Bound by Flesh (2012)

The major shortcoming of Tod Browning’s Freaks is that its commitment to the horror genre ultimately requires it to betray its empathy for its “circus freak” performers. The majority of Freaks plays like a hangout comedy that just happens to be set in a circus full of amputees, little people, microcephalics, etc., an intentional plea to the audience to find the common humanity in the “ABNORMAL” & “UNWANTED” societal castoffs that work the film’s traveling sideshow. All of this work is undone at the climax when the titular “freaks” wordlessly creep up on & mutilate the physically abled erotic dancer who wrongs them, essentially playing the part of a Universal Monsters-style creature. Largely missing from the violence of this conclusion are the famed conjoined twins The Hilton Sisters. Daisy and Violet Hilton largely manage to escape the more nastily exploitative aspects of Freaks, only enjoying the benefits of its more empathetic opening half, but they weren’t so lucky in real life. From birth, the sisters were exploited for entertainment on public display, often suffering the worst side of show business without ever fully reaping its benefits. The documentary Bound by Flesh attempts to give The Hilton Sisters their full due with posthumous praise for their successes in sideshows, vaudeville, and Freaks, but unfortunately also falls short in fully honoring the value of their entertainment industry legacy in the way they deserved.

Leslie Zemeckis, longtime romantic & creative partner with “Mr. CGI” himself, Robert Zemeckis, has been quietly toiling away as a documentarian in recent years. She’s been directing a series lowkey profiles on long-forgotten female entertainers like burlesque dancers, tiger trainers, and of course, in Bound by Flesh, The Hilton Sisters. Even where her still-developing sense of craft as a filmmaker fails the legacy of her subjects, Zemeckis’s intent in glorifying the conjoined twin vaudeville singers is an unquestionably admirable effort. Essentially sold at birth to a pub owner, the twins were raised from day one to serve as entertaining curiosities for strangers & drunks. As babies, they were displayed for barroom patrons to prod in wonder at the flesh that connected them; their earliest memories were of being curiously touched by strangers for amusement. Their career was built from there, without their consent, by shuffling them from traveling road shows to amusement parks to wax museums as life-long entertainers. By the time they appeared in musical vaudeville acts as young adults, they had no real talent or skill besides being able to sing, dance, and play the piano & saxophone. They had plenty of peak-years struggles with crooked managers, sham marriages and constant emotional abuse, but the toughest times in their life didn’t start until they drifted away from the spotlight entirely and were left unprepared to function as autonomous adults in the real world, much less pull themselves out of financial ruin. Zemeckis does an okay enough job balancing enthusiasm for their onstage accomplishments with honesty about the abusive exploitation that fueled them, but the story being told is consistently more fascinating than its method of delivery. Bound by Flesh is a mediocre film about an incredibly fascinating subject.

One thing Bound by Flesh benefits greatly from is how well the Hiltons’ lives were documented in the public eye. Combining photographs with reel footage of their two motion picture appearances, Freaks & the (very) loosely autobiographical Chained for Life, finds plenty of visual stimulation to accompany its talking head accounts of the history of their lives in carnivals & vaudeville. One of the better side effects of those interviews is in getting a general glimpse of what 1920s carnival sideshows & vaudeville-era exploitation entertainment was like, even including footage of ancient amusement park attractions & attendees. I also appreciated the way its general look is informed by vintage promotional material for sideshow attractions. Much less effective is the employment of former Zemeckis collaborators Lea Thompson & Nancy Allen to vocally dramatize accounts from The Hilton Sisters’ point of view, as filtered through an old-timey gramaphone effect. The movie also disappoints in its lack of interest in the behind the camera war stories from the twins’ two feature film appearances, what they’re currently best know for, and in its gradual decline in enthusiasm when discussing their most tragic, post-fame years (for obvious reasons), despite stretching out coverage of that period of their lives as much as better-documented eras. If you can excuse the lackluster execution in some of the technical details, however, Bound by Flesh is a welcome exalting of a pair of performers who spent their entire lives on the wrong end of exploitation entertainment. There might be a better movie to be made about their lives as empathy-worthy tragedy, like the way David Lynch lovingly profiled John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Either way, Zemeckis’s documentary is worthy enough for the way it draws attention to the often-dehumanized Hilton Sisters and the ugly industry that displayed them as oddities for profit and then dumped them into obscurity with no resources but the limited use of their vaudevillian talents.

