**½/**** Image B- Sound A- Extras B
starring Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones, Tim Robbins, Ed Gale
written by Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Steve Gerber
directed by Willard Huyck
by Bill Chambers If you'll indulge me, as I recall it was at my local Sunrise Records that I first laid eyes on the egg with the hatched beak chomping on a cigar, which became as emblematic of Howard the Duck, albeit not as iconic or enduring, as the gleaming bat symbol would become of Batman three summers later. It was on the cover of a 12" EP of the movie's title track, performed by Dolby's Cube featuring Cherry Bomb, a fictitious band consisting of actresses Lea Thompson, Liz Sagal, Holly Robinson, and Dominique Davalos, who did all their own singing. (Thomas "She Blinded Me with Science" Dolby wrote and produced their songs.) When I flipped the jacket, I encountered a photo spread of Thompson in rock-'n'-roll leathers and big, crimped hair, and I reacted how any 11-year-old boy hot for Marty McFly's mom would: I begged my dad to buy it for me.
This was at the start of summer vacation, over a month before Howard the Duck came out, and it put me on a strange, one-man hype train fuelled by hormones and the perfect beard for them in a talking-duck movie. Did I listen to the record? You bet. It was kid-friendly pop rock, landing somewhere between Joan Jett and Dr. Demento. (The EP in fact contained a "mega mix" of the theme song with some extra funk courtesy of George Clinton.) Over the next few weeks, I harvested as many pictures of Thompson in character as I could, but somewhere along the line I found myself ensnared in two thirst traps, as the mystery of Howard's final form began to give the movie an irresistible sideshow allure. (Even the trailer consisted solely of Thompson chatting us up while posed like Michael Jackson on the cover of "Thriller".) Because past technological breakthroughs had earned Howard the Duck producer George Lucas the benefit of the doubt, initially the absence of Howard himself from pre-release publicity materials led us--as in me and everyone I knew under the age of 18--to assume he was building anticipation for his next leap forward in special effects, not that he had something to hide. But by the time the cast was making the talk-show rounds accompanied by Howard-free clips from the film, the coyness had become perverse. After all, we already knew, from the comics, what Howard should look like: like a yellow, marginally debauched Donald Duck--so much so that Disney eventually demanded Howard put on pants to tone down the resemblance. Anyway, I bought a ticket for the first evening show of Howard the Duck on opening day just brimming with sordid anticipation. To a kid who loved cheesecake and the grotesque almost equally, it felt like Christmas.
It's particularly egregious on subsequent viewings that Howard the Duck decided to further prolong the suspense by turning Howard's introduction in the movie proper into a striptease. As Howard retires to his noir-ish bachelor pad for the night, there are glimpses of other Duckworld natives in framed family photos and morbidly unfunny movie-poster parodies (My Little Chickadee but it stars Mae Nest and W.C. Fowls) that somewhat cushioned the blow at the time. Nevertheless, I wasn't adequately prepared for the deflated feeling I got when all of Howard's disembodied parts--a hand here, a beak-tip there--finally resolved into this stubby, generic-looking costumed duck with a stiff beak and glassy eyes. Those orbs were maybe the biggest letdown: lacking their famous height and ovular shape, they're a couple of marbles better suited to a Mogwai (ditto the flesh-coloured eyelids, which outline Howard's peepers in a manner I can only describe as Trumpian) and turn Howard's face into 50% forehead. Taken as a whole, the design conveyed one thing: a compromise between artists, engineers, and corporate lawyers--between the vision of various HOWARD THE DUCK illustrators (Gene Colan, Frank Brunner, et al.), the inadequacy of contemporary cinematic tools to capture it, and Disney's chokehold on cartoon ducks. (Husband-and-wife filmmakers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz originally planned on overseeing an animated film set entirely on Duckworld, but Universal, having turned down both Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, were desperate to exploit the Lucas connection with an fx-laden summer tentpole.) On the bright side, it inoculated me to the next twenty years of disappointments from Lucasfilm.
