This month marks the 30th birthday of “Howard the Duck,” that infamous anti-masterpiece vomited out into the world by George Lucas on August 1st, 1986. This monstrosity of a film documents the inspirational story of a lonely, masturbating space duck who gets sucked through a vortex to Cleveland, actually, where he almost has sex with the mom from “Back To The Future” and then has to stop the dean from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” before he destroys the planet. It’s a horrible film, the product of a broke and desperate man who had somehow blown through his “Star Wars” money just three short years after “Return of the Jedi” made the box office its bitch.
The awfulness of “Howard the Duck” has been documented before, many a time. But Filmcore needs to get its licks in, too. Which is why resident duck experts and “Howard” virgins Alex Kirschenbaum and Emily Nuncio Schick decided to visit the film for the first time. They uncovered a horrific cultural singularity, a professional nadir for the mastermind behind “Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.”
Emily: I really don’t hate that many things in this world. I may sometimes say I do, but it’s because the words “hate,” “love,” “best,” and “worst” are overused by everyone. I promise you I don’t actually hate when a zipper starts to split and break (it’s just annoying), and I don’t hate any of my exes, just maybe feel bad for a couple of them. I am not like Drizzy, with a multitude of enemies trying to drain me of my energy. I think black licorice is gross but it’s not worth hating, and I don’t hate many places, I just avoid them (there are a few creepy 4 am bars here in Chicago that I could name, but I won’t). It’s just easier to live without a lot of hate in your heart, I think.
However, my hopes of remaining a generally loving person, uncorrupted by authentic hate, have been dashed, perhaps irrevocably. By the same token, Alex, I suspect you may actually hate me, because you asked me to watch “Howard the Duck.” I cannot think of a more unbearably unpleasant thing to put someone through, outside of “A Clockwork Orange”-style eye torture or non-stop diarrhea.
Alex: Emily, I wanted to share this “Howard The Duck” moment with you because (a) you were my viewing companion as I revisited Lucas’s other cute-animal movies of the early ’80s, the “Ewok Adventures” saga (if you can call two movies a saga), and (b) I was hoping you’d help me rip it to shreds. It sounds like you’re about to.
Emily: Okay, that is good to hear — glad we’re on the same page. Anyway, I am filled with what can only be called true hate whenever I see Howard’s likeness flash intrusively through my mind like a PTSD episode. I watched the film for the first time last weekend, and heard of it for the first time about a week ago through you, Kirsch. It features perhaps one of the most uncharismatic protagonists to grace the world of cinema, mostly because he has a horrendous appearance that triggers “uncanny valley” instincts of disgust when you see him. Howard is the Ted Cruz of live-action creatures, hatable merely because his face is shitty. He also speaks horribly, moves horribly, and embodies horribleness. I do not root for him once. Many times during this film, in fact, I was hoping that he would die in a number of ways — getting incinerated in a fiery explosion (of which there are many), perhaps; maybe falling out of a poorly navigated small plane; or just remaining permanently unconscious by the hand of Jeffrey Jones in his half-alien, half-man stage.
I am resentful to say that my hate also spread to other actors that I have liked in other movies: Jones, for one, whose performance as Mr. Rooney in “Bueller” was simply iconic; Lea Thompson as obnoxious, interspecies love interest (yes, you read that right) Beverly; and Tim Robbins as a wannabe mad scientist that the duck annoyingly and inexplicably takes to nicknaming “Philsy.” As I said before, a world has ended for me. A lighter, more innocent world. I feel tainted, unclean. This film is the reason.
Alex: Bahahaha, “the Ted Cruz of live action creatures.” That sounds about right. That duck was just… remarkably unappealing. A quick note on Jones — he was also great as the put-upon pops in “Beetlejuice” two years after “Howard,” so with two all-time great movies on his resume, he was able to rinse some of the residual duck stink off his career trajectory.
Emily: Good for him. He has a knack for playing characters that are not truly good, nor truly evil–just kinda smarmy and unlikable. Modern-day examples: Jeremy Piven or Paul Giamatti. Maybe the casting directors were trying to channel that niche gift of his, but they ended up abusing his talent by giving him, and everyone else, atrocious direction and dialogue.
Alex: The dialogue is indeed, atrocious. The first thought that popped up for me in the little pre-credits sequence was quite simple: “It took two people to write this?” After doing a little research, the second thought was: “It took the two people who wrote ‘American Graffiti’ with George Lucas to write this?!” Things devolved quickly from there.
