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rochefort [Celluloid 09.19.14] horror comedy thriller

“Tusk”, the new film by director Kevin Smith, is particularly notable for two reasons: One, it’s Smith’s first true horror feature, one that seems to exist outside of the “View Askewniverse” that includes a lot of his more well-known pics such as “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy”. And two, it’s a “mad scientist” movie without the scientist. Instead, the villain is just plain mad, and more often than not so is the movie. And while “Tusk” suffers from some of Smith’s usual self-indulgences, it’s still a very worthwhile watch; along with “Red State” (review), Smith’s Waco-inspired drama that saw him venture way out of his comfort zone and take some hefty risks, “Tusk” is often very good, occasionally even great.

Wallace (Justin Long) is one half of The Not-See Party, a snarky podcast that he hosts with his best friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment). Successful former geeks, Wallace and Teddy make a handsome living by offering up daily doses of the sort of pop culture commentary that will be familiar to pretty much anyone who has ever used the internet, and the money has turned Wallace into a self-absorbed jerk and alienated his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez). He travels from L.A. to Manitoba, Canada to interview a recent viral sensation (the “Kill Bill Kid”, inspired by the “Star Wars Kid”, and not nearly as funny), and during a pit stop spies an ad by a local shut-in named Howard Howe (Michael Parks), the ad promising “stories of adventure” in exchange for help around his mansion. Wallace answers the ad, hoping to ridicule the old kook for ratings, and instead finds Howe to be a cultured, well-read and often fascinating guy.

But it’s also clear that Howe is a damaged man, one who has been abused and disregarded most of his life, particularly evident when he relates the story of how he came to be shipwrecked in his teens on a remote island, his only companion a lone walrus. This was the happiest time of his life, he tells Wallace, the only time he felt truly safe and loved, and he’ll do anything to regain some semblance of that happiness. That’s when the drugs in Wallace’s tea take hold and knock him out; he wakes up to find that Howe has kidnapped him and is determined to transform him, as literally as possible, into a walrus, one who will serve as his kept companion.

We’ve seen this setup before, of course, in everything from Sssssss to The Human Centipede. But what elevates Smith’s take, and is frankly the main reason to see the movie, is Michael Parks, the renowned character actor whose 55-year career includes roles from “Gunsmoke” to “Kill Bill”. His Howe is the most compelling character by a long shot, at times a melancholy, poetry-quoting sage, at others calculating and even terrifying. Anyone who’s seen him in “Red State” knows the man knows how to command a scene, what with that leathery, timeworn face and his casual, wood-scraping drawl, and Smith wisely gives him carte blanche in one of the film’s two showiest roles.

The other belongs to Johnny Depp who plays Guy Lapointe, a Quebecker detective who helps Teddy and Ally hunt for their lost friend. Depp, almost completely hidden under over-the-top makeup and a shaggy hair and hat combo, fully commits to the accent and the weirdness, but his scenes are all fairly ridiculous, at odds with the balance of black comedy and body horror established early on once Parks enters the proceedings.

A flashback scene involving Depp and Parks features both actors hamming it up to the extent that the movie stops dead in its tracks. It’s consistent with Smith’s style, of course, one of a handful of slightly-overlong scenes that do little except show how much fun everybody must have been having on set, but they take a toll in the film’s second half and start to feel a bit like filler.

That said, I still have to admit that one of the reasons these scenes are frustrating is because I was itching to get back to the main plot and see what new horror Howe had devised for Wallace. So in the final analysis, I think “Tusk” is the kind of horror film that deserves a little more leeway than the usual fare. Smith is trying something really different here, and even though he doesn’t get everything right, he does make it interesting.

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