By Matt Fleming. As a child, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching movies on cable and VHS. My mother would insist I come outside to enjoy the beautiful weather. I would respond, “But Mom, Back To The Future is on HBO right now.” As an adult, I’m attempting to unpack the films of my yesteryear to see how they have held up, how they have affected my life, and where they stand in the annals of nostalgia.

Prologue: “A Film Student and His Dream.”

George Lucas made a big name for himself in Hollywood with THX 1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars. The USC Film School graduate was a fresh face and mind in the rapidly transforming film community, enlisting peers like Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg toward becoming the face of 1980s filmmaking. Lucas and Coppola tried to upend the Hollywood Studio System by founding American Zoetrope, an independent production house, helping to finance Apocalypse Now and Japanese film master Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. Lucas even opened a state-of-the-art effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, which has become a standard-bearer in film visuals. He found his greatest success as a producer, teaming with Spielberg to create the iconic Indiana Jones franchise, and was wise enough to step away from directing the best movie of the Star Wars anthology, The Empire Strikes Back.

Lucas could even afford to give his friends from film school work. In 1985, he hired USC alums/husband and wife Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to bring a new vision for an iconic comic book character to life. The point I’m driving at is simple: if this man has passion for a project, at the height of his career, how could it not be a home run?

Well, he could have a passion for Howard the Duck.

Part One: The Plot, or “Creepy Little Dude.”

Howard The Duck, barely adapted from the Marvel Comic of the same name, tells the story of, well, a duck named Howard who lives on the Earth-paralleled planet of Duckworld. Howard is lounging about after work, reading Playduck magazine (like Playboy, but with naked ducks), when his apartment begins to quake, and he is violently hurled through space by a very powerful “laser.” He crash-lands in the terrifying city of Cleveland, Ohio, where he bounces about some bikers (“Satan’s Sluts”) and evades hordes of violent Ohioans. He uses his training in Quak-Fu to save a pretty rock-n-roll girl, Beverly Switzler (dream girl Lea Thompson), from would-be muggers. While she is initially wary of the three-foot talking duck that just karate chopped her predators, Beverly quickly decides to invite this space traveler into her home for the night. The next day, she delivers Howard to her science-student pal Phil Blumburtt (a young and annoying Tim Robbins), who turns out to be a bit of a quack. Howard is infuriated at Beverly for her friend’s incompetence, and he storms off to fend for himself.

Howard attempts to find work and assimilate to little success. Dejected and alone, he wanders into the alley of a rock club (which looks divey and awesome) where Beverly’s band, Cherry Bomb is playing. While sipping a drink (I guess he got paid for his one day of work as a “water expert”), he overhears the band’s manager, Ginger, refer to stiffing Beverly (in more ways than one). Howard confronts Ginger and his goons, and again uses his duck-martial arts to reclaim the band’s earnings and dismiss Ginger’s services. Beverly and the band are thrilled by Howard’s actions, and the duck makes up with his only friend on Earth. Just as Beverly is trying to sexually seduce this duck from outer space, Phil storms in with some colleagues, including Dr. Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones and a mustache), who claim knowledge of Howard’s unexpected space trek. Apparently, Cleveland has an interdimensional space-laser, which malfunctioned and lassoed Howard from his world and tossed him into ours, and Jenning speculates the process could be reversed.

Unfortunately, by the time Howard and his crew arrive at the lab, Jenning’s laser has malfunctioned again, this time resulting in a large explosion. The cops arrive and single out Howard, then painfully strip search and nearly pluck the duck. After Beverly helps Howard escape, they find a visibly disheveled Jenning, who has been physically infiltrated by a Dark Overlord of the Universe.

The evasion scenes that follow are too long, but feature vehicular careening, a prolonged diner fight, and the continuing transformation of space-demon-Jeffrey Jones. After displaying some unique new powers, Jenning scares off the diner-gang as they attempt to cook Howard alive. Jenning kidnaps Beverly, while Howard and Phil continue to evade the police, taking flight on an Ultralight aircraft (which was actually operated by Robbins and Howard’s primary physical actor, Ed Gale). After escaping the police, the two attack some duck hunters, revealing the movie’s “wilhelm scream” and repeating the same shot three times. Meanwhile, Jenning takes a pit stop at a nuclear power plant to juice up, because everybody knows space demons are electric-powered.

