In this regular series, a Wicked Horror writer presents an unpopular opinion about a particular genre offering and asks the oft-repeated question, “Is it just me?” In this installment, Joey Keogh argues why Tusk is a worthy modern example of body horror – in spite of its infamous director.
Kevin Smith, hero to fanboys and scourge of the critical community, proved with 2010’s ambitious, if flawed, Red State that he knew his way around a horror movie. With its follow-up, the strange, surreal and critically savaged Tusk, he undid a lot of that goodwill by, allegedly, giving in to his more basic instincts.
Devin Faraci of Birth Movies Death memorably headlined his review of the flick: “Another Piece Of Shit From Kevin Smith”. Elsewhere, critics claimed it was fitfully funny, but never scary, or fitfully scary but never funny. The general consensus was a resounding cry of ‘what the hell is this supposed to be?’ which isn’t entirely fair given the amount of crass, useless junk to which we’re subjected on a regular basis.
Tusk may not be The Fly, but it sure ain’t The Human Centipede 2/3 either. This is arguably Smith’s most personal film, locating the action as he does in the world of podcasting – a world he knows only too well (a certain SNL skit where a parody of the filmmaker screams out “Podcasts!” when asked what he’s addicted to springs to mind).
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Justin Long gives his most textured and nuanced performance to date as Wallace, an obnoxious, mustachioed, and ultimately doomed, lucky sod who’s managed to profit off the misery of others for years, alongside his more good-natured best friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment, all grown up).
The Kevin Smith ouevre tends to favour, if not outright celebrate, schlubby, feckless losers. Tusk turns the idea of these loveable idiots rising to the top on its head by establishing Wallace from the outset as a complete dick. And Long, in his first real asshole role, devours the character, clearly relishing the opportunity to play against type.
When he does fall victim to his captor (a devilishly horrible Michael Parks) we should be celebrating, but Long imbues Wallace with a kind of pathetic sadness that makes it difficult not to empathise with him. Naturally, it helps that the act of turning him into a walrus is particularly horrifying – and captured using gooey, gruey practical SFX.
As the diabolical, and clearly mad, Howard Howell, Parks is menacing, mental and, if not quite as brilliant as he was in Red State, just as committed – maybe even more so, considering what Smith asks of him here. He commits 100% to the role, particularly in the final act when Howell straps on a walrus costume himself for a battle of wits with his creation.
Witness the moment when, confronted with Wallace’s terrified moans across the table, Howell emulates him, humiliating his cries for mercy. Parks’s wild-eyed commitment to Smith’s creation is just as bizarre, and brilliant, as Howell’s final moments at the hands (or, rather, tusks) of his Wallace-rus.
The two performances at the centre of Tusk are striking in their intensity. Of the wider cast, only Genesis Rodriguez, as Wallace’s tortured girlfriend, falls short of the heights scaled by the rest. However, even though she doesn’t quite sell why this woman would stay with such a horrid man in the first place, Rodriguez is emotionally consistent, and spunky when she needs to be.
Arguably the weakest element of Smith’s film is his buddy, Johnny Depp’s, ill-advised cameo as a clichéd Québecois police officer. Monsieur La Pointe is a more convincing caricature than the dreadful prosthetics Depp was hidden under in Black Mass, and he does get at least one funny line, but the character feels misplaced and unnecessary given the otherwise strong comedic elements.
Tusk may not be up there with the classics of comedy horror, but it balances the two elements well. The typical Kevin Smith humour – all but eradicated, wisely, from the sombre Red State – here perfectly complements the visceral horror. And, with his humour intact, through Wallace, Teddy and their obnoxious podcast, Smith utilises his knowledge of that world and the nerds who populate it, to ground his fantastical story in reality.
However, Tusk is, first and foremost, a body horror movie, in which those elements work remarkably well, thanks to a terrifying Parks, terrific practical effects and a walrus costume that’s the subject of a pretty horrifying reveal (provided you haven’t laughed at it previously, out of context, on social media).
Smith, so often dismissed as a potty-mouthed juvenile whose central preoccupations are weed and dick and fart jokes, shows an innate understanding of genre movie conventions here. Although Tusk isn’t quite as accomplished as his stark, shocking Red State, and in spite of the flick being loaded with what some might call the typically obnoxious Smith humour, there’s no denying the writer-director knows his way around a scare.
This is some of Smith’s most inventive, and damn good-looking work, too. The way he captures the action is great – those wide shots of Wallace and Howell during their first interaction are gorgeous – and he takes more risks than even his fans would assume him capable of – think of that transition of Wallace getting a blow-job into waking up in a drugged-out stupor.
The palette changes according to which part of the story is being told, too; the comedic elements are presented in hyperactive technicolour, the horror using deep, dark browns and reds. For a movie whose premise came from a doped-up podcast stream, a hell of a lot of thought and care has gone into Tusk. One could reasonably argue it’s Smith’s most controlled, ambitious film to date.
In the end, the most shocking thing about this movie is that the idea of a man being turned into a walrus is one of the most disturbing, and well-realised ideas in body horror film history. And by Kevin Smith, no less. Or is it just me?