Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Psychic Boomerang

Show me a fantasy, science fiction or horror film from the 80s that tanked, I’ll show you a film that currently has a rabid cult following. Of the many examples I could give you of this theory, some of the films that have achieved respectability include such classics as BLADE RUNNER and John Carpenter’s THE THING. There are many other films that could be named which are very bad. I could name them, but I won’t because from experience I know that there are people who take these things personally. So I won’t name movies like KRULL. But I could.

Now there’s been a midnight screening of HOWARD THE DUCK at the New Beverly, which leads me to believe there’s even a cult out there for that film. Because the film has been such a punchline since it was originally released in August 1986, I’d love to be able to say that this viewing of the film has proven it to be a misunderstood piece of work. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Howard the Duck originated in a Marvel comic devoted to Man-Thing in the early 70s and the response to him, especially after it looked like he had been killed off, was so great that Marvel gave the character brief stories devoted to him in subsequent Man-Thing issues, before launching him into his own comic series in 1976. The character was, more than anything, an opportunity for creator Steve Gerber to explore some of his own neuroses in the form of a duck who just happened to be the lead character in a Marvel comic. Hey, it was the 70s and what emerged was both a satire of the Marvel form and a character who integrated into the Marvel universe. Though Gerber’s reign over the character lasted a mere 27 issues, the character survived for a brief period after and, if my wikipedia is to be believed, he still makes appearances in various Marvel titles to this day.

The character of Howard was so very obviously a personal expression by Gerber that it’s a shame that it will mostly be remembered as the namesake of one of the biggest disasters in Hollywood. In making this film what was personal, what was quirky, what was idiosyncratic, is turned into something that almost personifies what we remember as 80s movies.

Howard T. Duck, resident of a planet where the predominant species are ducks, suddenly and without warning is transported from his home world to Earth, specifically Cleveland, where he meets aspiring singer Beverly Switzler(Lea Thompson) who is willing to help him learn how he wound up in Cleveland and how he can get back home. Once he makes contact with scientist Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) who can help him, another test to get him back results in bring down an alien known as the Dark Overlord of the Universe who takes possession of Jenning in an attempt to take over the world.

Maybe a few elements twice removed seem like they’re from the comic, but really the only element aside from Howard to make the transition is the character of Beverly Switzler, the woman who becomes Howard’s sort-of girlfriend. And just barely—in the comic she’s a 70s hippy-dippy chick who seems interesting, cool and slightly crazy but here in the guise of Lea Thompson she’s turned into a dull nice-girl rock singer for no reason other than to get some more songs onto the soundtrack album. Lea Thompson as the lead in a film seems truly like an artifact of the 80s and bluntly put she’s more fetching here than she probably was at any other point but just as bluntly she’s pretty terrible. In fairness, she’s also miscast and probably would also have been if the film had been faithful to the comic.

Also in the cast is future Oscar winner Tim Robbins as Phil Blumburtt, the lab assistant who becomes the sidekick to Howard and Beverly. Robbins, to his credit, maintains his energy as the comic-relief dork as long as he can but there’s not much he can do with this material. There are appearances by the likes of future Oscar nominee David Paymer, STRANGER THAN PARADISE’s Richard Edson and CSI’s Paul Guilfoyle. Howard himself is played by several credited individuals including Ed Gale, who was actually in the suit, and Chip Zien, the voice of Howard, who went on to many future appearances in the flesh including a regular role as a tv writer on the mid-90s sitcom ALMOST PERFECT, in which his character was married to my future wife Lisa Edelstein. Jeffrey Jones is the scientist who spends most of his screen time possessed by the Dark Overlord of the Universe and gives the best performance of the movie as long as the material holds up. It doesn’t hold up for long.

Much of the problem is that the film takes what was a pretty idiosyncratic character and trashes it in an attempt to make a mid-80s box-office blockbuster. Husband-wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz wrote the script (he directed, she produced) and they were also responsible for parts of the scripts for AMERICAN GRAFFITI, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM in addition to some uncredited work on STAR WARS. Some funny lines can be found here—throw that dialogue against the wall enough times, something’s going to stick—but the whole enterprise feels so soulless it actually becomes kind of depressing by a certain point. It’s not even always clear what they’re going for here—certainly the comic wasn’t for children but the tone of the movie at times seems pitched to all ages. And yet, there are enough sex jokes, including the condom Howard carries in his wallet. Howard the Duck shouldn’t be for kids but the movie seems at times unsure of this fact. A comic book character who fit in just right with the nature of the 70s, adapted by a filmmaking team from San Francisco that made its biggest fame in the 70s, turned into one of the most hollow box-office disasters of the 80s…the metaphor is more than a little obvious here.

Even if the tone had been right, even if they’d known enough to do something a little like BUCKAROO BANZAI or HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY or, heaven forbid, the original comic, the fact is that the movie would still be stuck with a duck suit that is genuinely ugly and kind of a disaster. That someone didn’t call a halt to filming after viewing the first few days of footage is genuinely surprising.

Like I said, there’s a handful of good lines sprinkled throughout, but it’s not enough. There are too many chase scenes that go on longer than is necessary. Even the appearance of the Dark Overlord of the Universe in his true form, as a pretty damn cool stop-motion monster, goes on about three times longer than it should. As a matter of fact, there are several action scenes that go on three times too long, yet the film seems curiously underplotted. Ultimately, what we have here is a script that should never have gone into production in its current form. They also should have recast the female lead and waited until they figured out how to correctly portray the duck of the title. Maybe they should have just scrapped making the film altogether. How big a favor did George Lucas feel he owed them?

Originally all the music was to have been composed by then-hot Thomas Dolby, but due to cold feet they brought on John Barry, fresh from winning the Oscar for OUT OF AFRICA, to compose the score. Dolby still did all the songs and makes a cameo as a bartender. I always liked Dolby back in the day and I don’t know what sort of score he would have produced but the songs here are probably among his worst. Even the Barry score doesn’t seem right—it probably makes sense to say it would probably belong in another movie, since a lot of it does anticipate his music for the Bond film THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS that he would compose the following year.

So why is there a following for the movie of HOWARD THE DUCK? Why were there actually people at the New Beverly? Aside from booze and drugs, beats me. I’d love to say that it’s a misunderstood cult classic, but that’s not the case. The character survives, for the few people who care, as a rare example of individual creativity from a major comic book company. The movie survives as an artifact from a decade where individuality was beginning to be crushed. In the case of this film, those fighting against that individuality clearly succeeded.


Anonymous said...

I picked up a VHS copy of this movie for a quarter at a garage sale a few years ago. "O, Howard the Duck," I thought. "I remember it's a complete mess, it should be fun to watch again."
I was so, so wrong. Just because it's bad, this does NOT make it ironically entertaining. I think you're doing a great service reminding your readers of this fact.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

"Just because it's bad, this does NOT make it ironically entertaining."
Those are words to live by. Some bad movies can be fun. But not all of them. Maybe we should just focus on the good movies. Thanks for commenting.

Unknown said...

First of all, I know this is a little too late and I respect your opinion and I think you have a wonderful way of tying your review together almost like a poem.

But I personally like this film. Maybe it's just little kid memories but I don't know. I know it's not perfect. And I think the duck suit, plus the stop motion effects are good for the time. As well as the main female-love interest [She's one of my favorite actress].

And I completely disagree with you about the eighties'. I think individualism was actually pretty big in the eighties. I call it "The best commercialist decade ever". For every cheesy song from the eighties, I can show you ten from the nineties' and at least one or two from the seventies'. I love the eighties'.

But I highly respect your form of writing and hope you go big. You deserve it.