-Brandon Ledet

Howard the Duck (1986)

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“In a land of a lot of flops, it’s kind of awesome to be in a really famous flop. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s kind of a poster child for flops. A lot of iconoclasts really love that movie. They love to love something that everyone hates. And those are my kind of folks. I’m happy to be part of that club of people who don’t want to be told what’s horrible and just want to enjoy it anyway. Howard the Duck has a lot of fans, and usually when they come up to me, I just think they’re the coolest. Because it takes a lot of strength, a lot of perseverance to love Howard the Duck. [Laughs.]” – Lea Thompson, star of Howard the Duck

There are a lot of great reasons to love a movie, any movie, that have nothing to do with establishing yourself as an iconoclast or Lea Thompson thinking you’re “the coolest” (not that those aren’t great consolation prizes). Ebert’s musings on cinema as a “machine that generates empathy” is a great go-to quote for starters, but I don’t think it exactly covers all of what makes a great film great art. For instance, I don’t necessarily love Howard the Duck because it makes me empathize with a cigar-chomping, beer-swilling duck from outer space or the human woman who wants to fuck him. Instead, I believe the infamous George Lucas-produced flop touches on one of cinema’s other distinguishing qualities as a unique art form: improbability. There’s an almost transgressive absurdity to the idea that this film reached theaters in the form that it did. So many collaborators touched this expensive, unlikely work and it took on a weird energy all of its own in the process. Howard the Duck isn’t Guernica or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but it is a visually distinct, almost hauntingly memorable mess of artistic expression, at the very least notable for the specificity of its improbable ineptitude. Lea Thompson may have been a little off the mark in the above quote by suggesting the movie deserves love merely to buck its criticism or to establish contrarian cool points, but I do believe she’s right that it takes a certain strength & perseverance to hold onto that love in the face of its overwhelmingly negative reputation. I also believe that loving certain catastrophic missteps like these (and I mean genuine love, not its ironic cousin), films like 1993’s Super Mario Bros & Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles franchise, means loving something essential about film as an artistic medium. The worst thing a movie can be is unmemorable. Howard the Duck typifies a type of “bad movie” that’s anything but unmemorable, an outlier of improbable absurdity that only the film industry could deem worthy for public display in thousands of movie theaters (the most modern of art galleries) across the world.

Part of the reason Howard the Duck is such a great exemplifier of the “bad” movie as modern art is that so much of its DNA matches its cultural reputation. Both the film & its Marvel Comics source material depict an anthropomorphic duck transported from an alternate dimension against his will to a world that’s less than hospitable to him as an obvious outsider who’ll never quite fit in. In the comics’ words, he “trapped in a world he never made.” This is partly why he finds a kindred spirit with Beverly, played by Lea Thompson in the movie, who is socially & financially unable to find her place in a heartless patriarchy that only values her . . . assets as an art school model (or, in the film, a rock star babe) and not her talents or personality. The movie itself has become an out of place outcast in a hostile world and its slow-growing cult audience has become a sort of real-world surrogate for Bev in the way it finds love for something everyone else seems to hate. Howard’s comic book creator, Steve Gerber, used the duck’s misfit existential crisis as a device for griping about a modern world the artist found distasteful, critiquing social ills like a corrupt political system or violent children’s entertainment and filtering those critiques through outlandish comic book villains like Pro-Rata, the cosmic accountant, who lives in an enormous tower made of credit cards. Although the movie does feature a similar over the top villain in The Dark Overlord of the Universe, it also softens the property’s tendencies towards biting social satire in favor of some bullshit Marty McFly 80s cool & George Lucas-specific action “comedy,” the exact kind of Poochie-flavored marketing Howard would’ve despised in the comics. However, the film does maintain a critical eye against unwarranted hostility in the modern world in a way that feels very true to its source material and it’s amusingly appropriate that the citizens of Earth have treated Howard the Duck the movie with just as much of that vitriol as the way they treated Howard the Duck the character in the comics.

