HCF GUILTY PLEASURES:HOWARD THE DUCK 
AVAILABLE ON DVD:Now
DIRECTED BY:Willard Huyck
WRITTEN BY:Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz
STARRING:Ed Gale, Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, Jeffrey Jones
RUNNING TIME:106 mins
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Howard is a duck who lives a happy life on his duck-populated planet, until he is accidently brought to Earth through a laser beam in an experiment being performed by a Cleveland physicist Dr. Walter Jenning. Howard finds himself in Cleveland and quickly finds his new home a strange and sometimes hostile place. When he rescues singer Beverly Switzer from a group of thugs, she becomes his only friend on Earth, and takes him to Phil Blumbart, who aided Walter in his work. Phil thinks he might be able to send Howard home, but both the police and an alien force stand in their way……….
If you ask most people what is the best film that George Lucas was involved with, they will probably answer with one of the Star Wars films [usually The Empire Strikes Back]. I would probably agree with them in terms of quality, However, if someone was to ask me what was my favourite Lucas production, the one I most enjoy watching, I would have no shame in holding my head up high and replying “Howard The Duck” . Despite being the laughing stock of critics in 1986 and virtually ignored by cinemagoers, despite being utterly ridiculous and a total mess, I always have a good time watching this movie. It’s wrong in all sorts of ways, can’t seem to decide what film it want to be, it’s…………..well, I could write for ages about the film’s faults, but I’d rather write about what I like about the film, what appeals to me so much about it, though of cause there’s no way I could do this without mentioning some of the problems the movie has!
The film’s genesis began with a series of comic books entitled, of course, ‘Howard The Duck’, written by Steve Gerber. These were very satirical, full of jabs at popular culture, aimed at adults, and perhaps eem to be an odd basis for a film Lucas would be heavily involved in, but never mind, Lucas was interested, and Universal Pictures, who had passed on some previous projects Lucas had been connected with and which had been very successful, optioned it. Studio head Sidney Sheinberg supposedly lobbied very hard to the film to be made, but later denied any involvement in it, claiming that he had never even read the screenplay. This script, written by previous Lucas collaborators Willard Huyck [who also directed] and Gloria Katz, made Howard a much sympathetic character and removed much of the adult nature of the comics, but not entirely, resulting in a wierd mixture of a film which many people just found hard to take. Production was a nightmare-duck suits had to be constantly made as many of them either lost feathers, exploded or were built with the wrong proportions, and scenes involving the suits were constantly being reshot as technology improved. When the film was first screened for Universal’s executives, the suits all left without a word, except for Sheinberg and his second in command Frank Price, who got into a fistfight after arguing over who was to blame for greenlighting the film. The film was a huge flop and seemingly liked by nobody, and it’s fallout led to Price leaving Universal, Lucas publically disowning the film and selling some of his company [which later became Pixar!] and the comics being cancelled.
All I can say in response to all this is “did nobody in 1986 have a sense of humour”? I’m sure that’s not true, as there were successful comedies released that year, but Howard The Duck just needs to be approached in a silly frame of mind, and if it is, I reckon it’s really enjoyable. Honestly! I will say that this is one movie that you know you’ll enjoy or not in the first couple of minutes. We open on Duckworld, with Howard relaxing in his house, and we are subject to a series of stupid duck-orientated puns, from a poster of a film called Breeders Of The Lost Stork to a magazine called Playduck. I reckon if you are six years old you’ll find this funny, and luckily I often have the sense of humour of a six year old, so that’s okay then. Well, it would be if we didn’t then see a topless female duck playing with herself in the bath. Straight away, you don’t know if this is a silly film for young kids or a silly film for adults, and, to be honest, I LOVE IT! As did my nine or ten year old half brother when we watched it a recording of it off TV, and I just thought it was a typical fun harmless science fiction adventure from Lucas, though I did wonder why it was on late……….
Anyway, Howard is transported to Earth, which is a nightmare world of crumbling back streets , neon lightning and street gangs dressed like rejects from Batman Forever. For a while the movie ambles along in a pleasent, leisurely manner, showing Howard getting a hostile reception from almost everyone, forming a friendship with Beverley which is quite touching at first, and finding a way to get home. All during this the constant barrage of juvenile puns and jokes continues, from Howard saying he’s a master of ‘Quack Fu’ to one bit I especially laugh at when a set of pictures showing mankind evolving from apes is imagined to show normal ducks evolving into Howard-type ducks. O well, it’s probably just me, but I defy anyone not to chuckle during the scene where Phil, not knowing Howard can talk normally, tries to communicate with him via duck noises and “me Phil, you Howard” and Howard replies “obviously one of Earth’s greatest minds here”, and then when Phil asks Howard to read his mind and Howard says his mind is saying “they know I’m a phony, they know I’m a n-no”.
