Howard the Duck, or: When I see a white elephant fly.
(Seen for The Third Annual White Elephant Blogathon. Sorry, Mr. Faneuf.)
When Howard the Duck came out in 1986, I was a mere sapling. As such, I rather enjoyed the film. Why wouldn’t I? It had a talking duck! The film, sadly, has not gotten better with age. I have, and yet I still miss that initial impression on some level — all the alcohol in the world can’t bring one back to the uncritical, undemanding standards of our childhoods. I realize this is mostly a good thing, but still.
At any rate, watching Howard today is a bizarre experience, if only because despite its kid-friendly veneer (again, talking duck!), this appears to be a film made for no audience, and part of me thinks it’s a deliberate action. Consider the tonal psychosis, especially in the narrative’s bugfuck second half. Scott Tobias of The AV Club, in reviewing the brand-spanking-new DVD that nobody should ever need to buy, speaks of a commentary track where writer/director Willard Huyck and co-writer Gloria Katz try to spin the film as better than its critical reputation suggests, and that makes sense to me, because who’s really going to admit to intentionally sabotaging one of the biggest-budgeted films of the ’80s? But make no mistake, there’s choices in here that can only be attributed to a desire to make the least appealing film possible. I submit that Howard the Duck is at least partly an inside job.
It’s Huyck & Katz’s history combined with the genre shift halfway through that make me believe this. Before they were friends of Lucas, before they got an Oscar nomination for American Graffiti, the two of them collaborated on a horror film called Messiah of Evil. It is, to be frank, a terrific film ripe for rediscovery — a genuine creeping nightmare piped straight from the unconscious and burned onto celluloid. These guys sure looked promising in 1974. Cut to ten years later, and their careers have gone a fat lot of nowhere. Lucas, in a display of generosity, gets them a gig writing the Indiana Jones sequel, and concurrently Huyck gets to sit in the director’s chair again for Best Defense. The sequel, Temple of Doom, is a huge moneymaker but scores some vicious reviews; Best Defense is a disaster and reportedly no fun to make for anyone involved.
Even in Temple of Doom, you can see the couple’s professional frustration coming out as well as their desire to return to the realm of their one true independent success — Temple is nothing if not a ghoulish splatter film in kiddie-matinee disguise. I can imagine the frustration mounting through the reviews for Temple and the debacle in attempting to make the money pit of Best Defense. At some point, the couple tires of the Hollywood machine, and they find themselves feeling nostalgic for those low-budget days. They need a way out, which the ever-loyal Lucas provides them: a massive, blockbuster adaptation of a comic book. Here’s the thing, though — the comic book is an obscure second-tier Marvel alternatitle that Lucas wants to see turned into children’s entertainment, the star of the film is a dubious-looking bit of costume and the studio needs the movie fast-tracked for summer of ‘86. Oh yeah, and Lucas desperately needs this to succeed, seeing as how he’s just put himself in debt up to his eyeballs building some gargantuan ranch out in California. The stage couldn’t be riper for an epic self-immolation.
And really, what better way to blow one’s one career to pieces than to go full-tilt Lovecraftian horror on your material, to stick an Old One in the middle of your kiddie-cute narrative? Howard has problems in its first half that point to some serious misguided intentions, the notorious interspecies near-sex scene between bubble-brained Lea Thompson and a guy in a duck outfit chiefly among them. There’s a lot of strange, queasy sex material in this film. The bit where Howard gets a job at a spa/adult-fantasy cove is best left unremembered.
But around the hour mark, something magical (and by magical, I mean even more confounding than the weirdo sex) happens: a demon who calls himself the Dark Overlord takes control of Jeffrey Jones, and Howard the Duck makes a hard left into no-joke creepy horror territory. Jones, to his credit, throws himself into the portrayal of ultimate, Earth-wrecking evil; he looks pretty much as you’d imagine a Shoggoth would look if he tried to hide underneath an ill-fitting man suit. The film, already dangerously unbalanced with the tension between silly grade-school duck puns and naked feathery tits, damn near collapses under the weight of its dead-serious monster-movie material; what on earth were well-meaning parents and their youthful charges supposed to do with scenes like the one where a slavering, sweating, glowering Jones sticks his tongue into a car’s power supply? Yet, it’s this struggle between the film that the suits wanted and the film that got made that gives this any power to linger. There’s something deeply uncomfortable straining to break the skin of Howard, and I think it looks a lot like two filmmakers with a taste for mean-spirited, exploitation-themed material trying desperately to subvert their own family entertainment assignment. Huyck and Katz can retroactively defend Howard all they want, but the evidence is on the screen — they’re Bialystock and Bloom, except that they made a true financial bomb.
And if that’s not clear enough, just note that the universe from which the Dark Overlord hails is called the Nexus of Sominus. Check your Latin roots on that and see where it gets you.