I should’ve saved the T-shirt. When I was 11 years old, my official Howard the Duck T-shirt, won from a local television channel’s promotional contest, drew plenty of abuse from older neighborhood teens, one of whom never failed to call out “Hey! It’s Howard the Dumb —!” — rhymes with “duck” — whenever he saw me. Within days of its initial release, the 1986 film was already considered a “flop” and a “failure,” a reputation that lingers to this day. However, those vintage T-shirts now sell for $160 to $300 dollars on eBay. Unfortunately, I wore mine to ribbons.
I loved that flop. I still do. Aside from being an extremely entertaining ’80s cult classic, Howard the Duck was my gateway to the joys of more “mature” monster movies.
A movie “unsure of what it wanted to be”?
To be fair, everything that turned off mainstream audiences about Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s subversive, big-budget, talking-duck-from-outer-space movie appealed perfectly to a viewer on the cusp of adolescence.
The standard criticism is that the film “didn’t know what it wanted to be.” It was based on Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik’s Marvel Comics character from 1973, an ill-tempered, cigar-smoking, anthropomorphic duck-out-of-water in a human world “he never made” after being pulled through the universe from his home planet, Duckworld, and dropped on earth. Alas, in the film, the “laser spectrometer” that accidentally transported Howard also draws in a monstrous “Dark Overlord of the Universe,” which our caustic duck must defeat to save our planet of hairless apes.
Fans of the comics were dismayed to find the film made the character cute rather than caustic, and his crises silly rather than existential. This, they felt, was a neutered Howard — not enough for horrified parents, however. Time Magazine reviewer Richard Corliss labeled the film a “porno Zoo Parade.” Gene Siskel found its “scenes of sex, violence, and rock ‘n’ roll” too “dimwitted and inappropriate for little ones.” In the UK, two scenes had to be trimmed for general audiences.
Rated PG, Howard the Duck was ostensibly a kid’s film, with silly jokes about “quak-fu” and “space rabies.” Katz and Huyck also slipped in references to pot, cocaine, massage parlors, “Satan’s Sluts” bikers, duck prophylactics, and… erm, exposed duck boobies.
Even worse, but true to the comics, when Howard arrives in a pre-gentrified Cleveland, he gets a human “girlfriend” named Beverly, a rock ‘n’ roll singer played by Lea Thompson. Rather than shying away from the question of do they or don’t they?, the film leans into it, showing Thompson in her underwear in bed arousing her “duckie” for fun before being interrupted. The characters finally clarify they’re not doing it, while the film strongly implies they really want to and probably will at some point.
A more “mature” monster movie — but still rated PG.
Credit: Universal / Kobal / Shutterstock
Who in the world was Howard the Duck for?
I’ll tell you: 11- to 13-year-old boys and girls. I was a little too old for the Muppets in 1986, but my humor was skewing more toward the Mad Magazine brand of “edginess” than R-rated raunchy comedies. Lea Thompson in her underwear was beginning to hold a certain fascination for me, although I wasn’t quite ready for it to go much further than the film went. And, honestly, when you’re that age, duck boobies are objectively funny. And, let’s be honest, still are, regardless of your age.
Plus, the film is better than you might remember. The BBC’s Mark Kermode, another Howard the Duck champion, argues that it’s not a “great” movie, but remains “a really, really funny weird, subversive film.” Since it was too weird to be embraced by the mainstream, but also too entertainingly off-kilter to forget, Kermode has argued for Howard the Duck as basically the definition of a cult classic. It’s worth noting that Katz and Huyck began their creative collaboration with a legitimate cult film: the surreal horror masterpiece Messiah of Evil. I would love to see those two bonkers movies on a double bill (OK, pun intended).
Howard the Duck showed body horror could be fun.
For me, the real revelation of Howard the Duck was the last hour, in which the film suddenly becomes a body horror comedy. Howard and Beverley are stuck with a gnarly possessed scientist (played by Jeffrey Jones, one thing about the film that hasn’t aged well) playing host to one of the hideous “Dark Overlords of the Universe” that want to destroy this world. Sure, I had already seen Halloween and The Thing at that age. But I did so through my fingers, as they were meant to scare the daylights out of you — and succeeded. Ghostbusters, meanwhile, just seemed silly to me.
Howard the Duck managed to hit the sweet spot between gross-out tentacled latex monsters and fun adventure comedy. It was the kind of “scary” an 11-year-old could enjoy without fear and showed me that horror flicks could be more like a roller coaster ride than a grueling night in a haunted house. It set me up for teenage years spent reading Fangoria magazines, making latex masks in the basement, and laughing at every Freddy Krueger punchline, no matter how cheesy.
And now, with the MCU an established film phenomenon and Howard popping up in Guardians of the Galaxy films, maybe we’ll finally get a sequel. Or, at least, I can get a new T-shirt.