Howard the Duck: On-This-Day Thursday
Every Thursday, an older film released on this opening weekend years ago will be reviewed. They can be classics, or simply popular films that happened to be released to the world on the same date.
For August 1st, we are going to have a look at Howard the Duck.
There are many terrible cult films, sure. I don’t know if many have made their rounds quite like Howard the Duck has. Usually, you know where you stand with an awful film. It’s either hilarious (The Room), or it’s flat out torture (Battlefield Earth). Howard the Duck manages to be both at the exact same time, and even thirty three years later, you will find different answers. Given the one star out of five I awarded this clunker, I’m in the group that find this anthropomorphic nightmare an absolute treat for the wrong reasons. Disturbing? Yes. A riot? Always. Howard the Duck’s level of ridiculousness is either a migraine that progressively gets worse, or a laughter that never lets up.
It’s more common knowledge now that this is a Marvel comic adaptation, since the duck himself has a cameo appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy in a post-credits scene. Those few seconds alone make more sense than an entire feature film. That glimpse showed a humanoid duck with grit, like a noir detective, and a closer representation of how he is in the comics. It’s hardly an atonement, but it at least provides the slightest evidence that not every moment with this character on screen is a disaster. It’s hard to remember that, given that Willard Huyck’s adaptation is insane from the first shot (Mallard Huyck may have been more appropriate; if duck jokes offend you, do NOT watch this movie).
Howard gets sucked through a vortex, swooping him from his dimension to ours. We see Playduck magazine, and shiver at the thought. We then see actual duck nudity when a being is taking a bath. This is how we start, folks. The idea is to sell a difficult plot to swallow (a duck detective making his way over into our reality), not make it worse. His first interaction with humans is almost as if they are the aliens. No one has a clue how to properly react to this thing. They bully it like it’s a kid, they point it out and say “that’s a duck” (it clearly isn’t just a duck; if the guy saying this did think it’s just a duck, does he say this to every duck?), question more about where he came from and not who he is, and fall in love with him (literally, not metaphorically). I suppose picking his species apart isn’t very correct, but this is a film dealing with scientists, and no one’s trying to see how this being is even remotely possible. Even if they’re focusing on how to get him back to his dimension, people discuss that as if it’s normal enough, and not something that should be at least implausible for a second. Lea Thompson responds to Howard asking where he is by saying “Earth, I think?”. It sounded like a dumb line. It wasn’t. She is mistaking this bizarre place as the Earth she once new, but Earth would be much more different.
I don’t feel like going into the plot for the rest of the film, because that’s hardly the enjoyment. Every scene has a formula that requires steps performed in any order; this will result in immediate laughs every time. 1) Someone has to react to his duck-form in an illogical or hyperbolic way; sensibility does not exist in this film. 2) Howard or someone else has to make a duck related pun that would usually result in groans, but works as the icing on the cake here. 3) Something ridiculous has to happen, whether it’s an alien possession, Howard pretending to be dead or possessed the exact same way more than once, duck karate moves, or anything else. 4) Reactions have to be captured, whether it’s Howard’s animatronic, chilling face, onlookers being confused, scientists not asking the real questions, or Lea Thompson wondering why she agreed to be in this movie.
I’m not even exaggerating. Let’s go through the scenes uploaded onto the Movieclips YouTube one by one. Virtually all of these scenes follow this formula to an extent. All of them are hilarious due to their ridiculous nature. I can barely describe this film, so showing will tell more than I can.
This is supposed to be a serious scene. Thompson’s character Beverly is getting harassed after one of her concerts. Why does it take Howard so long to react? Why does he not intervene right away, but instead showcase his “quack-fu” moves? Why do the perpetrators not run away immediately, or attack right away? They discern this is a duck being first, and then mutually agree to confront it. I have zero idea how that logistical break down makes them resort to that conclusion, but sure. The first scene of Howard’s interaction with Earth beings is already a bust.
Come on, now. Even in the ‘80s, I doubt people had duck purses like this, nor did they make actual quacking sounds when toyed with. This is supposed to have another serious moment, where Howard is scared he is being pulled through a vortex again. Understandable. This just looks so wrong and creepy, though. Howard’s face makes me laugh so hard during his time of need. How is it that Babe can use real animals and convey similar turmoils authentically, but a mechanical puppet here looks like a guy that is having a bad acid trip during his niece’s school play? Aside from all of this, Beverly should have concluded that this guy clearly lives in a universe much like ours by now (the pet thing is understandable, given that that’s one major variation between both worlds), and Howard is being a jerk towards someone helping him out.
