I should have kept the t-shirt. When I was 11 years old, my official Howard the Duck A t-shirt won in a promotional contest on a local TV channel drew a lot of abuse from older teenagers in the neighborhood, one of whom kept shouting “Hey! It’s Howard Dumb…!” — rhymes with “duck” — whenever he sees me. Within days of its initial release, the 1986 film was already considered a “flop” and a “flop,” a reputation that remains to this day. However, these vintage tees are now selling for $160 to $300 dollars on eBay. Unfortunately, I wore mine to ribbons.
I loved this fail. I still do. As well as being a hugely entertaining ’80s cult classic, Howard the Duck was my gateway to the joys of more “mature” monster movies.
A movie “not sure what it wants to be”?
To be fair, everything that turned off mainstream audiences about Willard Huick and Gloria Katz’s subversive, big-budget talking-duck-from-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.” Based on Steve Gerber and Val Mayerick’s 1973 Marvel Comics character, a malevolent, cigar-smoking, anthropomorphic duck out of water in a human world “he never created” after being pulled across the universe from his home planet , Duckworld, and dropped on the ground. Alas, in the movie, the “laser spectrometer” that accidentally transports Howard also attracts a monstrous “Tram Lord of the Universe”, which our caustic duck must defeat in order to save our planet from hairless apes.
Comic book fans were horrified to discover that the film made the character cute rather than snarky, and his crises more silly than existential. They thought it was a neutered Howard – but not enough for the horrified parents. Time magazine reviewer Richard Corliss called the film “a porn zoo.” Gene Siskel found its “scenes of sex, violence and rock ‘n’ roll” too “crazy and unsuitable for minors”. In the UK, two scenes had to be cut for general audiences.
Rated PG, Howard the Duck was ostensibly a children’s movie with silly jokes about “quack-fu” and “space rage”. Katz and Huick also mentioned pot, cocaine, massage parlors, Satan’s Scumbag bikers, duck prophylactics, and… uh, exposed duck tits.
Even worse, but true to the comics, when Howard arrives in Cleveland before being ennobled, he gets a human “friend” named Beverly, a rock ‘n’ roll singer played by Lea Thompson. Rather than shying away from the question of whether or not they?, the film turns to it, showing Thompson in her underwear in bed, turning on her “duck” for fun before being interrupted. The characters finally make it clear that they don’t, while the film heavily implies that they really want to and probably will at some point.
A more “mature” monster movie — but still rated PG.
Credit: Universal / Kobal / Shutterstock
Who was in the world Howard the Duck for?
I’ll tell you: 11- to 13-year-old boys and girls. I was a little too old for Muppets in 1986, but my humor skewed more toward Mad Magazine brand of “blade” from R-rated raunchy comedies. Lea Thompson in her underwear was starting to charm me, though I wasn’t quite ready for it to go much further than the movie. And frankly, when you’re that age, duck tits are objectively funny. And, let’s be honest, they still are, no matter your age.
Also, the movie is better than you remember. The BBC’s Mark Kermode, another Howard the Duck champion, claims it’s not a “great” film, but remains a “really, really fun, weird, subversive movie.” Because it was too weird to be embraced by the mainstream, but also too hilariously offbeat to be forgotten, Kermode championed Howard the Duck as the basic definition of a cult classic. It’s worth noting that Katz and Huick began their creative collaboration with a legitimate cult film: the surreal horror masterpiece A messiah of evil. I would love to see these two crazy movies on a double bill (OK, pun intended).
Howard the Duck showed that body horror can be fun.
For me, the real revelation of Howard the Duck it was the final hour where the film suddenly became a body horror comedy. Howard and Beverly are stuck with an obsessed scientist (played by Geoffrey Jones, one thing about the movie that hasn’t aged well) playing host to one of the nasty “Dark Lords of the Universe” who want to destroy this world. Of course I had already seen Halloween and The thing at this age. But I did it through my fingers as they were supposed to scare you to death – and I did. Ghostbustersmeanwhile it just seemed silly to me.
Howard the Duck managed to hit the sweet spot between hideous latex monsters with tentacles and fun adventure comedy. It was the kind of “scary” that an 11-year-old could enjoy without fear, and it showed me that horror movies can 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 off-putting it may be.
And now that the MCU is an established cinematic phenomenon and Howard is making an appearance the guardians of the galaxy movies, maybe we’ll finally get a sequel. Or at least I can get a new t-shirt.