Tag Archives: Tim Robbins

CAPSULE: HOWARD THE DUCK (1986)

DIRECTED BY: Willard Huyck

FEATURING: Ed Gale, Lea Thompson, , , Liz Sagal, Holly Robinson, Chip Zien

PLOT: Loosely based on the Marvel comic book series, Howard is accidentally transported from his home planet of Duckworld to Cleveland, where he meets rock singer Beverly (Thompson); while trying to get  back home, his machinations inadvertently send an intergalactic monster to Ohio.

Still from Howard the Duck (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s creepy, overblown and leadenly unfunny, but not really all that weird, except maybe for the “romance” between Howard and Beverly.

COMMENTS: Hollywood history is littered with legendary critical and box office disasters that really aren’t as bad as their reputations suggest, like Cleopatra, 1941, and Ishtar. On the other hand, there’s Howard the Duck, which truly is as godawful as everyone said it was back in 1986. The movie’s best moments come right at the beginning, when we see Howard on his home planet reading “Playduck” in front of a poster for “My Little Chickadee”. (The ornithological puns are as amusing as the picture ever gets). But once Howard lands on Earth, flirting with Thompson and befriending Robbins, the flick completely falls to pieces, culminating in a riot of stop-motion effects (courtesy of Phil Tippett) which are impressively elaborate, yet fake-looking and alarmingly grotesque. Howard himself resembles a Disney Audio-Animatronic possessed by an evil spirit.

Today, it would all be CGI, of course, but CGI couldn’t fix this script. The film was a $40 million debacle that almost ruined Thompson and Jones, who were coming off hits Back to the Future and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, respectively. Infamously produced by George Lucas, this was his biggest mistake until Jar Jar Binks. One odd thing about the film: the theme song, written by Thomas Dolby and George Clinton, is an ear-worm that adamantly refuses to get out of one’s head.

The 2016 “Special Edition” Blu-ray features some 40 minutes of extras imported from the 2009 DVD, along with 11 minutes of featurettes from 1986. These include two trailers from the original release, plus a “News Featurette” and three short documentaries about the film’s stunts, special effects and music. From 2016 comes a twenty-six minute look at the film’s pre-production and shooting, and a 13-minute short examining the movie’s post-production, release, disastrous reception and “legacy”. That legacy includes Howard’s post-credits appearance in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Howard the Duck was, believe it or not, the first Marvel comic book character to appear in a feature film. Don’t be surprised if Howard receives a big-budget “reboot” one of these days.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “A hopeless mess… a gargantuan production which produces a gargantuan headache.”–Leonard Maltin (contemporaneous)

11. JACOB’S LADDER (1990)

“Something weird is going on here.  What is it about us?  Even in ‘Nam it was always weird.  Are we all crazy or something?” –line in original screenplay to Jacob’s Ladder

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Adrian Lyne

FEATURING: , Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello

PLOT:  Jacob Singer (nicknamed “Professor” by his army buddies due to his glasses and Ph.D.) is wounded in Vietnam after a harrowing, disorienting battle.  While he is on duty in Vietnam, his young son dies; years later, he works in New York City as a postman and has a sexy new girlfriend, Jezzie.  Jacob begins suffering flashbacks of the day he was wounded, along with hallucinations in which everyday people take on demonic forms—catching brief glimpses of tails, horns, and howling faces with blank features—and eventually discovers that the other members of his unit are experiencing similar symptoms.

jacobs_ladder

BACKGROUND:

  • The script for Jacob’s Ladder shuffled between Hollywood desks for years, impressing executives but not being viewed as a marketable project.  The script was cited by American Film Magazine as one of the best unproduced screenplays.
  • Before he asked to direct Jacob’s Ladder, British director Adrian Lyne was best known for sexy, edgy, and profitable projects such as Flashdance (1983), 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) and Fatal Attraction (1987).
  • Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who later wrote Ghost [1990] and other commercial properties) says that his script was partly influenced by The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
  • Adrian Lyne states that some of the hellish visual cues in the film, including the whirring and vibrating head effect, were inspired by the woks of grotesque painter Francis Bacon.
  • Lyne deleted scenes and changed the ending after test audiences found the film to be too intense.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  A blurred, whirring human head which shakes uncontrollably from side to side at tremendous speed, seen several times throughout the film.  The effect looks mechanical, as if the head were an unbalanced ball attached to an out-of-control hydraulic neck.  It was achieved by filming an actor casually shaking his head from side to side at four frames per second, which produced a terrifying effect when played back at the standard twenty-four frames per second.  The technique has been imitated in movies, video games, music videos, and even a porno flick since, but has never since been used to such fearsome effect.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Like many psychological thrillers, Jacob’s Ladder strives to keep the audience disoriented and off-balance, wondering what is real and what is false. The movie achieves this effect wonderfully, but what gives it it’s cachet as a weird movie are two intense hallucination sequences: one at an horrifically orgiastic party intermittently lit by a strobe light, and one where the protagonist lies helpless on a hospital gurney as he’s wheeled down an increasingly bizarre and alarming hospital corridor. Both scenes are difficult to forget, equal parts creepy surrealism and visceral body-horror.

Original Trailer for Jacob’s Ladder

COMMENTS: I can’t watch Jacob’s Ladder without comparing it to Alan Parker’s Angel Heart.   The similarities are obvious: both were psychological thrillers with supernatural Continue reading 11. JACOB’S LADDER (1990)