Bad reputations can follow films and their makers for years (even decades) after the initial theatrical release. Sometimes this stigma is completely unwarranted, like with Elaine May’s scathing and brilliant absurdist comedy Ishtar. But in other cases, a film can actually high jump past their shit-status by leaps and bounds, cresting into a completely new realm defined by non-verbal astonishment.
Howard the Duck is one such cinematic atrocity. Audiences and critics knew it was terrible in August of 1986 when Lucasfilm and Universal Pictures released the film, and I damn well know it in 2011 having recently suffered through its nearly 2-hour runtime. Willard Huyck’s clumsy melding of comedy, science fiction and film noir is so misguided you have to wonder if the filmmakers even understood the genres they were referencing. So if Howard the Duck has a rightful place in the canon of worst films ever, why the hell would anybody volunteer to write about it?
The answer is simple: if a film is so bad you can’t take your eyes off it, there’s something strange and masochistic going on, and it deserves more than just a passing glace. Since dismissive attitudes really are the poison of modern day cinephilia, I think it’s important to re-access a specific film’s worth after some time has elapsed, even something torturous like Howard the Duck. The film may be awful, but it’s also a fascinating nightmare of misguided imagination and creativity, perpetually on the cusp of breaking apart mid-scene. Call it car wreck cinema.
Adapted from Steven Gerber’s 1970’s Marvel Comic, Huyck’s Howard the Duck attempts to recreate the vibrant colors and textures of comic-book art in live action. It fails miserably. The opening sequence is ripe with mood, as images of what looks to be New York City at night begin to dissolve over each other with a jazzy score solidifying the noirish iconography at work. We’re eventually led to a shadowy room, where Venetian blinds, patented leather furniture, and vintage movie posters populate the dark space. Except, instead of human faces in each photo, we see large-headed ducks often accompanied by terribly ironic puns: “My Little Chickadees” and “Playduck” are just a few of the gems on display.
A pair of large webbed feet walks in: this is Howard, a grumpy businessduck returning home from work. While relaxing in his lounge chair watching television commercials, Howard gets sucked through the wall of his apartment by an unknown force. After leaving his world and traveling through space, Howard falls toward an alien version of Earth, where he encounters humans for the first time. This setup is nothing if not inane, perfunctory, and stupid, but it speaks to Howard the Duck’s disavowal of logic and pacing to tell a story. It’s a trend that continues throughout its scattered and juvenile narrative.
As Howard traverses the dark and rain-drenched streets of “Cleve-land,” as he so eloquently puts it, the human race reacts to his presence with a mixture of shock, awe, and violent aggression. When Howard lands in the lap of a psycho punk, he sarcastically spouts, “I’m a dead duck.” These fish-out-of-water moments are littered with bad puns, as if Howard was tranposing these same asinine phrases from his own planet to ours. Eventually, Howard fights back, saving a damsel in distress named Beverly (Lea Thompson), a rocker with frizzy hair who is only slightly shocked at the sight of a 3-foot duck wiping the alley floor with two sleazy drug fiends. This scene exemplifies one of the main criticisms aimed at Howard the Duck, namely the inconsistencies with which other humans react to Howard. Some are repulsed, some are fascinated, and this dichotomy is one of the few threads complicating the otherwise dim tonal approach.
From here, Howard the Duck turns even more debased and wicked, pushing toward a sexual relationship between Howard and Beverly. Right when the film is on the cusp of bestiality, Dr. Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) and lab tech Phil (Tim Robbins) pop up and explain why Howard was sucked off his planet. It was their gigantic phallic symbol of a laser, of course. The science nerds in Howard the Duck, both the cause of all conflicts and the potential salvation for them, remain a paradoxical aspect in a sea of stupidity. Unlike most alien invasion movies where men of science want to poke and prod the foreign specimens, Jenning truly wants to send Howard back to his planet. Despite his initial desire to exploit Howard, Phil quickly becomes Howard’s partner in crime.
Eventually, something actually has to happen. When an attempt to reactivate the laser and send Howard back home goes horribly awry, a “Dark Overlord” is sucked down from another dimension, thus threatening the safety of the entire world. The creature inhabits Jenning’s body, turning Jeffrey Jones into a moaning, growling, pale-faced ghoul who shoots lightning bolts from every orifice. Yet despite his powers, this creature is the laziest of villains, literally watching scenes unfold without participating in the mayhem.
Like every plot contrivance in Howard the Duck, Jenning’s transformation takes forever to occur. The extended scene in a Cajun/Sushi hybrid restaurant is really something special in that it exemplifies the film’s resistance to logical pacing. While Jenning sits in a booth and slowly turns into a demon, Howard and Beverly discuss the ethics of frying an egg with their waitress. The poor woman finally screams over the ridiculousness, “Hey, are we like in the same discussion here?” It’s a futile attempt to regain some semblance of coherence in this mad-hatter exchange. As the scene grows more volatile, Beverly and Howard fight off hoards of angry patrons who quickly turn into the mass mob from Fritz Lang’s Fury. At one point, the stock group of stereotypical racist hillbillies tie Howard down to a cutting board, stuff his mouth with celery, and start seasoning him. It’s duck soup.
Chase sequences dominate the rest of Howard the Duck, as Howard and Phil fly in an Ultralight airplane dodging cars, buildings, and bridges in what has to be one of the most repetitive action scenes ever filmed. That the climax eventually takes place at a nuclear plant is hilariously ironic considering how radioactive each tender moment feels throughout the film. During the final battle scene between Howard and the now externalized Dark Overlord (with its scorpion body, crab hands, and dragon face), the usage of high tech weapons echoing Reagan’s Star Wars program hints at a greater subtext the film is unwilling to engage. No political statements here—just a lot of extraneous quacking and yelling.
If there is a scene that sums up the utter delusion on display, it’s the final concert where Beverly and her punk band Cherry Bomb rock out with Howard and a large audience as they sing the film’s theme song. As Howard shakes his tail feathers and the crowd goes wild, there’s a permanent severing of ties between audience expectation and filmmaker intent (if it hasn’t happened already). The denouement feels like two species from distant worlds interacting for the first time, and in this case, initial impressions are tragic. The disconnect between product and quality really is the film’s greatest sin, the overarching sum of all the repulsive make-up design, remedial script, and one-note acting that won’t stop repeating. And yet, for all these reasons, Howard the Duck is must-see for any cinephile, if only to understand how far a film can fall in such a short amount of time.
Glenn Heath Jr. lives in San Diego, CA. He writes for Not Coming to a Theater Near You, GreenCine and In Review Online.