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11 Far Out Facts About Howard the Duck

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The first Marvel character to ever star in a feature-length film wasn’t Thor or Spider-Man, but a jaded, cigar-loving space duck named Howard. Who would think to put such a weird character onto the silver screen? None other than sci-fi visionary George Lucas. Released in 1986, Howard the Duck was roasted by critics and, domestically, didn’t even make half of its budget back. Since then, though, B-movie fans have flocked to the picture, and turned it into a genuine cult classic.   

1. JOHN LANDIS COULD’VE DIRECTED IT.

Howard the Duck began life as a surrealist comic book. Conceived by Marvel writer Steve Gerber, Howard made his debut in a 1973 issue of the Adventure into Fear series—and he came with a wild back story: Born in another dimension, the anthropomorphic bird ended up getting stranded on Earth, where he didn't exactly blend in. Throughout the 1970s, this odd duck would appear in many other comics—which is how he caught the eye of George Lucas, who decided to produce a movie about him.

Originally, Lucas wanted his friend John Landis in the director’s chair. A great comedic filmmaker, Landis had helmed Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places, but Landis turned down this particular project. “My greatest regret in my career is that John [Landis] was unable to direct Howard the Duck,” Lucas later said. “I feel the movie would have been far more successful and saved me the years of hardship following its release.”

2. GEORGE LUCAS WANTED THE FILM TO BE ANIMATED.

After Landis said no, Willard Huyck—who co-wrote the script with his wife, Gloria Katz—was tapped as the film's director. Production began in the mid-1980s. At first, Lucas and his screenwriters envisioned Howard the Duck as an animated movie. However, Universal Studios had other ideas. “We really wanted to animate it,” Katz said on the DVD’s making-of documentary, “but Universal needed a picture for [the summer of 1986].” Animation is, of course, a lengthy process and a hand-drawn film couldn’t have been made that quickly. “So, George said, ‘Well, we can build a duck. We can do it with the technology that we have,’” Katz recalled. 

3. MARTIN SHORT AND ROBIN WILLIAMS AUDITIONED FOR THE VOICE OF HOWARD.

John Cusack also tried out. Ultimately though, it was Broadway star Chip Zien (an original Into the Woods cast member) who delivered Howard’s lines. 

4. LEA THOMPSON TOOK GUITAR LESSONS DURING PRODUCTION. 

Both the movie and the comics gave Howard a human girlfriend. In the former, his non-avian love interest was played by Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson. Since her character, Beverly, leads a rock band, the actress had to brush up on her musical skills. “I had to learn how to play guitar,” she told Decider. “We shot the movie for six months and I never had a day off. I was always rehearsing, or recording, or doing something. I was so exhausted by the end.”

5. TIM ROBBINS THOUGHT THEY GOT THE DUCK ALL WRONG.

It's worth noting that Howard the Duck marked one of the earliest film appearances by future Oscar-winner Tim Robbins. Earlier this year, when asked if he looked back on the project with any fondness, Robbins replied, "Well, I look back at it and I realize that one of the things I think about was, at the time, I got this big job that was paying a really decent salary and it was for George Lucas, who had just come off three Star Wars films. So it was a huge deal at the time. And then it wound up going over its shooting schedule and I wound up getting paid twice for that movie because of all the overtime. So I think more about that than about the quality of the movie. [Laughs.] I think more about that allowing me [the] opportunity to do a movie like Five Corners and to produce great plays with The Actor’s Gang, because of the money I was able to take in on that movie."

But Robbins also contended that the movie could have been better—if the duck had been better. "I think one of the things that we realized at the time was—at least I did from the very first day—was that the duck was kind of miscast," he said. "We got the wrong duck to be in the movie. And I don’t mean the people that were inside the suit, I mean kind of the design and concept of who the character was. In the comic book it was this cigar-chomping, rude, skirt-chasing duck, and it got kind of cute-ified in the movie and when I saw that on the set ... I was worried. I was worried at the start."

6. THE HOWARD SUIT WAS INCREDIBLY COMPLEX.

Unlike most high-tech creature suits that had been built in the past, all of Howard’s wires, motors, and batteries were fully contained within his “body.” A four-puppeteer team was in charge of regulating facial expressions via remote control. Apparently, their individual jobs were quite specific. “One person was only concerned about the eyes … somebody would be doing the mouth and so forth,” Huyck explained. “It was a nightmare of coordination.”

7. THE DARK OVERLORD MONSTER WAS CREATED BY JURASSIC PARK’S “DINOSAUR SUPERVISOR.”

An accomplished stop-motion artist, Phil Tippett designed, constructed, and animated the grotesque final form of Howard the Duck’s main villain. (To see his beast in action, check out the clip above from the film’s climax.) Tippett also provided stop-motion monsters for the original RoboCop and Return of the Jedi. Years later, he played a huge role in bringing Jurassic Park’s massive digital creatures to life. Watch the end credits and you’ll see that Tippett is listed as a “Dinosaur Supervisor”—much to the Internet’s amusement.

