Kevin Smith dips into the horror genre with his most recent directorial outing. Tusk produces an odd but compelling effect, fusing Smith’s trademark style of comic dialogue with a unique twist on torture-horror. Justin Long is his rudely abrasive protagonist, one ill-fated to be kidnapped, tortured and transformed into a Walrus.
Ok, I know that it sounds ridiculous when you get to that last word… and ok, yes, it is ridiculous. Of course it is But still… it kind of works.
Justin Long plays Wallace Bryton, a podcast host chasing a follow-up story after featuring a video clip of an accident gone horribly wrong, only to find that the caller has since committed suicide. Temporarily stranded in the Canadian backwaters, he finds an interesting note on a local bar noticeboard which leads him to seek out its author Howard Howe, played by Michael Parks. Howe tells him an even more amazing tale, of being stranded on a frozen Alaskan island, with his only friend a walrus called Gregory. As Wallace’s girlfriend and his best friend search for him, Howe begins the agonising process of surgically transforming Wallace into a Walrus, as well as beginning his behavioural re-training.
Or it would be, if the comedy side of the film wasn’t keeping you off-balance throughout. Johnny Depp cameos as goofball French private detective Guy LaPointe, and seems to revel in making the role as outlandish as possible. Depp and Smith’s daughters also feature, sharing two scenes together ahead of their appearance in Yoga Hosers, the second of his planned True North Trilogy. The comedy scenes are all quite funny, but whether the directorial intent was just to dilute the tension of the torture scenes, or to leave the viewer in a midway state of horrified bemusement, I’m not sure. Either way, it still kind of works.
Although his own podcast work (from where the story idea came) and other projects have been successful, Kevin Smith’s reputation as a film director has suffered over the last decade. I love his debut film, Clerks. It was inspirational when it came out; a low budget, misanthropic indie film, driven by often caustic, always comic dialogue. Smith bolstered his reputation when he advanced beyond the stoner comedy antics of Mallrats to produce more dramatic, higher production value films like Chasing Amy and Dogma. His output became more erratic though. I do love Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and enjoyed the return of Randall in Clerks 2 but it was still just more fanboy movie fare. With Mallrats 2 in the making, it has left some of his dramatic output lacking.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Tusk is a return to form, as I don’t know if Smith will ever reproduce the levels of his early work, and it is unlike all of his other films. However, Tusk is a worthy and courageous addition to Smith’s filmography. It requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief but Smith builds the story well, with Justin Long’s Wallace as doomed as Psycho’s Marion Crane, but his fate is more hideous; from the Human Centipede end of the shock-horror spectrum. But it delivers. The mixture of comedy, grotesquery and outright horror is unsettlingly effective. It kind of works.
Possibly the most terrifying moment for me was when I first realised that Wallace’s best friend was none other than Haley Joel Osment. He’s gained some weight, is scruffily bearded and looks disconcertingly like Kevin Smith. So much so that I wondered what had happened to him in the years since AI. I wondered if, possibly, Smith had kidnapped him, adapting and transforming him over the years, into this strange Osment-Smith creature? Was the entire film merely an elaborate parody, an on-screen confession of Smith’s crimes against Osment? Because if you peer past the bulbous flesh and surgical augmentations covering him, you can just about see the little face of that boy from Sixth Sense at the centre of it, screaming in terror.