It’s unreal to think it’s been twenty years since indie comedy classic Clerks surfaced. To this day, it remains in my top five comedies of all time. Since then I’ve been a fan of its Writer/Director Kevin Smith. In 2011, Smith branched off unexpectedly into uncharted territories with Red State, a fast, tense, unpredictable crime horror/thriller hybrid about a religious cult. It’s criticized for its schizophrenic nature, a quality that actually worked for me. It was exciting to see a filmmaker predominantly known for clever yet crass, lowbrow comedies to take such a sharp turn, career-wise. Cut to three years later and Smith is back and bolder than ever with Tusk, a darkly comedic horror flick about a podcaster (Justin Long) on assignment in Manitoba, Canada only to be abducted by his eccentric subject matter (Michael Parks) who’s determined to surgically turn him into a walrus.
At first glance, Tusk sounds similar to The Human Centipede and while it shares similarities synopsis-wise, both films couldn’t be any more different. For starters, Tusk manages to be more accessible yet far more balls out than that cult phenomena. Smith starts the film off from the get-go on a fun, likable note by establishing his familiar brand of humor. Assisting him immensely is the always likable presence of Justin Long, who’s every bit the comedic talent as his director. The real fireworks begin when he encounters the insane Howard Howe, played to perfection by the genius that is Michael Parks. Their scenes together are an absolute delight. What starts off hilariously off the wall eventually descends to even weirder, unfathomable depths where Smith really begins to take the viewer into uncomfortable places. Tusk goes exactly where it promises to go…and beyond. Thankfully Smith sticks to practical make-up effects (except for one atrocious CGI shot very early on). They work far more convincingly than I would have ever imagined. Gruesome stuff.
Smith finds that sweet spot where the viewer laugh’s out loud at the sight of truly outrageous, disturbing imagery without ever descending into self-parody. Tautness is felt at every turn. Long gets to showcase his impressive abilities in the dramatic department, having us feel for him despite his character flaws. Words can’t even begin to describe how brilliant Parks is here. Yes, he’s memorable in everything he does but like the best thespians, he has the ability to still surprise us. The character of Howe is one of the most original cinematic antagonists to date. This could very well be Parks’ finest hour and that’s no small achievement. Everything up to this point is absolutely stellar, unlike anything we’ve ever seen from Smith. While the Tusk is hysterical, it’s uncomfortably so. The horror and the comedy of the situation play out hand in hand without one undermining the other.
Unfortunately that’s until Tusk derails when a certain movie star suddenly pops up, playing “Manhunter” Guy LaPointe. Side-note: If you don’t already know the identity of the actor, I highly recommend you avoid finding out before you see the film. I have nothing against the quirky performance by Guy LaPointe (credited as playing himself). He provides a chunk of laughs. My issue is he overstays his welcome and should have strictly been a cameo. His scenery-chewing comes at the expense of what came before, as well as robbing attention from the strong support work of Genesis Rodriguez and Haley Joel Osment (welcome back), who should have been front and center from this point onward. Both of these characters are left underdeveloped which is a shame because I would have loved the interesting relationship between all of the protagonists to be explored more fully. Things are hinted upon but are sadly thrown to the curb at this juncture. LaPointe’s effect on the tone of the picture is downright toxic. It’s as if the viewer somehow detoured into a different film altogether. It seems as if Smith just allowed the actor to ad-lib and indulge into a character skit unrelated to the subject itself.
It’s hard not to feel like Smith somehow didn’t trust his ability at sustaining the horror element and decided to fall back into his comfort zone. The tone shifts completely to comedy mode from this point onward, killing the well-earned tension out of the equation. As a result, the third act fails to resonate. To make matters worse, Smith incorporates visual devices such as 70’s style zooms during the climax that are totally played for laughs, in a scene where the stakes should be high. While this stuff may be enjoyable (the audience responded enthusiastically), it ultimately pushed away my previous investment in the material.
Despite my reservations I had with the second half, I have no qualms in recommending Tusk. It’s thoroughly entertaining. The latest installment in the new chapter of Smith’s career is fearless to say the least. I can’t think of any other filmmaker that’s reinvented himself in such a striking manner. Tusk is as gleefully nutty and unsettling of a genre picture as we’ll likely get this year and possibly for some time to come. I just wish Smith kept his foot on the pedal instead of retreating back to his shtick with the LaPointe character. Oh well. Flaws and all, Tusk is one bizarre, unique and genuinely effective horror film. There are definitely images here that you’ll never unsee. Quite the achievement considering Kevin Smith is a comedy guy first and foremost.