8. UNIVERSAL SET UP A HOWARD THE DUCK HOTLINE.

In 1986, you could’ve called 1-900-410-DUCK and heard Zien promote the movie in character as Howard. Several pre-recorded messages were made—most of which involved rather terse conversations between the web-footed lead and his human co-stars. Sadly, that hotline no longer works (we checked), but the recordings have found their way to YouTube.

9. THE FILM LANDED ONE ACTOR A ROLE IN SPACEBALLS.

Chip Zien was the voice of Howard, but who was in the duck suit? Most of the time, it was actor Ed Gale. Initially hired as a stunt double, Gale was later asked to take over the role in almost every scene. On set, he became well acquainted with first assistant director Dan Kolsrud. After Howard waddled into theaters, the two reunited at a social function. There, Kolsrud introduced Gale to another associate of his: Spaceballs director Mel Brooks. On a DVD bonus feature, Gale says that “Mel was looking at him and looking at me and [asked] ‘How’d you two meet?’” When Kolsrud answered Brooks, the funnyman “stood up and said ‘Anybody who was in Howard the Duck can be in my movie.’” Just like that, Gale was cast as one of the Dinks in Spaceballs.  

10. AFTER THE MOVIE TANKED, THERE WAS A SHAKE-UP AT UNIVERSAL.

Howard the Duck grossed $16.2 million in the U.S. against a $37 million budget. Wave after wave of bad reviews certainly didn’t help. Critics widely panned the movie, which went on to make Siskel & Ebert’s “Worst of 1986” list. Then came Howard the Duck’s four Razzie Award wins, including a tie with Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon for “Worst Picture.” Needless to say, Universal wasn’t happy. Following Howard the Duck’s release, Frank Price—who chaired the studio motion picture group—resigned. When Variety covered this story, they ran the immortal headline “‘Duck’ Cooks Price’s Goose.”

11. IF HOWARD THE DUCK HAD BEEN A HIT, PIXAR MIGHT NOT EXIST.

For George Lucas, the utter failure of Howard the Duck couldn’t have come at a worse time. In 1986, he was still reeling from an expensive divorce and had plunged deeply into debt by building Skywalker Ranch, a scenic retreat with a $50 million price tag. He’d hoped that profits from Howard the Duck would improve his financial situation. Instead, its horrible box office performance forced Lucas to sell off some assets. At the time, he owned an up-and-coming computer animation division. With the aid of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, several employees in that department created a spinout corporation—together, they paid Lucas $10 million in the process. Nowadays, we know the resultant company as Pixar Animation Studios.

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Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
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15 Must-See Holiday Horror Movies
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

Families often use the holidays as an excuse to indulge in repeat viewings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Elf. But for a certain section of the population, the yuletide is all about horror. Although it didn’t truly emerge until the mid-1970s, “holiday horror” is a thriving subgenre that often combines comedy to tell stories of demented Saint Nicks and lethal gingerbread men. If you’ve never seen Santa slash someone, here are 15 movies to get you started.

1. THANKSKILLING (2009)

Most holiday horror movies concern Christmas, so ThanksKilling is a bit of an anomaly. Another reason it’s an anomaly? It opens in 1621, with an axe-wielding turkey murdering a topless pilgrim woman. The movie continues on to the present-day, where a group of college friends are terrorized by that same demon bird during Thanksgiving break. It’s pretty schlocky, but if Turkey Day-themed terror is your bag, make sure to check out the sequel: ThanksKilling 3. (No one really knows what happened to ThanksKilling 2.)

2. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)

Fittingly, the same man who brought us A Christmas Story also brought us its twisted cousin. Before Bob Clark co-wrote and directed the 1983 saga of Ralphie Parker, he helmed Black Christmas. It concerns a group of sorority sisters who are systematically picked off by a man who keeps making threatening phone calls to their house. Oh, and it all happens during the holidays. Black Christmas is often considered the godfather of holiday horror, but it was also pretty early on the slasher scene, too. It opened the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and beat Halloween by a full four years.

3. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)

This movie isn’t about Santa Claus himself going berserk and slaughtering a bunch of people. But it is about a troubled teen who does just that in a Santa suit. Billy Chapman starts Silent Night, Deadly Night as a happy little kid, only to witness a man dressed as St. Nick murder his parents in cold blood. Years later, after he has grown up and gotten a job at a toy store, he conducts a killing spree in his own red-and-white suit. The PTA and plenty of critics condemned the film for demonizing a kiddie icon, but it turned into a bona fide franchise with four sequels and a 2012 remake.

4. RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)

This Finnish flick dismantles Santa lore in truly bizarre fashion, and it’s not easy to explain in a quick plot summary. But Rare Exports involves a small community living at the base of Korvatunturi mountain, a major excavation project, a bunch of dead reindeer, and a creepy old naked dude who may or may not be Santa Claus. Thanks to its snowy backdrop, the movie scored some comparisons to The Thing, but the hero here isn’t some Kurt Russell clone with equally feathered hair. It’s a bunch of earnest kids and their skeptical dads, who all want to survive the holidays in one piece.

5. TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)

To All a Goodnight follows a by-now familiar recipe: Add a bunch of young women to one psycho dressed as Santa Claus and you get a healthy dose of murder and this 1980 slasher flick. Only this one takes place at a finishing school. So it’s fancier.

6. KRAMPUS (2015)

Although many Americans are blissfully unaware of him, Krampus has terrorized German-speaking kids for centuries. According to folklore, he’s a yuletide demon who punishes naughty children. (He’s also part-goat.) That’s some solid horror movie material, so naturally Krampus earned his own feature film. In the movie, he’s summoned because a large suburban family loses its Christmas cheer. That family has an Austrian grandma who had encounters with Krampus as a kid, so he returns to punish her descendants. He also animates one truly awful Jack-in-the-Box.

7. THE GINGERDEAD MAN (2005)

“Eat me, you punk b*tch!” That’s one of the many corny catchphrases spouted by the Gingerdead Man, an evil cookie possessed by the spirit of a convicted killer (played by Gary Busey). The lesson here, obviously, is to never bake.

8. JACK FROST (1997)

No, this isn’t the Michael Keaton snowman movie. It’s actually a holiday horror movie that beat that family film by a year. In this version, Jack Frost is a serial killer on death row who escapes prison and then, through a freak accident, becomes a snowman. He embarks on a murder spree that’s often played for laughs—for instance, the cops threaten him with hairdryers. But the comedy is pretty questionable in the infamous, and quite controversial, Shannon Elizabeth shower scene.

9. ELVES (1989)

Based on the tagline—“They’re not working for Santa anymore”—you’d assume this is your standard evil elves movie. But Elves weaves Nazis, bathtub electrocutions, and a solitary, super grotesque elf into its utterly absurd plot. Watch at your own risk.

10. SINT (2010)

The Dutch have their own take on Santa, and his name is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas travels to the Netherlands via steamship each year with his racist sidekick Zwarte Piet. But otherwise, he’s pretty similar to Santa. And if Santa can be evil, so can Sinterklaas. According to the backstory in Sint (or Saint), the townspeople burned their malevolent bishop alive on December 5, 1492. But Sinterklaas returns from the grave on that date whenever there’s a full moon to continue dropping bodies. In keeping with his olden origins, he rides around on a white horse wielding a golden staff … that he can use to murder you.

11. SANTA’S SLAY (2005)

Ever wonder where Santa came from? This horror-comedy claims he comes from the worst possible person: Satan. The devil’s kid lost a bet many years ago and had to pretend to be a jolly gift-giver. But now the terms of the bet are up and he’s out to act like a true demon. That includes killing Fran Drescher and James Caan, obviously.

12. ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (2015)

Another Santa slasher is on the loose in All Through the House, but the big mystery here is who it is. This villain dons a mask during his/her streak through suburbia—and, as the genre dictates, offs a bunch of promiscuous young couples along the way. The riddle is all tied up in the disappearance of a little girl, who vanished several years earlier.

13. CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

Several years before Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered protests for its anti-Kringle stance, Christmas Evil put a radicalized Santa at the center of its story. The movie’s protagonist, Harry Stadling, first starts to get weird thoughts in his head as a kid when he sees “Santa” (really his dad in the costume) groping his mom. Then, he becomes unhealthily obsessed with the holiday season, deludes himself into thinking he’s Santa, and goes on a rampage. The movie is mostly notable for its superfan John Waters, who lent commentary to the DVD and gave Christmas Evil some serious cult cred.

14. SANTA CLAWS (1996)

If you thought this was the holiday version of Pet Sematary, guess again. The culprit here isn’t a demon cat in a Santa hat, but a creepy next-door neighbor. Santa Claws stars B-movie icon Debbie Rochon as Raven Quinn, an actress going through a divorce right in the middle of the holidays. She needs some help caring for her two girls, so she seeks out Wayne, her neighbor who has an obsessive crush on her. He eventually snaps and dresses up as Santa Claus in a ski mask. Mayhem ensues.

15. NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1980)

Because the holidays aren’t over until everyone’s sung “Auld Lang Syne,” we can’t count out New Year’s Eve horror. In New Year’s Evil, lady rocker Blaze is hosting a live NYE show. Everything is going well, until a man calls in promising to kill at midnight. The cops write it off as a prank call, but soon, Blaze’s friends start dropping like flies. Just to tie it all together, the mysterious murderer refers to himself as … “EVIL.”

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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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