Yes, that is the thumbnail. I didn’t pick it. This scene should have been titled “Beverly doesn’t know how to react to things like this”. She tries fluffing Howard’s head feathers while he is sleeping. He makes exorcist noises that are in no way soothing like the scene had intended. Beverly goes through his wallet, finds groan-inducing puns, photographs, and a condom. Her reaction? “Howard!”, like she just caught him trying to put the milk in the cupboard instead of the fridge by accident. Also, this thing isn’t even in a wrapper. Was it used? Why is it in his wallet if it’s been used? Why is she touching it if it’s been used? What good is an unwrapped condom in a wallet? Isn’t that how holes are made? Why is this in the movie at all? Why is the movie real? The scene is supposed to be moving to some degree, given John Barry’s actually nice score in this scene. All I can feel moving is my stomach.
First off, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane! No, it’s a duck!” is stupid. A duck is a bird. Any scientist or non-scientist will know this. He knows that Howard is addressed as Howard, yet assumes that he cannot speak Earth English, despite the humanistic clothes, Beverly’s ability to communicate with the duck, and the duck’s reactions to his stupidity. Also, let’s assume that a character like Donald Duck wouldn’t exist in Howard’s reality, so the impression is stupid. So, the scientist assumes Howard has super powers. Does he assume that all ducks are powerful, that this is an alien, or it’s a duck like human? If the latter two parts, why can’t he understand that this duck can understand him?
We finally see some probable reactions to Howard: shrieks, befuddlement, and initial shock. The scientist idiot is insisting Howard gets hidden… by yelling from afar and attracting attention. The fight between Howard and Beverly may seem sensical and emotional at first, but dig deeper. She is treating this duck being stranded in a new dimension like her best friend going to a different university than her. Howard feels like a freak and lashes out; this actually makes sense, given how he was treated by Dr. Pathetic in the previous scene. However, he ends the scene saying “damn” for shooing away the only person he could confide in. You’re all stupid characters.
No words. I have zero words. Moving swiftly along.
If Howard is wanted dead or alive, couldn’t one of the plethora of cops here fired at Howard? The blithering moron couldn’t operate the aircraft (though, look at what he’s operating, mind you), yet no one attempted to even try and aim at the machine itself to break it. Not one. Maybe everyone was frozen because they didn’t know what to do with a talking duck. I’m still jaw dropped from the scene before, and I’ve seen this damn movie before. It just never gets any less cringe worthy.
So this is the part where alien possession happens (if I had not warned you and you hadn’t seen this film before, you may have thought this was a radically different film. First off, the driver in the first car reacts to being yelled at by saying his engine’s off and that his car’s being pushed. It literally just happened. He responded as if it was something he realized even seconds before and was trying to convey to the cops, like “this isn’t me, someone else is doing it”. Does everyone react that way? Like, if someone pushed me right into someone else, I think my first reaction would be “Oh no, I bumped into someone somehow. Was I shoved? Who shoved me?”. Secondly, they’re firing at this guy but they never did at Howard (who, again, was wanted dead or alive). Sure, this guy’s attacking a cop, but they go after him with a freaking shotgun. Trying to at least shoot warning shots for Howard would have made sense. No comment about the animated special effects here.
Also, this stop motion animated alien is beyond abysmal.
Wait… the “three minute” warning happened in the previous clip. How do we start with it, here? We finally get some sort of an actual moving moment: Howard having to sacrifice his ability to go home to save Earth. It doesn’t go too well, given the incredibly poor special effects. I wouldn’t be too scared if I was being attacked by bowling alley animations (actually, maybe I would be).
See, there’s somewhat of a pulse in a film as psychotic as Howard the Duck. John Barry’s score truly may be one of the best soundtracks to a terrible film in history. There are legitimately interesting ideas, here. None of that truly shines amongst the worst of everything, though. That’s why Howard the Duck has an audience. It’s hysterical. It’s the funniest film for the wrong reasons, and awkward when it’s trying to make you laugh. It tries to have a heart and be emotional amongst the biggest jerks or the biggest idiots. There’s implications of sex, for crying out loud. This movie somehow exists, and we have to live with it. So, let’s do just that. It’s an abomination of cinema, and an entertaining one at that. This movie can go duck itself (had to end on one).
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.