One might say that Howard the Duck is one of the most (unfairly) maligned films of the 1980s. As something of a Duckologist myself, I’d like to point out that the film is definitely stranger and funnier than you probably remember.
So why was it such a bomb?
Well, its flirtation with beastiality aside, I think one of the main reasons Howard the Duck flopped when it was released back on August 1, 1986, was that the marketing campaign was terrible.
Let’s take a look…
The first look audiences were given of the film is this bizarre teaser in which Lea Thompson’s Beverly Switzler character coos about wanting to fornicate with a waterfowl. By judging the movie on this footage alone, you’d be forgiven if you thought that Howard the Duck was an especially kinky teen comedy. As they proved with their previous script for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, director Williard Hyuck and producer Gloria Katz were huge fans of wild tonal shifts in their work. For the second Indy adventure, the levity worked given that the film featured hearts being forcibly extracted from chests.
But seeing how Howard the Duck is, above all else, a comedy, it is especially jarring when things get bleak (i.e. the Dark Overlord brutally executes a state trooper). Couple this with the almost sex scene between Beverly and Howard, and you’ve got a marketing nightmare on your hands. And so Universal tried to pitch the flick as a wild comedic adventure for the whole family with the full trailer:
Wauuuugh! Okay, so it shouldn’t have to be said, but if the star of your movie is a 3-foot-tall duck, maybe don’t introduce him to the world by sleazily stating that his primary interests are “cigars and sex.” (Unless your film is actively courting the fetish/furry subculture).
As a hodgepodge of so many genres, Howard the Duck was a tough sell to say the least. Making matters worse is the appearance of Howard himself. During the production of the film, many ulcers were spawned by fears that audiences wouldn’t pay money to see a film whose lead was a person in a duck suit. Therefore, the decision was made to hold back the appearance of Howard as long as possible.
So now the marketing team had another issue to contend with: figuring out how to sell the film without being able to show Howard. Their solution to this dilemma? By focusing on his attitude instead of his appearance. Thus, the Duck Calls phone line was born.
During the summer of 1986, you could dial 1-900-410-DUCK and listen to Howard tell you about the movie, its characters and his adventures on Earth. Some of these calls featured “conversations” between Howard and his co-stars that had the duck interacting with movie dialogue a la the novelty songs of Dickie Goodman. The puns featured in these ads are beyond painful, and Chip Zien, the voice of Howard, seems outwardly hostile to callers. Every day leading up to the film’s release a new recording was featured on the hotline…all of them equally terrible.
Being a Howard the Duck superfan back in 1986, I would have lost my mind had I known I could call Howard and have him berate me for for $1.99 a minute. Alas, I didn’t even know the phoneline existed until a few years ago when someone was nice/demented enough to upload all of the calls to YouTube.
Believe it or not, this wasn’t the oddest way Universal tried to market the film. That dubious honor goes to a promotional tie-in with Budweiser in which the King of Beers was named as Howard’s drink of choice on a special movie poster that was apparently a big hit with beer distributors and second run movie theaters on Skid Row. Sheesh.
Then there was the soundtrack. A huge part of Howard the Duck‘s enduring appeal is Thomas Dolby’s soundtrack to the film. From the great new wave of “Hunger City” to the low-rent Prince stylings of “Don’t Turn Away” and the genuine earworm that is the title track, the music of the movie has earned its own cult following over the years.
But did you realize there was actually a music video made for the “Howard the Duck” theme song?
Once again, Universal’s hesitance to show off their lead is on display. Oddly enough, this clip was released around the same time that the film hit theaters, making their unwillingness to spotlight Howard even more confusing. By this time, the duck was out of the bag as it were, so why not just embrace his goofiness? Howard’s loss was Tim Robbins’ gain, as the future Oscar winner gets some valuable mugging time in front of the cameras here.
Universal’s lack of confidence in Howard the Duck also resulted in there not being much merchandise based on the film. Other than the aforementioned soundtrack, a line of Topps trading cards, a candy dispenser, and some books — including Ellis Weiner’s smart novelization of the flick — there wasn’t much for Howard’s few fans to puchase in the summer of 1986. Even from Marvel Comics, who crapped out an awful adaptation of the flick and a new, Steve Gerber-less, issue in which, irony alert, Howard finds himself coping with his new fame. (Note to Funko/Super 7: Can you right a wrong and please do a Howard the Duck Re-Action Figures line?)
So here we are, over 30 years later and Howard the Duck is suddenly a viable property again. Whether his appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy and the wider MCU (he even has an animated series of his own on the way) is just some quick fan service or a harbinger of a redemption that is yet to come, it is most welcome to have him back. Hopefully the powers that be will treat him better this time around…
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