Tusk Movie Review
Written by Ted McCarthy
In my review of The Guest just a few weeks ago, I talked about Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett stepping off the beaten bloody path of horror films. Tusk is a fitting film for a follow-up review then, as it comes to us from the decidedly non-horror director Kevin Smith (excuse me, I mean @ThatKevinSmith, as his promos now credit him). The dick joke auteur has mad respect in the low-budget indie world with movies like Clerks (“Thirty-seven?!”) and Chasing Amy, two of my all-time favorite comedies. However, he’s probably one of the last filmmakers you’d expect to churn out a decent horror movie, since the closest he’s come is in Chasing Amy where he parodies Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss’ shark bite comparison in Jaws with an exchange about cunnilingus.
Smith supposedly tried his hand at horror a few years ago with the much-maligned Red State. While the film isn’t as horrible as many claim, it ended up being much more of a shoot ‘em up action thriller, and its gross mismarketing as a horror film (even worse, as a slasher) led to Smith using up a lot of the good will he’d amassed with his raunchy comedies. One bit of admirable credit I’ll give to him on a personal level, though, is that he’s never tried to portray himself as anything more than the chubby, offensively crass but strangely likeable slacker-stoner that he is.
All of which leads to this new movie, Tusk. While the fact that the movie grew from a laugh-filled podcast episode discussion (on Smith’s SModcast with his friend Scott Mosier) doesn’t inspire much confidence, it is definitely more of a straight-up horror film than Red State, and might be the most bizarre movie you don’t see this year (judging by current box office returns).
Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), along with his goofy friend Teddy (played by Haley Joel “Holy Shit It’s The Sixth Sense Kid” Osment), co-hosts the “Not-See Party” podcast, an enormously successful internet radio show where they watch and riff on popular viral videos. One such video of a teen severing his leg with a samurai sword leads Wallace on trip up to Canada for an interview. Upon his arrival, Wallace learns the kid is no longer available, and so he decides to wander the town looking for a replacement. In a bar restroom he comes across an ad for a room by a man who claims to have a lifetime of wondrous stories to tell. This leads him to Howard Howe (Red State’s Michael Parks), an old wheelchair-bound man who welcomes Wallace and sets out to tell a remarkable story about a walrus that saved his life when he was stranded at sea as a young man. Soon after drinking some spiked tea, however, Wallace finds himself tied up and part of Howard’s plan to recreate his experience by transforming Wallace into a grotesque man-animal hybrid.
The first thing that jumps to mind is that this is Smith’s attempt at a Human Centipede-type body horror film, and for the most part it seems to be. It’s not quite as outrageous or disgusting as Tom Six’s films about people sewn ass-to-mouth (although that premise seems ripe for a Smith monologue about three-way analingus gone wrong – Kevin, if you read this, feel free to run with that in Clerks IV), it’s still very disturbing when we see Wallace’s gradual and bloody transformation. The final realization of Howard’s plan, too, is truly cringe-worthy, and will likely have you saying the words, “What the fuck?” out loud.
A ghastly hook like that will only get you so far, though, and once the novelty of the gimmick dulls, so will the film itself, lest you have something else to keep it interesting (the Human Centipede films did not). Here, Smith has gotten two good actors to give two great lead performances. I didn’t really care for Justin Long until his bit role in Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and he’s since grown on me both as a comedic and dramatic actor. As Wallace, he taps into both, going from philandering douchebag in the first act to terrified victim in the second. He’s overshadowed, to no one’s surprise, by Michael Parks as the crazy Howard Howe. While Red State isn’t a very good movie, Parks did give a beyond-amazing performance in it, and it’s a shame it wasn’t more widely recognized. He acts in a similar vein here, oozing menace even while speaking softly and eloquently. He delivers long passages of dialogue as well or better than almost any “classical” actor I can think of, and I am glad he gets this kind of work.
While there’s a standout A-list performer that shows up halfway through the film, I won’t name them here. That said, the film loses steam any time Long and Parks aren’t on screen together. It was interesting to see Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) back in a movie, and Genesis Rodriguez is okay as Wallace’s smoking hot and worried girlfriend. But unfortunately they just don’t have enough material to work with to be anything other than two-dimensional throwaways.
It’s not quite as entertaining as I’d hoped, and gets a little too ridiculous in the finale (even for its already outrageous premise). But it has enough genuinely disturbing moments to qualify it as a horror film, along with some really solid lead performances and a few decent laughs. While it’s probably destined for “cult classic” status, it’s worth a once-and-done watch and is good enough that it deserves a little more attention than it’s getting now.