Willard Huyck directs Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones and Tim Robbins in this sci-fi satire adventure where an alien from a duck planet is transported to Earth and needs to find his way home.
I would say looking back on my formative movie-going experiences that they were at films that weren’t particularly loved in the mid-Eighties and have only begrudging cult status even now. This is due either to my misguided pester power or terrible choices by my mum… or the fact that both local cinemas were owned by Cannon at just the wrong time. In this period I should have been screaming to go watch Back to the Future, Short Circuit, Crocodile Dundee, 3 Men & a Baby, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Big. Instead we choose Return to Oz, Santa Claus: The Movie, Masters of the Universe, Howard the Duck, Short Circuit 2 and Three Fugitives. These are the cherished trips I remember going on with bag of sticky newsagent pic’n’mix hidden in my Parker pocket. Things got better. I can vividly recall the throng and anticipation of queueing up in Ealing Broadway for Twins and Honey I Shrunk The Kids. And those queues were genuinely around the block. But a Bond double bill or Disney re-release aside, my inaugural cinema trips were exclusively to critically reviled flops. I was inoculated to sift pleasure from the discarded failures.
On paper Howard the Duck isn’t that unlikely a proposition. A light sci-fi film that can showcase a range of integrated animatronic, stunt and stop motion FX work delivered by the masters of the craft, ILM. An adaptation of decade long running Marvel comic with a strong following. A fish-out-of-water comedy where the ‘fish’ is a wisecracking duck. The same essential plot as the then biggest movie of all-time, E.T., but spiced up with sarcasm, sex and sustained peril for the teenage crowd. The stars of the last two blockbuster season’s summer sleepers in Lea Thompson (Back to the Future) and Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller). It doesn’t seem like a bad bet.
Lucasfilm was coming off the back of a completed Star Wars Trilogy and two massive Indiana Jones films. Sidney Sheinberg, President of Universal, had regrets passing over these franchises and wanted in on the next project. Universal also had a partnership with Marvel to option their characters and develop projects. Howard the Duck, a noir-ish satire of modern culture, had caught Lucas’ eye since the release of American Graffiti. He set Temple of Doom writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz the task of adapting it. The project was originally developed with an animated format intended but when Universal realised they need a blockbuster in production for the summer of ‘86 and George wanted to showcase ILM’s new SFX breakthroughs the movie was redrafted as live action.
Let’s talk about the finished film’s true strength: the casting of Lea Thompson as Beverly. While she never hit the A-List, she is the kinda actress who genuinely lights up the screen. She can undersell bad jokes, looks cute in just about any outfit and generates chemistry with whomever she is cast opposite. No matter how strange! Even if that actor is playing her son, a 3 foot tall horny duck or Eric Stoltz. I had a real affection for her and her now forgotten sitcom Caroline in the City… a less cool Friends.
There’s no denying Howard the Duck is an overtly sexual film. Even though it is a family comedy adventure. We are introduced to Howard reading PlayDuck and seeing the duck titties within. The movie’s central relationship is a duck and a bubbly rock star who share an instant connection and a bed. In fact the script actively interrupts them each time they are about consummate their obvious attraction to each other. The final shot, long after the credits have started rolling and the best boy’s name has scrolled upwards, is them millimetres from a snog… the movie then swiftly, teasingly fades to black. Howard The Duck has leering shots of Thompson on all fours in her skimpies and a villain whose protruding tentacles look very familiar to anyone who has watched more than two Japanese animated movies. It all makes Thompson’s scenes with Marty McFly the year previous seem positively wholesome.
There’s no denying Howard the Duck has a random sense of humour that cleaves closer to adult rather than universal. The period is littered with productions that landed too close to disturbing and scarring despite being marketed as family films. The director and writing team’s last project was Temple Of Doom a PG film were beating hearts are visibly ripped from screaming prisoners and child slavery is key plot point. It was a strange time to be making child friendly films as the tone was constantly to overstep what was appropriate. Pile on top of this a load of endless awful egg and mallard puns, plus a few clunky movie references… and Howard the Duck feels like an R rated project that stars a kid friendly artificial lead. What might happen if E.T. was abandoned near John Belishi’s coke fuelled wake rather than Elliot’s house.
