Reanimating Kevin Smith: Tusk furthers a new wave of bizarre, innovative horror

tusk movie
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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.

kevin smith mallrats jay and silent bob

This was hilarious… back when the word “poop” made me giggle

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 Churchcame along.

Red state John Goodman

John Goodman has some great lines in Red State.

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.

Kevin Smith dick

Kevin Smith reveals how he got famous…

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 (on DVD)
Tusk movie

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).

Tusk Haley Joel Osment

Insert “I see dead people” pun here…

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.

most interestin man, michael parks tusk

“I don’t usually star in Kevin Smith movies, but when I do, they’re surprisingly good.”

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.

brando island of dr. moreau

The 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which posed the weighty, primordial question, “What the fuck was Marlon Brando thinking?”

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 tableand the story of our villain is brilliantly constructed with thoughtfully researched and historically creative flair.

Michale Parks in Kevin Smith's Tusk

“I Think the real savage animals are the humans.”

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.

Justin Long Jeepers Creepers Darry

Dear Justin Long: You will always be Darry from Jeepers Creepers.

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.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 5.6

-Sam Adams

Best of the Bleak: Eighteen Top Lesser-Known Crime, Thriller and Horror Netflix Instant Titles from 2014

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Consider this post a witches’ brew. The contents started as a liquid composed of every crime, thriller and horror feature on Netflix Instant. Then I cranked up the heat and gave it a year-long simmer, meticulously skimming away the fat and nasty bits. After that, I spent the next three months tasting and testing till I finally had a small saucepan of the darkest, most delectable demi-glace. I then took that shit and poured it over the finest unicorn liver and paired it with a nice barrel of chianti. And now… Dinner is served, cabrones!

hannibal lecter drinking

Bon appétit!

Wait. Did you catch all that?

Essentially what I’m saying is that I spent a year combing through Reddit subthreads, countless hours watching every imaginable film and series on Netflix Instant, and three months writing about my favorite lesser-known titles (along with the help of my partner-in-crime, Adam Fox). I’ve now condensed all this research into a list of 18 of the best horror, crime and thriller features that you may have not seen on Netflix Instant.

Are a few things missing? Sure. No list is definitive, and that’s what next year is for. But consider this a damn good menu, with every item coming highly recommended by the chef himself.

Here’s the list, graded and alphabetically ordered, with titles linking back to our initial long-form posts:

MOVIES
headhunters

Blue Ruin
blue ruinBittersweet revenge. That’s what Dwight (Macon Blair), a dumpster-diving hobo, is after when he hears the man who killed his parents is getting out of prison. Blue Ruin delivers as one of the most beautifully shot, darkly comical and poignant films of 2013. If you liked Shotgun Stories or are simply a fan of revenge and vigilante justice flicks, look no further. B+/A-

Fish Tank
fish tankA charming Irishman enters the life of a teenage breakdancer who lives with her drunk mom and foul-mouthed sister in the slums of East London. Michael Fassbender (pre-Magneto fame) provides one of his best ever performances as a boozy savior who seems too good to be true. This film creates a riveting wave of suspense, despite being the only title on this list devoid of much action or overt violence. A-

God Bless America
God Bless AmericaIdiocracy and the 1970 hippie-slaughter-fest Joe meet Network in Bobact Goldthwait’s blacker-than-black satire on American media culture and narcissism. Bill Murray’s brother, Joel, is phenomenal as an everyman who finally hits his breaking point and goes on a monstrous killing spree… inspired by human compassion. B+/A-

Gomorrah
gomorrahFucking hell, this is a bleak one. Director Matteo Garrone takes a page from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s book and intertwines four slum tales, using the gang-ridden streets of Naples as his canvas. Ranked by A.O. Scott as the sixth-best film of 2008, I’d highly recommend this to fans of Amores Perros and City of GodB+

Headhunters
Nikolaj Coster-WaldauThis fast-paced Norwegian thriller tells the story of an art thief who gets in over his head by stealing from a special ops manhunter. Said manhunter is Game of Thrones‘  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who brings all his kingslaying charm to what is perhaps the most throughly entertaining movie I watched all year. A-

In Bruges
in brugesLike I said, “mostly lesser-known” titles. If you haven’t seen Martin McDonagh’s brilliantly wry flick about a pair of hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) holidaying in the “fucking fairytale” town of Bruges, consider this a must-watch. For those who have seen it, I cannot urge you strongly enough to seek out The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson as a Bad Lieutenant-esque Irish cop. (I’m quite eagerly anticipating director John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up, Calvary, which hits Netflix DVD queues on Jan. 6). A-

El Infierno
Joaquín CosioThe best lesser-known movie on Netflix Instant. Period. A Mexican man is deported back home from the States, only to find his nation in ruinous drug violence. So what does he do? Break bad and become a narco hitman, of course. Rarely is sociopolitical commentary as entertaining to watch as in director Luis Estrada’s masterpiece. My top recommendation on this list—which would explain why I wrote a fucking novella on it (see link). A