For some of the time, the movie does seem like typical if rather daft family film, but then you have a really bizarre scene where Howard is sent to work in a brothel, full of people screwing [“it must be mating season “ Howard says], and then, possibly the most perverse scene ever seen in a ‘PG’ rated film [yes ,you read that right, this film was a ‘PG’ at the cinema and on video, though the DVD , which restores a bit where Beverley pulls a condom out of Howard’s wallet, is thankfully a ‘12’.]. Lying next to Howard, Beverley says “you think I might find happiness in the animal kingdom”? and tries to seduce him. “It’s just that you’re so incredibly soft and cuddly” she says as she starts gently rubbing his stomach and the feathers on his head stand up. Howard tries to put her off by claiming he has a headache and she replies “I’ve got the cure”. When his protesting is too much, she asks for just one goodnight kiss and, in silhouette, she leans over so she’s on top of him and kisses him, he likes it and settles back for……..well, then they are interrupted! Although of course there is no actual on-screen sex between human and duck, I can’t believe the nerve of the filmmakers here.
Soon after this the special effects start to become more prominent and the film becomes something of a chase movie and finally an all-out fantasy actioner. There’s an inordinate amount of time devoted to Walter being possessed by an alien, which Jeffrey Jones acts with relish, and the various changes in his face are quite well done, alongside a rather gross moment where a tentacle kind of thing comes out of his mouth. Walter destroys a diner and loads of police cars [apparently John Landis was asked to direct Howard The Duck but refused because the car stuff was too similar to The Blues Brothers], there’s an absolutely priceless, and very simple, comedic bit where Phil is handcuffed in a car and the door is locked, whereupon he just slides himself out the open car window, and it all ends up in a power plant where Howard finds the most conveniently placed weapon ever and the great pulp science fiction image of a hideous monster looming over a tied down woman is recreated. The actual special effects are a real mixed bag. The many duck suits are stiff and little attempt has been made to make them look and act like actual ducks-they don’t even waddle, while the H.P.Lovecraft-type monster at the climax looks impressive in terms of design but never looks like it’s actually there. The numerous explosions are well done though, but I can’t totally understand where all the money went-this was apparently an extremely expensive production. Maybe most of it went on the duck suits?
The script for Howard The Duck is often very silly, but I admire the two writers for sitting down and obviously coming up with every duck-related pun they could think of. The film sometimes goes off on tangents, such as an irrelevant scene where Howard [who can’t actually fly unless he’s in a flying machine because, as he says, “if god had wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings”] ruins a duck hunt. It also has to incorporate some songs performed live by Beverley and her girl rock band, which Lea Thompson actually sings [Tori Amos was asked to play her role, though I don’t think her voice and style would have suited the songs]. There’s no doubt that overall the screenplay is a mess, but I admire it’s adamant refusal to have anything resembling sense. The film is just meant to be fun, nothing in it is meant to be taken seriously. Even the action near the end, there’s little in the way of actual tension, but I really don’t think this matters a great deal. Huyck’s direction is almost entirely anonymous though. One thing I think the film could have benefitted from is a director more in tune with the craziness of the material-yes I know the director also co-wrote the script but I think once the script had been written he somewhat ran out of inspiration.
Howard was played by several people although Ed Gale got the main credit. Chip Zien did the voice and does in part a nice, sardonic personality to the duck. Lea Thompson is as likeable as usual but Tim Robbins’ endless mugging as Phil gets tiresome [though I love how he faints several times towards the end] and you can’t really see much of the fine actor he became. I personally can’t see the touch of Lucas much in this movie, and, although critics at the time of its release seemed to single him out of their vitriol, it’s possible he wasn’t as involved with it as was though. John Barry, who wrote the score, says he did the movie because he wanted to work with Lucas but actually never met him. Despite this the score is a fine effort by the great composer, who came up with a great mock-heroic theme for Howard and a typically lovely romantic theme, which actually seems a little incongruous. Sylvester Levay wrote some additional music, which still fits in quite well, while the songs are to my ears pretty dreadful, yet I still always have the final song, ‘Howard The Duck’ going through my head after watching the film and some of the lyrics of the songs do actually correspond with the obvious state of mind of Beverley at the time. While I’m certainly not going to say it’s a great movie, I am going to say that I love Howard The Duck, and if that means I need my head examined then so what? It has an insanity that I find really appealing, an off-kilter feel that you don’t get in most of the assembly line blockbusters of today. Yeah, I love it.