Tuesday 18 May 2010

Howard The Duck (1986)

Tuesday 18 May 2010
DIRECTOR: Willard Huyck
WRITERS: Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz
CAST: Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones, Tim Robbins, David Paymer, Ed Gale, Paul Guilfoyle, Tim Fields & Chip Zien (voice)
RUNNING TIME: 111 mins. BUDGET: $38m
Howard The Duck was perhaps George Lucas' attempt to satirize pal Steven Spielberg's E.T, using a sardonic Marvel comic-book character most people hadn't heard of. Since its release in 1986 it's become a byword for box-office catastrophe, not to mention an easy rod to beat wunderkind Lucas's back with (well, until he handed us a Phantom Menace-shaped sledgehammer), but I'm not ashamed to admit I have a soft spot for this kitsch aberration. It's a ridiculous '80s B-movie that I found mesmerizing as a child and, even as a discerning adult able to see through my juvenile response, I still can't find it in my heart to hate Howard The Duck. Given the ludicrous concept, director Willard Huyck made a decent omelette from bad eggs...

Howard T. Duck (voiced by Chip Zien, performed by a flock) is an anthropomorphic duck living on a bizarro "Duckworld" version of Earth -- a planet shaped like an egg, natch. Late one night, while thumbing through a copy of Playduck magazine, Howard's armchair is snared by a cosmic tractor beam and he's literally pulled across the galaxy inside a spatial wormhole, to be rudely deposited in rainswept Cleveland, Ohio. Once there he immediately saves Cyndi Lauper-esque singer Beverly (Lea Thompson) from muggers, by threatening them with a "Quack-Fu" ass-kicking, and is given shelter from the pouring rain in gratitude. The next day, Beverly takes Howard to see nutty scientist Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins, in an early role), hoping he can explain Howard's situation and find a way to send him home, but it turns out Phil's just a geeky museum janitor. However, there are a group of bona fide scientists from a local observatory who may have been accidentally responsible for Howard's abduction, and one of them (Jeffrey Jones) may also have let an intergalactic monster possess his body.

I realize in writing the above synopsis that Howard The Duck's definitely a loosely-scripted collection of duck puns and comic noir trash, eliciting unintentional laughter every step of the way. But it still has a unique flavour that cuts through its tackiness. Calling something "so-bad-it's-good" never feels like adequate defence, because why are so many other films "so-bad-they're-just-bad"? I guess with Howard The Duck I'm partly responding to childhood memories of watching it, repeatedly, on video-tape. Never underestimate the power of an impressionable eight-year-old discovering something like Howard The Duck: it featured a topless duck-woman with feathered boobs(!), attempted bestiality(!!), Marty McFly's hot mom in underwear, sauna sex during "mating season"**, a hero who smoked cigars and read porn, a demonic villain with telekinesis, knife violence, rock n' roll, and some fantastic stop-motion for the crab-like Dark Overlord villain -- courtesy of effects maestro Phil Tippet.

As an adult, my prime source of enjoyment now stems from the sole element I defy anyone not to enjoy: the aforementioned Jeffrey Jones, who gets all the best lines as a mild-mannered astrophysicist infected with a malevolent space-beast. It's Men In Black's human-cockroach "Edgar-suit" a decade earlier, but twice as funny. Take the late-night diner scene, where Jenning sits sweltering at a table and testing his telekinesis on condiments. There are some wonderful lines throughout, most of which I can recall from memory: "I am now one of the Dark Overlords of the Universe," announces Jenning in a crackling voice. "That must be quite a responsibility" deadpans Howard. Or how about a short order cook's reaction when Jenning stands up, his skin buzzing with blue electricity: "He musta had the chili." Oh, come on, groaners like that don't write themselves!

Unlike so most modern fantasy villains, Jenning's metamorphosis was even allowed to reach a lurid excess; gradually turning more crooked, bald, bony and demonic as the alien parasite came to dominate him. The film makes a still-common mistake in replacing the sinister-yet-playful Jones with a puppet in its final confrontation (demon vs. duck, how can you resist?), but his beastly form arrives late enough for your memory of Jones to dominate.

It's gloriously stupid and I don't begrudge anyone for disliking it, but for a live-action movie about a talking duck who defeats an extraterrestrial with the help of a sexy rock chick and a goofy nerd, you get exactly what you expect from that equation. The effects are good for the time (I never understood the scorn poured on the £2 million duck-suit with its expressive eyes), performances are fine (Howard's a fun cynic, Thompson's game-for-a-laugh, Jones is both scary and hilarious), and it ends with a rousing spectacle. Sure, the jokes err on the side of infantile puns too often, there's a stench of '80s cheese that grows more pungent every time I re-watch this film, and fans of the source material will always feel it's a terrible dilution of the anarchic comic-book -- but, as far as silly pieces of trash cinema go, Howard The Duck's more entertaining than people dare admit in public.

[*] Howard The Duck was such a box-office flop (clawing back $16m from a $38m budget) that George Lucas was forced to sell part of his company LucasFilm, which later became Pixar. That's right, you have Howard The Duck to thank for Woody, Buzz, Nemo, Sully and WALL-E.

[**] A scene actually cut from the Region 2 DVD I watched this on, along with Howard looking at a Playduck centerfold and the Dark Overlord recharging on his truck's cigarette lighter.