Tusk (2014)

When Kevin Smith, purveyor of dick and fart jokes, announced his first foray into horror, fans were understandably aghast – what does this overgrown man-child know about our beloved genre? As it turned out, a hell of a lot, Red State proving to be a smart, slow-burning and ultimately very frightening exercise in narrative tension, with its finger firmly on the pulse of what’s scary about Middle America.

Smith’s follow-up, Tusk, is a different beast entirely – it’d have to be, the premise deals with a man being turned into a walrus. A horror comedy of sorts, it’s part Clerks, part The Human Centipede, rammed with throwaway Canada jokes (the Quik Stop is Eh To Zed, and they sell massive drinks called Chug Eh Lugs), alongside some truly shocking visuals that could be judged by laughs or scares, depending on personal preference.

Justin Long plays against type as smarmy, moustachioed podcast presenter Wallace who, alongside his best buddy (Haley Joel Osment), fronts a comedy troupe called the Not See Party (geddit?), who make fun of internet fools for sport, and, it transpires, huge chunks of cash. Whereas Osment’s Teddy is a kind-hearted, soft sort, fame has changed Wallace for the worse and, in a lengthy speech to his long-suffering girlfriend (the stupidly pretty Genesis Rodriguez) he reveals that he prefers it that way.

Upon being stranded in the Great White North (“I don’t wanna die in Canada!”), Wallace happens upon a handwritten notice, from local Howard Howell (played by Smith’s personal favourite, Michael Parks), an ex-seafarer who has a tale to tell. Foolishly, Wallace jumps at the chance to visit this stranger’s house in the middle of nowhere and, after some chitchat, finds himself drugged, captured and amputated. It’s then up to his poor friends to locate and rescue him before he is turned into an animal, as Howell attempts to answer the oft-wondered question “Is man indeed a walrus at heart?”

It goes without saying, Tusk is not for everyone. Plagued by distribution issues and savaged at the box office, it has thus far received mixed reviews. Of course, Smith is laughing all the way to the bank as the flick has already financed the much-anticipated Clerks 3. Many scoff at the notion that the premise was dreamed up during a particularly weed-influenced Smodcast session (Smith’s hugely successful, and long-running, podcast with friend and producer Scott Mosier).

However, as surreal and bizarre as it is, the end product belies such humble beginnings.

Tusk is the best-looking Kevin Smith film to date, with sweeping, expansive shots taking in the vast wilderness, juxtaposed against tight, claustrophobic close-ups of Long’s tortured face as he struggles to comprehend what’s happening to him. In one particularly clever segue, the shot bleeds from Wallace getting head from his girlfriend to waking up drugged and strapped to a chair.

His initial conversations with Howell are given room to breathe, also, the two captured mostly static, against the backdrop of a roaring fire as Parks rattles off Smith’s snappy dialogue as only he can. He isn’t quite as suited to Howell as he was the villainous Pastor Cooper, in Red State, but he takes to the role with aplomb, equal parts evil genius and hammy looper.

Long is the best he’s ever been, in a challenging role for which he must be an empathetic asshole. Flashbacks reveal his true character, but it’s difficult to hate him when he’s being amputated and sewn into a realistic walrus skin-suit. Speaking of which, although many detractors have drooled over how rubbish it apparently looks, regardless of how convincing it is, the thing is a latex dream (or, rather, nightmare) and the idea of being stuck in it is stomach-churning.

Long drools constantly while inside, horrible, guttural screams emitting from his choked throat (his tongue has been cut out, of course) as his still-recognisable eyes search for understanding from the insane Howell, who frolics in the water with him as though he’s a pet. Tusk’s most disturbing moments occur when Howell is alone with his creation, forcing him to eat raw fish and swim around for his amusement. Although this is when the film goes kind-of Centipede, it’s unsettling in its own, special kind of way.

As for THAT cameo, it’ll either make you smile knowingly or retch. The actor in question does seem to be having fun with it, and he has some great lines, but whether it’s an on-the-nose representation of a French-Canadian homicide detective, or simply an attempt to shock the audience into submission, is debatable. It fits within the narrative, for the most part, and, funnily enough, it also leads to a denouement that is both rational and oddly poignant, given what’s come before.

The first instalment in Smith’s “True North” trilogy – completed by Yoga Hosers, starring his kid and Johnny Depp’s (both of whom feature as bored clerks in Tusk) and Moose Jaws, which he describes as “Jaws with a moose” – is a disjointed beginning. Less shocking and involving than Red State, but smarter and more inventive than most of Smith’s back catalogue, it’s either going to rile you up or leave you totally flummoxed. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing remains to be seen.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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