A large part of what people tend to hate about Howard the Duck is its inconsistent tone, which is a problem apparent as soon as its opening four minutes spent on Howard’s home planet, Duckworld. This movie was a produced in the early, lawless, Wild West days of the PG rating, which allows for a surprising amount of sexual content to seep into its childlike humor. In the first few minutes we spend getting accustomed to Duckworld’s anthropomorphic duck citizens (before the opening credits, mind you), we’re treated to two (!!!) shots of topless duck women’s exaggerated humanoid breasts (once in a bathtub and once in a Playduck Magazine centerfold). The clash of adult sensibility with kids’ movie visuals continues later when Lea Thompson infamously climbs into bed with Howard wearing only lingerie and a hungry smile, threatening to instigate the world’s most uncomfortable love scene (although I could argue that her character in Back to the Future’s seductive threat is even worse) as well as a moment where she finds a tiny, duck-sized condom in his wallet. (Thankfully, no mention is made of how terrifying real life duck dicks are.) In the comics Howard & Bev’s romance is played as odd, but harmless. Faced with the realities of its imagery in the movie is a different matter entirely. It’s hilariously wrong at best, an effect the film’s writer-directors Willard Huyk & Gloria Katz entirely intended, according to their interviews on the “A Look Back” featurette included on the film’s first DVD release in 2008. Howard the Duck looks & feels like a kids’ picture, but its hero is a sexual being whose appetite knows no special bounds. He’s also an animatronic puppet who will humorously hit hicks with cream pies in one scene & threaten to stab record company creeps in the face with an ice pick in the next, a wide range of tones that makes for a singularly memorable, terrifying experience, especially if you catch it at a formative age.

In the fool’s mission of trying to make sense of Howard the Duck’s tonal mishmash, it’s easy to lose track of exactly how striking its visual palette can be. Try for a second not to get hung up on the idea that this talking duck children’s film features a biker gang called “Satan’s Sluts,” a hedonistic bathhouse orgy, and a hideous space demon with a Doom monster torso & a scorpion’s lower body (more on that in a moment) and you just might find some interesting production design in those details. The violent new wave punks’ wardrobe features some incredible touches, like a leather jacket adorned with plastic babydoll faces. The aforementioned bathhouse is lit like an early Bava or Argento giallo picture. The scorpion demon from outer space is a perfect marriage of classic Ray Harryhausen stop motion technique with some nightmarish HR Giger flourish. Howard himself, although disturbingly uncanny, is a feat of practical effects animatronics. As a historical object of cinematic past, I’d argue that his design is actually quite beautiful. Jeffrey Jones’s Dark Overlord of the Universe, an all-powerful demon from beyond the planets who eventually turns into the aforementioned scorpion beast & is undoubtedly the film’s most overlooked secret weapon, is a masterclass in cinematic villainy, running the full gamut from Star Wars Empower Force-lightning to Cronenbergian body horror to self-conflicted Golem psychosis. There’s even some early-in-the-runtime outer space mysticism, which I’m always a sucker for in any film, regardless of quality. The only time Howard the Duck becomes genuinely boring is when it abandons its typical Reagan-era grit – with its drugs, punks, violence, and homelessness – for George Lucas’s usual mode of 30s & 40s action “comedy” chases which are just about as lifeless as they are in Spielberg’s 1941. At the very least, though, those scenes serve to contrast & heighten the absurd unlikelihood of the film’s very existence as a completed product and even in the worst of the film’s third act doldrums it’s difficult to take your eye off Howard’s unthinkable face, which has a Max Headroom kind of unnerving quality to it, one that makes you just as horrified by the duck’s presence as the fictionalized citizens of Earth who reject him at every turn.

