I am not a Kevin Smith fan. Around the age of 11, I thought Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy were among the funniest films in the world. Shortly after, my testicles dropped. Along with them, the geeky, pothead sex humor that was Smith’s schtick also dropped from my perception of what constituted a watchable movie.
To this day I cannot watch those movies without grimacing, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Dogma only made a tired, pre-pubescent joke worse. Like many folks, I then completely gave up on Smith. That is, until Red State—his self-distirbuted horror / shoot ’em up tale inspired by the evils of the Westboro Baptist Church—came along.
It’s hard to write anything about Smith without bringing up the idea of maturity (or lack thereof). I mention this because while Smith hasn’t exactly reinvented himself through Red State (2011) and Tusk (2014)—his signature campy, dick-joke humor runs rampant throughout both—he has brought some fresh ideas to the horror genre at a time when every other movie is either an Exorcist rehashing or a remake.
Is this innovation a sign of maturity? Maybe, maybe not. But both films are undeniable measures of progress for a director whose dog and pony show had all but bit the dust.
It’s also worth mentioning that these movies come at a time when Smith is making a major career turn in the direction of horror (Tusk is the first in his slated Great White North trilogy; I can’t wait for 2016’s Moose Jaws). So here’s my two cents on Tusk, which I recommend to anyone who has ever been a fan of the director, or simply to fans of campy horror who may have been just as turned off by him in the past as I was.
Tusk is a very odd movie, so I’ll give it an odd comparison: It’s essentially one part Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and two parts The Human Centipede. Unfortunately, I can’t get too far into the particulars of this description. Even though the underlying premise is hinted at largely both in the title and in the film’s trailer, its climax relies on an underlying conceit that makes it of the “just go in blind and watch it” variety.
Here’s what I can tell you in order to see if this is your cup of tea:
Tusk introduces us to podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long, in his most memorable performance since Drag Me to Hell). Wallace runs a show called “The Not-See Party” along with his bud Teddy (Haley-Joel Osment, 15 years removed from The Sixth Sense and looking like a plump, diminutive Hobbit extra).
Wallace and Ted capitalize on the shame and misfortune of others. They’re exactly the kind of opportunistic media savages whom Joel Murray’s character Frank would have mowed down with an assault rifle in the brilliant black comedy God Bless America.
When the duo see a viral video of a dullard who mistakenly chopped off his leg with a samurai sword, Wallace travels to Canada, looking for a great freakshow interview. But things don’t quite pan out.
Stranded in Winnipeg, he’s about to call it quits and come home empty handed when he sees an ad in a bar bathroom that reads like a dinner invitation from The Most Interesting Man in the World.
He drives into the icy depths of Manitoba and eventually arrives at the house of the mysterious Howard Howe (Michael Parks, easily recognizable from a slew of Tarantino flicks). Shortly after, things go completely apeshit.
I know that I deviate from popular critical sentiment when I say that I thoroughly enjoyed the shit out of Tusk. And to Smith’s credit, I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it for all the same reasons that he had a blast making it, and for all the same reasons he knew a small niche of viewers would love it. As Smith said in an interview, “I just wanted to showcase Michael Parks in a fucked up story, where he could recite some Lewis Carroll and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to some poor motherfucker.”
That synopsis underlines the central gem in an imperfect film that is comprised of several great pieces, as well as a few scenes and ideas that would have been much better off left on the cutting-room floor. (Or simply written and directed by someone less self-indulgent than Smith.)
Michael Parks is phenomenal as Howe, the psychopathic wheelchair philosopher. A long scene in which Howe regales Wallace with stories of drinking with Hemingway in Normandy is easily the best sequence of dialogue Smith has ever written. Wallace’s every word is that of a noble, worldly seaman—if only that seaman were the lovechild of Hannibal Lecter and Dr. Moreau.
Furthermore, Kevin Smith writes a character in Howard Howe that is completely fleshed out. Even the greatest horror films too often leave us with questions as to who the villain really was, and from whence his darkest motives were borne. (In the case of Texas Chainsaw and Halloween, perhaps this was so we could get hit over the head with a never-ending shower of sequels). But in Tusk, everything is laid on the table—and the story of our villain is brilliantly constructed with thoughtfully researched and historically creative flair.
Other strong points in Tusk include special effects makeup that is both hilarious and also some of the most wonderfully gruesome creature-feature imagery since Slither. And Justin Long’s performance proves that after Drag Me to Hell and Jeepers Creepers, this guy was put on Earth to do one thing: play a hyperbolically snide, scared-shitless version of himself in horror movies.
As for drawbacks from this otherwise refreshingly innovative horror-comedy, Kevin Smith just kind of overdid it with his Kevin Smith-ness. There’s a 13-minute-long scene in which an A-lister makes a cameo as a stereotypically Canadian murder detective that adds absolutely nothing to the film other than the information that Kevin Smith is still able to hook an A-lister.
Not only is this character unnecessary, but his caricature-esque persona brings a level of over-the-top absurdity to the film that is too goofy even for Smith’s batshit premise. Another drawback would be that there’s a bunch of dick jokes and geeky humor that will most likely appeal to no one but diehard Kevin Smith fans.
All said, however, when you weigh the bilge versus the really great bits (the acting, Parks’ brilliant dialogue, a fresh horror story and great special effects), Tusk emerges as one of 2014’s best horror flicks.
Oh, and the usage of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” in a climactic scene? Brilliant.