The movie reaches its climax around the 90-minute mark, with the whole gang meeting up at the lab, as Demon-Jenning attempts to generate another Dark Overlord using Beverly as a host. Phil and Howard use a second experimental laser to extract the Overlord from Jenning’s body, revealing a really cool-looking Ray Harryhausen-style monster. As Howard and the Overlord battle, Dr. Jenning is restored to human form. The Dark Overlord begins summoning more space demons into Phil and Beverly, but Howard disintegrates him before the act is complete. Finally, he destroys the interdimensional travel-laser, preventing more Overlords from invading, but eliminating any chance of returning to Duckworld. Howard is happy to stay in Cleveland with his hot human girlfriend, and takes a job as Cherry Bomb’s manager, bringing Phil along for the ride. The film ends with a Thomas Dolby (“She Blinded Me with Science”) penned Prince-ripoff tribute to the feathered hero in which Howard plays a guitar solo.

Part Two: The Cast, or “How Many Humans Does it Take to Make a Duck.”

Howard The Duck is a strange beast in terms of cast. It isn’t often that your protagonist is played by upward of seven people, but in the era of practical effects and puppetry, simple characters are often the hardest to bring to life. With the character of Howard T. Duck, effects engineers began production with several duck-robots. Unfortunately, when puppeteers began to manipulate the duck’s mouth, a large hole gaped at its neck, exposing its wiring. Back at square one, Huyck and Katz scrambled to find three-foot actors who could perform the myriad of actions of a duck who knows martial arts. In addition to a stunt actor and some puppeteers, they eventually settled on 13-year-old Jordan Prentice. Child labor laws limited his time on set, so the little-person actor Ed Gale took over for night shoots. However, when editors could not match the movements of a young guy with those of the older and less lithe Gale, the decision was made to give him the primary job of bringing Howard to life.

Gale physically does the best anyone could under rotten circumstances. Vision in the suit was limited at best, and dialogue was shouted into scenes from behind the camera, forcing Gale to memorize his movements, and other actors to emote opposite a large doll. Additionally, puppeteers manipulated every aspect of Howard’s facial expressions and mouth (bill?) movement, and the technology was so shoddy that the face would go haywire if a plane flew overhead. All of these lend to the extra-artificial look of the end product. Voice actor Chip Zien excels at giving Howard his sardonic wit, and in close-ups, Howard starts to show signs of life. Showing a range of emotions and a varied delivery, Zien does his best to make Beverly, and the audience, fall in love with this space-duck. Although everyone involved did the best with what the situation gave them, ultimately Howard is mostly a dead duck.

The limitations set upon the rest of the cast, who were forced to take a back seat to their difficult leading duck, did not stop them from making the best of the production. In the most difficult role of the film, Lea Thompson gives it her all. Beverly, with her Madonna-rock-star-chic, is entirely lovable, genuinely sweet, and the heart of this film. When she plays small and intimate, one could really believe that she is falling in love with her avian beau. Her performance starts to come off the rails when the script calls for her to do much else: she hems, haws, or harumphs. When a mob of hungry diners attempt to cook Howard’s goose, Beverly impatiently and half-heartedly urges Dr. Jenning, mid-demonic-transformation, to aid her boyfriend. In these moments when she is forced to broaden her actions by the terrible script, she goes full ham. It’s a bummer that she is so much better seducing a guy in a duck suit than acting against real humans.

In his dual role as stoic scientist/body-snatching space-demon, dynamic character actor Jeffrey Jones is pretty great. His makeup throughout his transformation is effective, and his screeching voice and creepy posturing make his Dark Overlord of the Universe scarier than the actual monster. At the film’s apex, returned to human form, Jones is in full command as he helps Howard, and Earth in general, duck a serious space invasion. I remember as a kid being seriously terrified of Jones’ performance, and this was his first performance that really stuck with me. Of course, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (also released in 1986) cemented his status in Hollywood, and his turn in Beetlejuice is perfect, I always return to this one. It’s too bad he turned out to be a creep, although his mustache should have given it away years ago.

Howard The Duck holds the distinction of being one of Tim Robbins’ first feature films, and after watching it, one is hard pressed to believe he’s had a career since. He shows none of the subtlety of future performances here, and he seems to be trying to make Phil, one of the film’s central good-guys, into an unlikeable schmuck. One could guess that he’s overcompensating for the duck decoy he shares much of his screen time with, but by the end I kinda want him disintegrated with the Overlord. I will give him kudos for flying an Ultralight with a duck who couldn’t see and acting like an idiot at the same time.