Then we have Jeffrey Jones increasingly terrifying villain. The story and adventure FX don’t even intrude until the second half but once something resembling a solid plot does take hold it is actually quite impressive. We get an extended stunt spectacular microlight chase and a space laser finale (MCU fans will be pleasantly surprised). But what suddenly snaps the movie into focus is The Dark Overlord of the Universe who follows Howard through a similar wormhole. He slowly mutates the degrading body he possesses in impressively gradual ways. Eventually becoming a fantastic stop motion creation – a mixture of scorpion and medusa who proves a intimidating foe for Howard to rescue Beverly and us from. Almost too terrifying for a PG? What do you think? Thank ED-209 creator Phil Tippet for the nightmares.
Jeffrey Jones is superb as the Doc Brown who turns into The Exorcist. He sells the dehumanisation and pure unemotive evil of his villain. When he originally only has a little latex and mussed hair to support the idea he is possessed he leans into a convincing deadpan otherworldliness. When the ILM crew takeover and he starts malevolently glowing and his ghastliness bursts out of him, Jones still imbues what is being rigged around him with threatening personality. A very effective sci-fi villain who probably belongs in a more purposeful production.
One last positive I’ll feather HTD’s nest with is the music. Beverly’s band The Cherry Bombs are on the rise. Their manager is a skeaze. Howard needs something, anything, to do while the plot idles and he finds in webbed feet on Earth. So he takes over the band’s business affairs. Their tunes are catchy and energetic. The big concert finale ends the movie on a smile inducing high note. The Howard the Duck theme song thumps with a simple earworm simplicity. I haven’t revisited the film all that many times but the upbeat unloved anthem the minority of us left the ABC on in ‘86 is catchy. Certainly still embedded in my cranial jukebox. Maybe just me on that though.
Of course, this is me accentuating the positives for a film that lost money, was awkwardly rebranded internationally (HOWARD… A NEW BREED OF HERO) and was critically reviled. My sifting doesn’t change the fact that Howard the Duck doesn’t really work. The lead performance is achieved through a little person wearing a clumsy, ungainly full feathered body suit and an experimental animatronic mask. The facial expressions don’t really hit and Howard’s wide shot movements take you out of the strange reverie. He was originally going to be played by a costumed child but the duck suit proved too oppressive. The bigger issue is Howard feels lacking in defined personality. There are times when he’s a letch or a flirt or a tough or a wisecracker. But none of these elements are given enough spotlight to make any impact. This Howard, in reality, is an amorphous soft spoken sad sack. A whiner given little to do in the slow first half but run away from weirdos on the street and mope.
When the finished film first test screened (poorly) Paramount production heads realised they had a turkey on their hands. Production heads Sheinberg and Frank Price allegedly had a fistfight on the studio lot arguing over which of them greenlit the monstrosity. In the fallout Price lost his job, with Variety attributing Howard as the key cause; “DUCK Cooks Price’s Goose” was the headline. The movie, I’d conjecture even scratched some of the shine off of Lucasfilm. Willow, a far superior film, underperformed two years later despite being sold as from the makers of Star Wars. Then George, Huyck and Katz next project The Radioland Murders died a quiet death in a limited release in 1993. If you haven’t seen it, it, like HTD, is a quirky treat you’d struggle to predict the paying audience for.
Howard The Duck is a better film than its toxic reputation suggest but nowhere near well developed enough or certain of what it wants to be to be worth reappraising as an overlooked classic. I’d suggest that getting a comedy star like Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Rick Moranis or Eddie Murphy in to voice the bird and imbue instant personality might paper over its most glaring flaws. But that’s a What If for another dimension. I’d hate to live in the alternative reality where HTD killed Bill Murray’s career too.
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