I Saw the Devil
i saw the devilI didn’t write about Oldboy because if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen it thirteen times. I Saw the Devil continues in the tradition of Park Chan-Wook’s gut-wrenchingly violent Vengeance Trilogy and is, with perhaps the exception of Oldboy, the best film made in the landscape of prolific gore-horror that is South Korean cinema. Alongside El Infierno and Tell No One, this rounds out my top three recommendations within this list. A-/A

Let the Right One In
let the right one inThis Swedish kiddie vampire tale makes Twilight look like Sesame Street. If for some reason you haven’t seen this, please do—it’s arguably one of the best horror movies ever made. A

The Man from Nowhere
the man from nowhere
At what what point do I just give up and dedicate my entire blog to South Korean revenge movies? That’s a question this grim story of a mysterious Asian Jason Bourne putting his life on the line to save a young girl brings to mind. While not quite as devastatingly sinister as The Vengeance Trilogy, director Lee Jeong-beom’s 2010 flick is every bit as good—and much more action-packed. B+/A-

Stake Land
stake landAside from Let the Right One In, it could be argued that this devilish, little vampire road movie is the best bloodsucker flick since Dusk Till Dawn. It’s basically a much smarter, more artfully crafted and fully realized version of The Walking Dead. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of vamps, do me a fucking favor and skip that hipster trash that hipster critics are raving about, Only Lovers Left Alive. I consider Jim Jarmusch a god among directors, but that was his most pretentious bit of bullshit ever. On a more upbeat note, keep an eye out for the Iranian flick A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which I nominate for best horror-film title of 2014. As for Stake Land… A-

Tell No One
tell-no-oneMichael Caine named this 2006 French mystery thriller as one of the top ten movies ever made. While I don’t fully agree, I also wouldn’t call that hyperbole. This story—about a doctor who uncovers a secret about his dead wife—somehow manages the task of being both one of the most beautiful love stories and most action-packed thrillers in recent memory. One of my top three picks on this list. A

The Taking of Deborah Logan
the taking of deborah loganThe found-footage genre finds new life in this jump-out-your-seat scary flick about a lady with Alzheimer’s who becomes possessed by demonic forces. While my smug, Masshole co-writer Adam Fox may disagree, I’d easily call this one of the best horror movies of 2014. B+/A-

You’re Next
You're nextAn Australian survivalist chick winds up at the dinner party from hell as a cast and crew of mumblecore jag-offs redeem themselves by creating one of the best slasher films in years. If there was any justice in this world, Dwight Twilley would win an Oscar for “Looking for the Magic”—which director Adam Wingard uses immaculately here.  B+/A-

SERIES
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Black Mirror
jessica brown findlay sings in black mirrorDid I just give a shout-out to Adam Fox? He’s the guy who’s been writing up Black Mirror for this here site. Charlie Brooker’s series of seven (so far) unrelated stories is a menacingly bleak futuristic take on technology, dystopia and human fallibility. So far we’ve posted on Fifteen Million Merits (B+), a glimpse of what happens when The Running Man meets American Idol in hell; and The National Anthem (A-), which deals with a British prime minister deciding whether he should follow through on a terrorist threat to fuck a pig.

Happy Valley
blogIf you haven’t watched Happy Valley yet, perhaps it’s for some of the same reasons that it took me so long to get around to it: The marquee image on Netflix displays an unknown, middle-aged actress in a British cop uniform. Meanwhile, there are several other British series plastered on the same page containing well-known actors in their prime, like Idris Elba, Cillian Murphy and Benedict Cumbertwat. So why should you choose Happy Valley, a show about a small-town detective who gets involved in a high-stakes kidnapping case? Let the record state that I am not comparing it to Breaking Bad… but it is the best show I’ve seen since the best show ever made ended. That’s why. A

The Fall: Season One
The FallThe Fall is perhaps one of the most intelligent cop shows on TV this side of True Detective, and now that Rust and Marty are out of the picture, Gillian Anderson’s lead as icy investigator Stella Gibson is perhaps the best character in the genre. The only downfall of this first season—which trails a sadistic Belfast serial killer—is that it left us with an asshole of a cliffhanger. Quit dicking around, BBC—deliver the goods! A-

Peaky Blinders: Season One
peaky blinders“When you walk through the garden…”. That was the line that Tom Waits opened episodes of The Wire with. “Take a little walk to the other side of the tracks” is the line Nick Cave opens Peaky Blinders with, and his “Red Right Hand” is the best intro song to any show since David Simon’s deservedly heralded series. There’s also a lot of other awesome shit happening here, like Cillian Murphy—as the leader of a Birmingham street gang—slashing people’s faces with razor-embedded scally caps. Blinders isn’t the most highbrow fare, but its first season is one of the most entertaining pieces of television I’ve seen in years. The second season falls a little short, but that’s another story for another time. A-

-Sam Adams

NOTE: A big year-end thanks to everyone who’s patronized this site, commented on it and given their support over the past three months. It means the fucking world. Also, a huge thanks to my man Adam Fox for helping me keep the ship afloat. We’ve got much more in store for 2015!