It was probably for the best that I didn't have enough experience with the comic to judge the character's fidelity from other angles, because it put limits on my disillusionment. Superficially, Howard (voiced by Broadway actor Chip Zien; numerous little people, male and female, took turns in the costume, most prominently Ed Gale, who went on to double for Chucky in Child's Play) is the most like himself in this prologue. He's smoking a cigar, he's wearing (a rather loose, '80s interpretation of) his suit, he's checking out the centrefold in PLAYDUCK while surrounded by evidence of his womanizing in postcards and answering-machine messages from lady friends. That said, the gingham blazer and diamond-pattern necktie, a far cry from the rumpled blue number he wears in the comics, yuppify him in a way that is either discordant with the leftist views he held when he ran for President in 1976 or a dig at Boomer sellouts. (There's a picture on Howard's wall of, I think, Howard himself that shows him giving the peace sign in hippie regalia.) Whatever the case, it's the most cynical example of the character's Poochie-fication for the movie. I want to talk about the little we see of Duckworld, less its Manhattan-ish skyline--complete with two moons, one of a handful of cringey nods to Lucas's oeuvre--than Howard's apartment itself, festooned as it is with pun-based memorabilia (including a spoof poster for Breeders of the Lost Stork starring, sigh, "Indiana Drake" ("From the creators of Beaks and Fowl Wars")) that takes the place of imagination and wit. "Trapped in a world he never made," goes one of Howard the Duck's poster taglines--a holdover from the comics, where the phrase always appeared as a front-cover rubric--but this pop-culture parallelism traps him in our narrow Earthbound vision from the get-go. Thank God they tailored his chair to his dimensions, at least. (More on this later, he threatened.)
Howard's place starts vibrating, his chair levitates, and he's yanked by a tractor beam through the other apartments on his floor, up up up into outer space. Note that along the way he passes a lady duck taking a bath, and this is the second time in as many minutes we see naked duck tits with hot-pink nipples. It's arguably the closest Howard the Duck comes to capturing the rude spirit of the classic, Steve Gerber-penned issues of HOWARD THE DUCK, when it was an edgy title for Marvel, like an underground comic slipped onto the drugstore rack while no one was looking. It also begs the question: who is this movie with such childish appeal for? (The Vonnegut-esque Gerber claimed to like the film, which may have had less to do with its execution than with him having recently been granted royalties on all things Howard after settling a lawsuit with Marvel.) Anyway, Howard lands in an alleyway in "Cleve Land," Ohio, whereupon he's immediately picked up by some snarling punks and deposited in the arms of a confused nebbish standing outside a club where Cherry Bomb is the marquee act. A bouncer throws Howard out, believing him to be a child.
As Cherry Bomb performs the nominally gritty "Hunger City" behind the grid of a protective cage, Howard fends off an irate bag lady, narrowly avoids being hit by a truck, almost gets his brains bashed in for accidentally groping a kissing couple ("It touched me!" the woman exclaims), and runs, er, afoul of the Satan's Sluts motorcycle gang, who are so unimpressed when this anthropomorphic duck starts to speak that one biker urges the other to "waste it, man! Waste it!" He meets Thompson's Beverly Switzler by foiling an attempted rape of her in an alleyway with his mastery of Quack-Fu. This quintessentially mid-'80s section of the film, all neon scoundrels and inner-city mayhem, is basically a low-rent Streets of Fire, and Thompson might be the poor man's Diane Lane. Yet it occurs to me that Lane didn't make my heart go pitter-patter like Thompson did back then, possibly because Thompson founded a cottage industry of normalizing unorthodox and sometimes wildly inappropriate object choices--an intergalactic duck, say, or her own son (Back to the Future), or even Andrew Dice Clay (Casual Sex?). (I'm surprised she didn't try to seduce the shark in Jaws 3-D.) It's difficult to express the impact that had on me as a kid with the non-Hollywood version of the Mr. Glass disease who was increasingly looking, or certainly feeling, like something out of Cronenberg. Sufficed to say, seeing Beverly warm to Howard wasn't twisted, it was charged with hope.
"...I used to think the world was made up of big people and little people. And that's the way it would always stay. And then I always wondered why sinks were too high. You had to climb up to wash your face. Cupboards, too high. The hole in the toilet was too big. Nothing was made for us."