The rest of the supporting cast is littered with familiar faces, also known as “Oh, hey! That guy” or “Oh, y’know, what’s her name.” There’s a fun game! Of course, in the case of Howard the Duck, we get the indefatigable David Paymer, one of my absolute favorite utility players. Paymer is best known (to eight-year-old me) for playing smarmy second fiddle to Kurt Fuller in 1989’s No Holds Barred, as well as many more movies that require smarmy sidekicks and scientists. Another familiar face belongs to Richard Edson, famed for joyriding in Cameron’s dad’s car in Ferris Bueller, as well as for having a great creepy mustache. CSI’s Paul Guilfoyle practices acting like a cop, only younger and with long hair, and Holly Robinson-Peete shows up as a member of Cherry Bomb before moving to 21 Jump Street. The film’s musical director, Thomas Dolby, makes a cameo, but I prefer his performance in the video for “She Blinded Me With Science.”

Part Three: Conclusions, or “Beating a Dead Duck.”

Marvel Comics’s first foray into big screen adaptation was this cigar-chomping duck from space, which may have single-handedly cooled Hollywood from the idea of adapting from the medium for quite some time. With superheroic films like 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman, Hollywood could justify properties that, while originating on the pages of comic books, had seen prior success on the small screen of television. Howard the Duck, a sardonic satire steeped in absurdity and existentialism, may have seemed ripe for an animated feature a la Heavy Metal or Fritz The Cat, but studio pressures forced Lucas, Huyck and Katz into an impossible production. Although the film recouped its 37-million-dollar budget, it still cost too much and took too long for anyone to really benefit. Critics and audiences alike hated this movie, and it has since become a go-to candidate for worst-of lists.

Howard The Duck has a lot of problems. The source material and the end result are pretty dissimilar. Howard’s creator, Steve Gerber, brought to the page of the comics an edgier, more surreal world. It seems that George Lucas’ team, either by force or accident, attempted to make a movie that walks the line between childish adventure and bawdy adult comedy. Most of the humor that results lies within the ‘80s cliches, humorously bad effects, or the laughably stilted dialogue. Also, at nearly two hours, this movie is too long. It’s hard to tell whether the producers just tried to cram too much into this thing or the editors were sleeping through post-production, but either way Howard takes too long to save the world. With the delays in production and limitations in bringing Howard to life, Howard The Duck was doomed to waddle its way into the canon of bad movies.

Here’s my problem: I loved this movie when I was a kid. Although much of the subject matter was a little beyond me, I was also too young to notice how bad Howard looked, so I just embraced the absurdity of an anthropomorphic avian alien. I took to Lea Thompson like a duck to water, still fawning over her from Back To The Future. Tim Robbins’ goofy performance didn’t annoy me, because I was goofy and annoying. The monsters were scary and the film’s 110-minute run time was a breeze for a kid with time to kill. Although this film never really settles on an audience, it’s campy enough to be enjoyed by all ages, as long as you really try to have fun. When I was able to tap into a youthful, pre-jaded mindset, I could still find some joy at moments during this run through. Ultimately, if you don’t have any deep nostalgia in your formative DNA for this one, it is pretty unbearable. Howard The Duck is best enjoyed in a flock of friends, especially loony ones who don’t give a quack.

Passing Thoughts:

– In an entertaining bit, Howard is placed into a job by Cleveland’s Social Services: the Santa Monica sex resort Hot Tub Fever. I would pay $100 for a Hot Tub Fever jacket.

– Space rabies sound pretty awful.

– In the fight with Ginger and his cronies, Howard almost stabs the creep in the ear, landing a deft knife blow right in the center of an earring hoop. The shot makes me cringe to this day, and may explain why I never got pierced.

– Howard hides in plain sight from the police, blending into an abandoned “Kiddieland,” in one kinda cute set piece.

– The small town set where Howard and Phil fly the Ultralight plane was also used for Lucas’ previous collaboration with Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, American Graffiti. Unfortunately, nobody cared enough to ignore the ridiculous plane chase and Tim Robbins’ facial expressions.

– Jeffrey Jones, in full Overlord mode, tries to drive his semi through a traffic delay, and delivers my favorite exchange of the film.
Cop: “I wanna see your license, jack!
Dark Overlord: “(snarling) I have no license. I am not Jack.

– In a behind the scenes interview, Lea Thompson mentions that she had much more chemistry with Ed Gale in the Howard suit than with Jordan Prentice. Because the only thing worse than bestiality is underaged bestiality.