Continuing our recap of 1986’s Howard the Duck. Burdened with a bad script, a bland lead and a cartoonish supporting cast, Howard would just be another forgettable 80’s comedy, except for two things.
Number one, this was not some cheap indy picture, but a big-budget extravaganza produced by George Lucas, who at this time had been a part of five of the top ten biggest-grossing movies of all time to that point. If anybody knew how to give an audience just what they wanted, it was Lucas.
And number two, right about halfway through, the movie starts to get weird.
After Phil leaves the club for his secret meeting, Howard uses goo-goo eyes to get Beverly to take him home with her (one of the few times the animatronics really work well). While Beverly’s drying her hair, Howard starts playing with a synthesizer in her living room, ad-libbing an upbeat tune that we’ll get back to later.
Beverly thinks it’s pretty good, and Howard thinks Beverly looks pretty good in the almost nothing she’s wearing to bed. Because human women are the ideal of beauty and sexuality no matter what species you may be.
But even if it’s silly, I’m not complaining, because it gives the movie an excuse to show off Lea Thompson’s legs, which frankly need showing off. But as Beverly begins opining about how she can’t find any good men, and maybe she should stop dating humans and try “the animal kingdom,” what was a pleasant throwaway bit of cheesecake turns a little weird and disturbing. And Howard, who started out flirting right back, gets a little squicked out.
Not to mention the other three guys in the bedroom.
Because Phil has shown up with the folks who claim to know how Howard came to Earth, Dr. Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) and his assistant.
Dr. Jenning explains that they were testing a laser spectrometer to determine the composition of distant stars, when some unknown force took over the device and somehow repurposed it. They had no idea that anything had been brought to Earth other than a single feather.
Howard insists that Jenning take him back to the lab and put the thing in reverse so Howard can go back home. And though Phil protests, Dr. Jenning thinks it can be done. He heads back to the lab and tells his assistant and Phil to bring Howard once he’s dressed. Howard and Beverly spend the drive to the lab tearfully saying goodbye, which seems a little over the top considering how little time they’ve actually spent together, but whatever.
When they get to the lab, it’s a disaster area. The laser spectroscope has exploded, and Dr. Jenning has disappeared. The police show up and decide to arrest Howard for being weird, but Beverly helps him escape, and on their way out, they pick up a slightly singed Dr. Jenning as well. As they’re driving away, however, Jenning undergoes a painful metamorphosis. His body “dies,” and is taken over by one of the Dark Overlords of the Universe, brought down from the Nexus of Sominus by the laser spectroscope. It’s all a bit much to take, so they stop for sushi.
Cajun sushi, in what looks like a converted pancake house. As they sit, Dark Jenning tells them his plan to use the laser spectroscope to bring down the rest of his kind to take over the planet and eradicate humanity. Howard and Beverly would try to stop him, but Beverly’s too busy getting hit on by some truckers, and Howard’s too busy nearly getting killed by everyone in the restaurant for being an asshole who also happens to be edible.
Beverly appeals to Jenning for help, saying she really likes the little guy, to which Dark Jenning replies, “You hardly know him” (echoing what we’re all thinking). But eventually, Dark Jenning’s powers manifest and he lays waste to the restaurant.
Jenning leaves with Beverly, saying he needs her body to serve as a host for another Dark Overlord. But then he needs toÂ refuel on energy, so he sticks his tongue-tacle into the cigarette lighter. Huh. Who knew Howard the Duck invented hentai?
Pretty soon the cops show up at the restaurant with an arrested Phil in tow. Howard, hiding nearby, frees Phil, and together they build an ultralight airplane to fly back to the lab to rescue Beverly. And though the sequence is kind of gratuitous, it’s also a welcome jolt of excitement in what is turning out to be a sort of dull movie.
It’s also the first step in a directorial career that would lead eventually to Captain America: The First Avenger. Joe Johnston, who had been an art director at ILM, took a break from special effects in 1984 to attend USC film school (at just the time I was dropping out, actually). And the first non-special effects work he did was to “design” the ultralight sequence; I’m not sure what all goes into that, but I’m guessing storyboards and maybe assistant directing.
So Howard and Phil get to the lab not long after Dark Jenning and Beverly (who had taken a detour to suck up some more energy at a nuclear plant). Which leads into the big finale, where Howard uses an experimental laser weapon to destroy Dark Jenning, which actually just drives theÂ Dark Overlord out of Jenning’s body, so we can see just how ugly he truly is.
People like to bash the effects here, and yes, they look dated by modern standards, but they were pretty state-of-the-art go-motion by 1986 standards. The sequence doesn’t measure up to the real pinnacle of go-motion, Dragonslayer, but they purposely made this cheesy because it was a comedy.
And yeah, Howard manages to stop the demon and save the world from the horde of demons (okay, three) that are descending to Earth in the beam of the laser spectroscope, so everybody’s happy. But the movie’s not over.
There’s one final scene, where Cherry Bomb, with new manager Howard, are now playing a huge theater instead of a cheap dive (because Howard’s awesome like that). The girls debut a new song, which is a finished version of the tune Howard was playing on Beverly’s synthesizer back before everything got so weird. And once again, if you like 80’s music and can look past the fact that it’s about a duck, the song isn’t bad. Â There’s an awkward bit where Howard “accidentally” ends up on stage and has to play a rockin’ guitar solo, but just keep your eyes on Lea Thompson and hum the melody and you can get past it.
So, like Superman III and Waterworld and Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate and other so-called contenders for the worst movie ever made, Howard the Duck is not actually all that bad. It has its good moments, a talented cast and lots of technical polish. But what all those movies have in common are an enormous mismatch between the amount of money and talent thrown at the screen and the mediocrity of the end product. And I think it’s that gulf between potential and result that strikes a lot of people as obscene.