-Jules Kaye (Aidan Quinn) to his son Michael (Elijah Wood), Avalon
For me, the real hell of Howard the Duck is that I actually feel represented by it. Calling it "Howard a Duck" would've alleviated the general problem of Howard's counterfeitness--aside from not looking the part this Howard isn't (as) quick to temper (though he is just as foolhardy), isn't as neurotic, is definitely more of a dandy, and has a shade too much pathos, perhaps the inevitable result of fear and anxiety being the easiest emotions to emulate with his animatronic eyes. If there's a fundamental difference between the definitive early comics and the motion picture, however, it's that Howard transgresses that dental-floss line from outsider to pariah in Huyck and Katz's adaptation, becoming a mirror to the ableist reflex of society at large in his outward deviations from the status quo and obvious unbelonging. Start with the microaggressions, like how Howard's feet never touch the ground when he sits in an Earth chair. (It's so painful seeing his custom-fitted Duckworld chair burn up as it leaves the planet's atmosphere that I never think to ask why Howard isn't on fire, too.) Everywhere he goes, people feel obliged to comment on his appearance, sometimes tritely, sometimes spitefully, always gratuitously. Then there are those who presume he's contagious. A waiter catches sight of Howard and spills the water he's pouring. When a pretty woman acknowledges his sexuality, spectators are aghast. Children flock to him, groping at him with a natural curiosity that has crossed over into unchecked entitlement.
Sometimes adults violate his personal space and things escalate to the point where Howard's dignity and body rights are overruled and he ends up dwarf-tossed. The movie captures how impossible it is to balance power differentials created by height and strength (once, a guy knocked my hat off to be a prick, and I took his in retaliation and hid it, and his response was to pick me up and start shaking me like a bottle of ketchup; I was terrified he'd let me go in mid-air) or by a crowd without empathy. I know it's "funny" that a Japanese chef at Joe Roma's Cajun Sushi wants to chop off Howard's head (and nearly does), but I'm telling you that tableau of rowdy rednecks effortlessly and viciously pinning him to a table sends shivers down my spine.i (Another time, at a campus pub, a couple of drunk assholes insisted I play pool with them, and when I struggled with the cue as I said I would, the one in charge became infuriated and brought his fist down on my hand so hard that my fingers splayed involuntarily. It hurt for a week. Fortunately, I managed to slip away when they went to the bar for more rage fuel.) That it takes a Carrie-ish comeuppance from a telekinetic space-demon to save Howard is the filmmakers tacitly acknowledging the hopelessness of this predicament. Much of Howard the Duck is only palatable to me for the layers of metaphor and expressionism, not to mention Howard's penchant for petty revenge. The pièce de résistance, however--the thing that makes Howard the Duck something of a satire in function if not form--is that Howard is ultimately vindicated not when he literally saves the world, but when Cherry Bomb writes a song about him and Howard joins them on stage for a guitar solo. (Thomas Dolby built a special guitar that actor Gale could play.) The crowd goes wild! They can grasp him in the context of inspiration porn.
Beverly transports Howard in a garbage bag (yeah) to see a lab-tech friend of hers named Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins in his first big role): She's hoping he'll have some idea as to how to send this E.T. home, since he's the only scientist she knows. After condescending to Howard with slow talk and then a Daffy/Donald Duck voice, he jumps to the conclusion that Howard is a superhero and commands him to do tricks. And, of course, Howard can't bend steel with his mind or shoot lasers from his eyes. He's merely a talking duck. SEQUART.ORG published an insightful essay inspired by issue #24 of HOWARD THE DUCK, "The Night After You Save the Universe?," in which Howard struggles with insomnia and post-trauma stress on the heels of twenty-three whirlwind adventures. Author Colin Smith zeroes in on the source of Howard's unique appeal within the Marvel ranks: that he wasn't magical or gifted. "In a sub-genre which has found it progressively more difficult to capture anything of the real world in its pages," Smith writes, "it was ironically Gerber's duck who stood for those of us hairless apes who struggle to associate with the super-folks fighting for the cause of the good and noble, and who never cared to identify with the players on the less altruistic side of the conflict either." It's fascinating how Howard the Duck at once upholds and subverts this. Maybe Lucas and co. absorbed something working with Ewoks for months on end. Or maybe it's an unavoidable consequence of bringing Howard into the live-action realm that his relativity to his surroundings comes to the fore, winnowing the point of identification to genuine misfits--leaving the mass audience to notice themselves in the busybodies adjacent to the plot and feel vaguely chastened. Trapped in a world they did make.
