It is rare to find a horror-comedy that goes beyond the inane parody of horror clichés to deliver both genuine laughs and gruesome thrills. Kevin Smith’s Tusk succeeds on both fronts, although noticeably more with the former than the latter. Unlike many preceding horror-comedies, which waver awkwardly between uninspired humor and corny horror tropes, Tusk seamlessly blends the two at their most extreme, occasionally even allowing them to exist simultaneously on screen. The result is a film of astounding bizarreness that will undoubtedly be elevated to the coveted status of cult classic.
The film follows Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), a comedy podcaster with a malicious sense of humor, who travels to Canada to exploit the latest victim of unwanted viral fame: “The Kill Bill Kid.” However, his exploitative interview plans fall through, and he is stuck, without a lead, in Canada (the film contains no shortage of Canada jokes). Lo and behold, he stumbles across a flyer from a retired seafarer promising fascinating stories, along with room-and-board. Like a moth to a flame, Wallace travels to the mysterious address and arrives at the elegant mansion of refined gentleman Howard Howe (Michael Parks). After hours of captivating storytelling, Wallace is unwittingly drugged and kidnapped by Mr. Howe, who plans to surgically transform Wallace into…a walrus. As it turns out, Mr. Howe is actually a psychopathic serial killer who kidnaps and surgically transforms men into walruses. The second half of the film becomes a race against the clock as Wallace’s girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and his podcasting partner Teddy (an unrecognizable Haley Joel Osment) try to find Wallace before he “goes full walrus.”
That being said, the first half of the film is a genuinely fascinating exercise in horror-comedy filmmaking, thanks largely to Michael Parks’ deliriously unhinged performance as serial killer Howard Howe. It is difficult to keep from both laughing and cringing when Howe screams at a terrified Wallace “You will be a walrus or you will be nothing at all!” We knew Parks had a knack for madness after his role as a deranged fundamentalist preacher in Kevin Smith’s previous film, Red State (2011), but he brings the insanity to a completely new level in Tusk, and it is nothing if not completely captivating.
Buried beneath the walrus-centric lunacy, the film is also an homage to the art of storytelling itself, and the way stories can be distorted to manipulate and deceive. This theme is reflected not only in Howe’s deceptive promise of a story, but also in the way that Smith constructs the film. With flashbacks throughout revealing more about Wallace’s character, Smith manipulates how much the audience sympathizes with Wallace as he undergoes his tortuous transformation. These, along with several other unusual choices (such as two extended monologues in which the character, in a single long take, speaks directly into the camera) give the film a self-reflexive quality, reminding the audience that they themselves are being manipulated by a skilled storyteller.
All of this being said, your final opinion of Tusk will only really depend on one thing: how you react to seeing Wallace after his walrus transformation is complete. Considering that the walrus costume is the least scary thing I have ever seen, it is here where the film departs from the chilling horror of the first half and devolves into a ludicrous stoner comedy. That’s not to say the second half is without its merits. It is here, for instance, where we meet the eccentric, French-Canadian inspector Guy Lapointe (played by a very special actor in an uncredited guest role), who may be the single funniest character of the year. However, there is a noticeable shift in tone, one that may leave true horror fans dissatisfied with the end result.
So although there is some rather disturbing content, the film could more aptly be described as an absurd comedy with elements of genuine horror scattered throughout. While the overall tone does switch from a dark, unnerving apprehensiveness in the first half to an outrageous, over-the-top absurdity, this does not seem to be a defect of the film, but rather a means of creating a truly original and memorable dark comedy. As one would expect from a Kevin Smith movie, the dialogue is sharp, the script is clever, and a majority of the jokes land flawlessly. If nothing else, the film shows that horror can manifest itself at any moment, and in the most bizarre and grotesque ways imaginable. Even in Canada.