I can certainly appreciate your “Howard” hate, E-Schick. Because I share it. This… thing was almost completely shapeless and plotless, a meandering mess from just a storytelling perspective for most of its running time. George Lucas and his writers Willard Huck (who also directed) and Gloria Katz (who co-produced, along with Lucas) — again, the couple responsible for the fantastic “American Graffiti” — only reach the main antagonist/conflict (if you can call it that) about two-thirds of the way into the movie, and suddenly (very hurriedly) it becomes a desperate mission of life and death. But it’s very hard to care, since we just found out about the problem.
Emily: I honestly don’t know how anyone on set got through the filming of this movie without a) constantly mainlining hard drugs to preserve an unwarranted sense of optimism or b) relatively large paychecks, which may have actually been the case, since this film cost $37 fucking million to produce. That’s $5 million more than the budget of “Return of the Jedi.” How was this possible? WHERE DID THE MONEY GO?
Alex: Yes, that is utterly insane. Beyond using a lot of that bloated budget to sucker in the aforementioned actors on the rise, Lucas was able to reel in overqualified talent behind the camera, too. for instance, I am sad to say that the music for this film was provided by longtime James Bond composer John Barry. Guess he needed another yacht or something. Phil Tippett, the best stop-motion animator of the 1980s, was responsible for the terrific animated alien monster in the film’s climax. At least he was able to rise above the material, although it’s a big waste of a cool critter. The rest of the flick’s price tag was no doubt snorted up the crew’s noses.
Quickly on Tippett’s monster — one of the few things Lucas and co. did do right was exploiting Jeffrey Jones’s implicit creepiness when he gets possessed by an alien force called the “Dark Overlord.” At first, the extraterrestrial inhabitation mutates his face into a sort of stretched, reptilian plastic surgery makeup with a fright wig. Eventually, Jones’s character turns into the aforementioned bad-ass beastie with crab legs and a Venus flytrap mouth, an awesome special effects moment that’s sadly too little, too late.
Emily: This was the point in the movie where I was like, “Oh. This is where the $37 million went.” The production value weirdly and suddenly got way better when the crab/scorpion/Venus flytrap monster (somehow fluent in English?) emerged onscreen. Although to be real, it was still pretty lame in the close-ups of his tentacles. But you’re right — Jones’ makeup was on point at times, even if it was awkward to watch him try to frantically and scientifically explain what was happening to him (leading to one of my “choice” quotes, which we’ll get to in a bonus blog).
Alex: Also, pre-transformation, Jones inhabits the evil character with so much more verve and passion, it’s clear that he was much, much more comfortable as a lecherous fiend. The man was terrifying even before the world knew he was a devout pederast.
Emily: Nooooooo!!! Are you serious? Ugh, I might have to take that back about loving his Mr. Rooney… now picturing him anywhere near a high school makes me feel sick. I’m even more tainted! How could you, Alex?!
Alex: Sorry to disappoint/taint.
Can we at least agree that Lea Thompson is a stone-cold fox, despite the deeply disturbing sexual intimations she makes at a perverted duck in people clothes? At one point (fine, several points), I found my thoughts drifting off to visualizing Thompson copulating with an anthropomorphized duck, and what his engorged pink member would look like peeking out of the folds of his furry white duck midsection. Then I threw up a bit in my mouth.
Emily: Kill me. Why would you say this? Cannot un-see mental image.
Alex: You’re welcome.
Emily: Also, regarding her relationship with Howard (shudder), I have to say the only time when I actually laughed out loud — and was almost brought to tears, in fact — was at the film’s conclusion (spoiler alert, woo!), when George Lucas clearly realized how fucking weird it would be to show a human and a duck making out, and decided instead to first just have ’em hug platonically AF, and then fade to black with them looking amorously into each other’s eyes. Unintentionally hilarious.
Alex: I bet the kissed at the end of that take, and everyone felt some kind of way about it afterwards. Also, just found a Thompson Nerdist interview where she talks “Duck.” She’s… weirdly pseudo-positive about the quality of the movie. Which suggests to me that she may never have actually seen it. Sober, anyway.
Emily: I just listened to the “Howard the Duck” portion of that convo., and… uh… well, kudos to her for not being embarrassed and owning her decision? But seriously, WHO ARE THESE ALLEGED “HOWARD THE DUCK” FANS SHE SPEAKS OF?! That baffles me — and no, Lea, he is not remotely cute. Are we living in different universes? Are you secretly from a parallel duck-inhabited universe and actually find the duck attractive, thus making your attraction to him onscreen *gulp* a tiny bit authentic? Do you go shopping regularly at Bloomingduck’s??