As there's a surplus of mediocrity in Howard the Duck I'm not exactly suggesting this is why it flopped (worldwide grosses barely exceeded its $37M budget, though the real proof it cratered was that "The Golden Girls" mocked it), just that this could potentially have augmented the movie's unpleasant aftertaste amongst its legion of detractors. While I can't say that any of this occurred to me until I revisited the film in adulthood, it's worth noting that when I returned to school in the fall of 1986, a girl I hardly knew immediately nicknamed me Howie. I figured it was because I was small, cantankerous, and transparently thirsty--but now I'm given to wonder if her reading of the film was more sophisticated than mine was at the time. Over the years, Howard the Duck has worn down my defenses in other ways, too. Some of Howard's zingers have a screwball charm ("I'm not Jenning anymore! The transfer is complete! I am now someone else," says Dr. Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) after one of the Dark Overlords of the Universe has taken possession of his body; "Try telling that to your insurance company," Howard dryly replies), as does one Crystal the waitress. She's played by the little-known Jorli McLainii, who steals her single scene from Jones (as a proto Edgar the Bug), a drolly jaded Thompson, and a firing-on-all-cylinders Howard. "You know, hostility is, like, a psychic boomerang," a fed-up Crystal tells the trio, a line McLain makes worthy of Gerber. Cherry Bomb has come to sound like the Platonic ideal of a novelty act, and speaking of prefab bands, Richard H. Kline's richly-saturated cinematography harks back to his days shooting "The Monkees" in embracing the lurid comic-book colours of Peter Jamison's sets and Joe Tompkins's costumes, putting even more distance between Howard the Duck and the chromatically self-conscious superhero flicks of today.
I'd be remiss if I didn't say something about the Dark Overlord of the Universe, a King Kong-sized roach with flesh like raw meat and a vagina dentata mouth. It's a triumph of stop-motion animation (by Phil Tippett) and sound design (by Ben Burtt) that materializes at the climax as a late-arriving redemption for ILM, although Tippett was technically working as a free agent by then. It's also a bit much in this peculiar film's peculiar way. One of the space creature's extending tentacles wraps around Howard's ankle and drags him around pathetically. Howard then uses a fucking buzzsaw on it to free himself; green goo spews everywhere and the severed tentacle twitches wildly. All of this happens after we've already seen a long, phallic tentacle thrust itself out of Jenning's mouth like a nightmare garden hose and menace Beverly. There's an old adage that art isn't polite, and as collectors of world art Huyck and the late Katz may well have subscribed to this philosophy.iii (A thread of iconoclasm appears to run through the prints they curated for an exhibit of Japanese photography at the Smithsonian, such as Shomei Tomatsu's devastating but surreal Nagasaki portraits.) Indirectly responsible for the PG-13 rating with their screenplay for the abrasive, tawdry Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (though Howard the Duck somehow skated by with a PG), Huyck and Katz seemed to relish the idea of using the big Lucasfilm machinery to make something people watch between their fingers. I don't know if Howard the Duck is art...but it sure ain't polite. Originally published: June 21, 2019.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Coinciding with the film's 35th anniversary, the latest stop on Howard the Duck's Redemption Tour is another physical reissue from Universal, this time in 4K UHD. Though this will strike some as overkill, my guess is they're milking this title for all they can before Disney takes possession of it as both Marvel and Lucasfilm property and buries it deep in the New Mexico desert. Alas, the 1.85:1, 2160p transfer is especially problematic at the start, featuring titles that look like overcompressed J-PEGs pasted onto the screen, their glaring artifacts bizarrely frozen in place. The image underneath the credits doesn't really breathe, either, suggesting overzealous denoising borne out by muddy shadow detail and a dearth of texture in Howard's surroundings. Some handwriting on a briefly-glimpsed postcard also displays mosquito noise around the writing. I've frankly never seen a 4K presentation as bad as the first few minutes of Howard the Duck: If it weren't for Howard's conspicuously detailed zoot suit, they could easily be mistaken for the DVD. Fortunately, the picture quality gradually improves, first by demonstrating a wide colour gamut with intense, lush reds (see: Beverly's umbrella-and-jacket combo), then with a steady if low-key embrace of film grain. By the 40-minute mark, a certain diffuseness organic to the cinematography has replaced the artificial softness of the early scenes. HDR is used sparingly, concentrating itself on headlights and neon signage, but the enhanced palette really does make the already-colourful Howard the Duck resemble a Mario Bava movie or a proto-Dick Tracy. To its benefit, I might add. The attendant DTS:X object-based remix, likely taking its cues from the six-track mix that accompanied 70mm engagements, gives a healthy rumble during the not-infrequent moments of seismic activity, although explosions sound disappointingly timid. Stereo imaging is quite show-offy and aggressive at times, such as when Howard is yanked through the walls of his apartment complex. Surround usage is light, often consisting of glorified reverb. I wish the musical performances were a bit more sonically enveloping--maybe height speakers would help. The track, for what it's worth, clocks in at an imposing 6.5 Mbps.