Thirty years after Howard the Duck’s release it’s difficult to find much praise for what the film accomplishes. It’s occasionally covered by schlock cinema critical outlets like My Year of Flops or How Did this Get Made?, but without any hint of adoration or fanfare, if not with an open, unapologetic hostility. Even the film’s initial DVD release, supposedly willed into existence by a growing cult fanbase, could only muster the faint praise that it’s “one of the most talked about movies of all time” in its jacket copy. The only instance I can think of where Howard receives any kind of reverence or adoration is an post-credits gag in Guardians of the Galaxy where the character appears (in a much less visually interesting CG rendering) solely to troll the audience with the mere idea of his return to the big screen. Despite being the very first Marvel property to earn a feature film adaptation (and a surprisingly faithful one at that, lifting some dialogue directly from the page), Howard the Duck holds a lowly 15% score on the Tomatometer & is widely considered to be “one of the worst films of all time.” If it has a wide cult following its devotees are just about as silent as fans of pro wrestling or Nickelback. As strangely misshapen as the film can be, I believe it deserves better than that and its best chance for a path to a better reputation would be for more people to respect it for its basic improbability. This film was initially pitched as an animated feature, but was instead rushed into production due to studio pressure & morphed into a live action film where little person actors man animatronic duck puppets. It opens with a duck traveling through outer space against philosophical musings about infinite dimensions where “all is real and all is illusion,” yet ends in the same generic industrial space that concludes all 80s action plots. It indulges in generic 80s garbage pop, but finds unlikely collaborators in respected musicians Thomas Dolby & George Clinton. The dialogue is sublimely corny, with its references to “space rabies” & Quack-Fu, but is sold competently by in-on-the-joke actors like an incredibly game Jeffrey Jones (who really does put on one of his most memorable performances here) and future Oscar winner Tim Robbins, (who, appropriately enough, is dressed like Thomas Dolby in the film).

Much like its self-loathing “wisequacker” protagonist, Howard the Duck is a “strange fowl in an even stranger land.” Its mere existence points to a cinema-specific ability to bring strange, improbable art to a mass audience, whether or not that audience appreciates it. In fact, its complete lack of a positive reception only adds to its idiosyncratic charm in the way it mirrors the mallard-out-of-water hostility of the source material’s narrative. The film has objective faults, sure. It could have been shorter, better paced, more tonally consistent, etc. What’s more interesting to me are the ways its stands out from other films with the same problems. Its practical effects techniques, however dated, carve out their own, unforgettably bizarre space of visual distinction. Its duck/human sexual tension is a brilliantly uncomfortable mode of (again, intentional) audience trolling. Its attempts to shoehorn in George Lucas’s aggressively wholesome aesthetic of radio serial adventure epics into its modern era cynicism is beyond bizarre. Its space demon villain is a genuinely breathtaking work of movie magic evil in a film generally considered to be technically inept. This movie should likely not exist in its completed form and it’s that exact, eccentric crime against good taste & basic logic that makes it such a memorable oddity, a quality often overlooked in a quest to catalog its many, improbable faults. There’s never been a better time to reconsider Hoard the Duck’s charms a go-for-broke cinematic misstep. On its thirty year anniversary, the film is benefiting from some fine wine time capsule qualities that can only come with age. Its comic book source material is currently experience one of its all-time best runs with Chip Zdarsky’s neo noir take on the property over at Marvel. There’s always a chance that Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn will continue to Trojan horse the wisequacker into future MCU properties, so it’s probably best to be aware of his cinematic past. Besides, falling in love with Howard the Duck will have Lea Thompson thinking you’re “the coolest.” And if none of that is enough to convince you that the film is at the very least interesting as a cultural relic, if not lovable as a cinematic outlier, then I believe Thompson’s Bev put it best: “Howard may be a duck, but you people are animals!”

-Brandon Ledet