show. As we get closer, however, a request is made of me to do a prosthetic application demonstration. “I’ll see what I can come up with,” is my response. Yeah, I could dig into my stock of existing make-ups and cobble something together just to have something to apply, but that’s never really been my approach to anything. IF I’m going to do a character make-up, I’m going to invest myself in it, as always. With no idea of what I wanted to present, I grabbed a lifecast of my friend Marti Matulas and prepped it for a prosthetic make-up sculpture.

As an interesting side note, I started building up clay on the head cast while I was listening to YouTube audio stories narrated by C.H.U.D. alumni Edward French.

I pushed the shapes around, and it hit me that the perfect character for the New York show could/should be my version of Caglione’s C.H.U.D. monster. It is, after all, the most iconic 80s New York monster, born and bred in the tunnels under the city. Or, perhaps, it is tied with the Toxic Avenger or Belial from Basket Case.

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Regardless, I had this character in my mental “to do” file, with a couple other homage pieces. Not wanting to plagiarize the character, I had even contacted John back when I was prepping Star Trek Beyond and got his blessing to take a swing at it. There is a fine line between plagiarism and paying homage and I was careful not to cross that line. I knew, however, that I didn’t want to stray too far from the original, otherwise what’s the point in calling it a C.H.U.D. What that meant to me was incorporating the pointed ears, stretched neck and face skin, pointed teeth and, above all, glowing eyes—done with Scotchlight in the 80s. 

Fortunately, everyone in the shop was just as excited [as I was] about seeing our version of C.H.U.D. become reality. It was a fast build but with the help of Gil Liberto, Josh McCarron, Mike Rotella and Shelby Patton it worked out brilliantly. Every time I tackle a character like this, it always surprises me just how much time and work is needed to make it truly successful and finessed. It’s easy to forget as you get absorbed into the world of sculpting the character that there are so many steps that come after. 

To complicate the schedule further, Gil and I were back and forth between Los Angeles and Brooklyn finishing up on a show. This meant that in the week before our second trip to Brooklyn I had to finish the sculpture, float all the pieces and blend them onto their actual positives. This included snapping the face after I had blended offthe cowl so I could finish the face sculpture before we left, leaving it to Shelby to mold in syntactic epoxy while Josh was molding and running the other prosthetics. I also took this time to sculpt and cast the teeth so I could test fit them on Marti when I saw him in Brooklyn. I finished them off with Chris Gallaher’s (Premier Products Inc.) AcrylStains.

Luckily, Mike had sculpted a beautiful set of arms for the character that Josh and Shelby had prepped to paint when I returned. That was the first thing I did, followed by choosing and distressing the wardrobe for the character.

Then, I started on the eyes. 

Knowing that the eyes were going to be artificial, I would have to build in a way for Marti to see. I designed the make-up so that the furrowed wrinkle lined up with Marti’s eye. The reality, however, was that he did have a bit of trouble seeing. Always the trooper, Marti adapted and embraced the character (regardless of the limitations it put on him). 

I had used plastic spheres in the sculpture to act as placeholders for the glowing eyes that would come later. When it came time to mold the face, we carefully drilled a small screw into the plastic to anchor the eye form into the negative. Ideally, we would lock the eye in from the outside of the mold with a bolt so we could unscrew it and allow the prosthetic face to be removed without tearing around the lids. The lids of this sculpture, however, were opened far enough that the silicone released easily from the distended eyes.  

The visible eyes of the C.H.U.D. were initially going to be acrylic ‘iris-less’ spheres.  However, as I mentioned earlier, I felt that one of the major characteristics of these monsters were their glowing eyes. To this end, I vacuformed a mask over a cast of Marti’s face to give me a place to anchor the LED lights and run the wiring over his ears and behind his head. The eyes themselves were also vacuformed, giving me a shell into which I tested various colors and opacities of silicone.  The LED light were very directional and strong, so I was looking for the right amount of diffusion to disperse and “de-source” the light. I eventually landed on the correct combination into which I silpoxied the LED lights. From this point it was just a matter of positioning the eyes with propoxy at the correct height and angles to line up with the silicone face prosthetic as it would sit on Marti’s face. I had to add a propoxy bridge between the vacuform face mask and the base of the eyes so that they rested at the proper depth to match the sculpture.

As far as appliances, the head broke down into a cowl piece that was split up the center, ears, lower lip and face. The head mold was done in bondo-resin, as were the arm molds.  Because of the shapes around the mouth, I opted to overlap the face onto the lower lip. Typically for me, the reverse would be true, but this order worked beautifully on this character. Everything was run in a putrid yellow color of silicone, though as I painted it on the day of application, I drifted more towards green. The make-up was applied with Telesis 5 adhesive and edged with Pro-Bondo  The head and face were painted primarily with Endura airbrush and palette colors  and the whole thing is sealed with Final Seal. I was grateful to have been assisted by Zach Ripps and Jeremy Selenfriend during the application day. They were both a tremendous help, not only in wrangling the elements of the make-up, but also in helping Marti maneuver around the IMATS floor with limited vision.

Once finished, we took him outside where Ben Bentley got some fantastic photos in a proper New York environment. All in all, I am very happy with the final result. Of course, there are always things I discover in the initial application and would change for next time, but they are minimal in this case. Everything fit together exactly as it was designed and that credit belongs to my crew.

Am I finished with this character now that I’ve done my version successfully?

Only until the remake!

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