Universal has decided to include all of the North American Blu-ray's bonus content on the 4K platter as well, even though that 2016 BD comes bundled with it (along with the requisite digital code for downloading Howard the Duck to your various devices, natch). The extras launch with Laurent Bouzereau's "A Look Back at Howard the Duck" (26 mins., HD), in which Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz, and others discuss the movie's genesis and production. Huyck and Katz's original live-action idea was to set it in Hawaii, mostly to get a paid vacation out of it. Lea Thompson talks about training hard to sing and play guitar and fearing as far as halfway into the shoot that they would redub her vocals, and Jeffrey Jones is interviewed because this was before cancellation. (Tim Robbins sat this one out.) The elephant in the room--the duck--isn't broached until nearly nine minutes in. We learn that as the Howard costume/puppet was always a work-in-progress, scenes were constantly being reshot to showcase the upgrades. It's revealed that little-person actor Ed Gale, hired to double for a 12-year-old, eventually replaced the kid altogether, which made Thompson much more comfortable with all the innuendo. Gale says he sweat so much in the suit that he never had to pee.
A companion/B-side featurette, "Releasing the Duck" (13 mins., HD), finds the same crop of interviewees reflecting on the movie's aftermath and legacy, though it's here that Katz cites John Cusack and Martin Short as contenders for the role of Howard('s voice), which would eventually go to gravel-throated Chip Zien. Obviously, the trajectory of this segment is grim, but everyone is sanguine about the movie's notoriety. Thompson offers that it was strange experiencing polar opposites of success--Back to the Future and Howard the Duck--back to back, and no doubt. Gale says Mel Brooks went on to hire him for Spaceballs because he respected the fortitude it took to make Howard the Duck. Four standard-def "archival" featurettes--"News Featurette," "The Stunts of Howard the Duck," "The Special Effects of Howard the Duck," and "The Music of Howard the Duck"--threaten to be interesting but are too short to gather a head of steam. I covered these in my review of the UK Blu-ray from 101 Films; what I failed to mention back then is that Howard himself is a talking-head in these, giving them a patronizing tone that everybody seems to take their cues from. Rounding out the disc is a 2-minute block of teaser trailers (SD), neither of which reveals much of Howard.
111 minutes; 1.85:1 (2160p/MPEG-H); English DTS:X (7.1 DTS-HD MA core), French DTS 2.0, Spanish DTS 2.0; English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; BD-66 + BD-50; Region-free; Universal
i They say Gary Coleman was a dick, but I've empathized with him ever since seeing Vanilla Ice dangle him upside-down over a deep-fryer on "The Surreal Life: Fame Games" for the high crime of not repeating his "Diff'rent Strokes" catchphrase. Fate kept him short and the vestiges of fame only belittled him, causing others to disregard his humanity. (I realize you're probably laughing at the particulars of this anecdote and I forgive you--they're absurd.)
ii It seems outrageous in retrospect but Howard the Duck was one of only three film or television roles in the short-lived career of McLain, who apparently passed away in 2010 at the age of 49. Although IMDb claims she was unbilled in Howard the Duck, her name does appear in the closing credits on Blu-ray.
iii One of the minor disappointments of Howard the Duck as I see it is that Beverly in the comics is on the periphery of the art scene and Huyck and Katz were in a plum position to skewer that from experience.