She does bring up a good point about how it could’ve been better in a “Roger Rabbit” style — half-animated, half-live action. Of course, “Roger Rabbit” has been commended for revolutionizing animation, so maybe asking that “Howard” reach those levels is unfair. I think even if it were filmed like that, “Howard the Duck” would have struggled, considering the limp “comedy” moments that, in Lea’s words, just “sat there.”
Alex: I totally agree on the “WFRR” comparison. The prime distinction between Lucas’s “Duck” and Spielberg/Zemeckis’s “Rabbit,” outside of a gorgeous and original visual sensibility, was that IT KNEW WHO IT WAS FOR. This was a genuine old-school family film, designed primarily for kids but with a MODICUM of adult elements, handed with class and restraint — aside from that Jessica Rabbit dance, of course.
Emily: To be fair, Jessica Rabbit is the sexiest two-dimensional character of all time. Except for maybe “Aladdin,” who made 6-year-old Emily start to feel interesting feelings about boys. Thanks, weirdly-sexy Disney animation!
Alex: …Whereas Howard the Duck is possibly the least sexy three-dimensional character of all time.
Emily: From the second I laid eyes on him, I wanted nothing but the worst for Howard the Duck. His singular redemptive moment was standing up for Beverly at the bar to her slimy manager and his cronies (including an actor from one of my favorite films of all time — Richard Edson, who played Vito in “Do The Right Thing”), but it’s not out of kindness that he does it since he is also a misogynist who wants to bang Beverly. (Ew.)
Alex: The movie’s ambivalent dance around the Howard and Lea Thompson characters’ (inexplicable) mutual sexual attraction only highlights how short it retroactively falls of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Now that fine film made me absolutely believe that Bob Hoskins could be hot for Jessica Rabbit. Because, I mean, Jessica Rabbit is a total smoke show.
Emily: Quick bit of fun trivia – the inspo for Jessica Rabbit was Vicki Dougan, a badass model who dared to wear a lot of backless dresses when that was still supa-scandalous.
Alex: And now it’s just standard summer attire. Bravo, Vicki Dougan. All this sex chatter brings us to another critical question… who the fuck was this movie made for, anyway? Children? It has slapstick moments so prolonged, so desperately “wacky,” that there’s no way any adult not in a near-vegetative brain state could find it even ironically chuckle-inducing.
Then again, “Howard The Duck” can’t be for children, because it’s mainly about a slacker duck in a lot of advanced sexual situations, who deals with feelings of professional inadequacy because of a copywriting gig that doesn’t speak to him. Children under, say, 23 would understand absolutely nothing about that last sentence. So then the movie must be for adults, right? Again, though, it’s about a duck in a lot of sexual situations, so… also no.
Emily: Not to mention… this.
We are confronted by this disturbing graphic in the movie’s first five minutes. I want to meet the individual who decided to feature this image onscreen and get them in an interrogation room. I want to ask them what they were thinking as they transitioned this visual from the script to the storyboard to the artist who actually had to build and shape these duck breasts. I want to slap them across the face. Hard. Then, I want to probably do a couple shots with them, apologize for their involvement in this creative process, and then maybe drunkenly question them about the intricacies of how the fuck this movie was even made, or more importantly, for whom.
Alex: You know, what saved the surprisingly sexual Jessica Rabbit’s slinky lounge dance from becoming, say, just another creepy showering duck with human breasts was purely filmic. IT WAS WELL SHOT, PACED AND CUT. IT ADDED A GREAT NOIR-SKEWERING CURVEBALL TO THE PLOT. The naked duck babe was shot poorly and felt like a gratuitous addition. And, again, it’s not as if she was arousing for, you know, human beings. So was it a joke, then? A parody on movie moments when we see naked girls in the shower (which had been happening a lot to that point of the ’80s, thanks to all those “Porky’s” movies)? It’s impossible to say. I don’t think anybody making the movie knew the answer to that question, either.
Emily: I imagine that, at a certain point during the shoot, things devolved into Lucas, Huyck and Katz, whacked out on toot, running the production right into the ground. Meanwhile, a guy/girl off-set questions the life decisions that led them to that studio in Hollywood, filming a hideous pervy duck playing guitar to a crowd of dancing people, probably also whacked out on toot, at that very moment in 1985.
Alex: Sounds about right.
I’m just gonna leave this here.
(For a list of choice quotes culled from the brilliant screenplay of “Howard The Duck,” click here.)