Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: Tusk

Tusk was written and directed by Kevin Smith.

The film is a very disturbing mix of horror and dark comedy that has trouble settling on a tone. It's very reminiscent of Misery and The Human Centipede, with a pinch of Psycho thrown into the mix. If you're squeamish and not a fan of body horror, this isn't the movie for you.

The movie's origin comes dangerously close to being more interesting than the film itself. During one of Smith's "SModcasts," which he produces with his longtime friend Scott Mosier, he told of an ad he saw on Gumtree (sort of the British equivalent of craigslist). The ad was for an eccentric homeowner who was offering free room and board to a lodger willing to dress up in a walrus costume for two hours per day.

The ad turned out to be a hoax of course, but Smith and Mosier ran with it and in the course of their podcast created an entire horror film based on the concept. Smith then asked his Twitter followers to vote yes if they wanted him to make the film, or no if not. Apparently the ayes won out, and here we are. We can blame the internet for this one, I suppose.

I'm not a fan of Kevin Smith's work, as his brand of movie making is much too self indulgent for my tastes. Nowhere is that self indulgence more evident than in the end credits, in which we hear a snippet of the actual podcast in which Smith and Moiser come up with the plot. They're barely able to speak as they chortle and guffaw at their own cleverness.

Smith also seems completely enamored with his own overwrought and excessive dialog, as conversations between his characters tend to go on interminably. You're making movies, Kevin. You're supposed to show, not tell.

Oddly enough I liked Smith's previous film Red State quite a bit. It seemed to avoid most of the pitfalls and tropes of his earlier work.  For the first time it felt like he'd made a regular film rather than a Kevin Smith movie. I hoped that Tusk would benefit from the lessons he learned while making Red State, but it wasn't to be. Tusk starts out promisingly, but halfway through it falters and falls into the same old self indulgence ruts as his earlier work. 

The Plot:
Sleazy podcaster Wallace Bryton (played by Justin Long) travels to Canada in search of mockable material for his show. He's put in touch with an eccentric retired sailor named Howard Howe (played by the always excellent Michael Parks) and travels to his mansion to meet him. Howe is charming at first, but his chilling agenda is soon revealed.

Howe was shipwrecked for a time on a small island with a walrus as his only companion. He claims no friendship before or since has been as fulfilling as the one he had with "Mr. Tusk."

In order to relive his glory days with Mr. Tusk, Howe kidnaps Wallace and begins horrifically altering his body so he'll fit into a walrus costume he's sewn from human skin. The deformed Wallace is forced to wear the suit and act as a real walrus for Howe's amusement.

Wallace's girlfriend Ally, his podcast partner Teddy and a Canadian detective named Guy Lapointe (played by an uncredited Johnny Depp!) track Wallace to Howe's mansion, where events reach a gruesome and disturbing end.

• At the beginning of the film, Wallace and Teddy are watching a viral video of the Kill Bill Kid, a bumbling teen who swings a samurai sword and accidentally dismembers himself.

Obviously this is based on the Star Wars Kid video that first popped up way back in 2002. Timely!

• Speaking of timeliness, the film is chock full of Canadian jokes. You know, how Canadians are all overly polite, love hockey and say "aboot" instead of about? That sort of thing. This might have been mildly amusing twenty years ago, but now? They're covering some very, very well-worn ground.

• Is there a reason why the movie poster looks a lot like the one for The Nightmare Before Christmas? If it was intentional, I don't get the joke.

• The main character's name is "Wallace," and he's turned into a walrus. He also sports a cheesy looking mustache that's reminiscent of a walrus' whiskers. Com-O-Dee!

• On the way to Howe's mansion, Wallace encounters two snarky Canadian convenience store employees. The two teens are played by Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp, the daughters of Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp, respectively.

• Michael Parks stars as eccentric recluse Howard Howe, and as always he's absolutely hypnotic. You can't take your eyes off him. The initial meeting between Wallace and Howe is mesmerizing, as Howe starts out spinning colorful tales from his equally colorful life, but slowly and steadily descends into madness as his true intentions become clear. Smith's interminable dialog actually becomes an asset here when it's spoken by Parks. 

Parks also starred in Smith's Red State, playing a very Fred Phelps-like character. You may also remember him as Sheriff Earl McGraw in many of Quentin Tarantino's films.

• In order to transform Wallace, Howe drugs him and amputates his leg. When Wallace wakes up and demands answers, Howe spins an elaborate story of a brown recluse spider bite that necessitated the radical surgery.

During this scene, Howe is seen slowly and deliberately sharpening a long piece of bone. I didn't get it at first, but later realized he was actually carving Wallace's leg bone into a tusk to be used in his walrus suit. Yikes!

• Howe tells Wallace that he grew up as a Duplessis orphan, which amazingly was a real thing. 

In the early 20th century, Canadian orphanages were the responsibility of the provincial government, while mental institutions were wholly funded by the federal government. In order to save money and obtain federal funding, the Catholic Church relabeled their orphanages as mental institutions or sent their orphans to insane asylums. These Duplessis orphans were then quite often tortured and abused by fellow patients and staff alike.

Horrible, but I'm not sure it's justification for turning someone into a walrus.

• For some unfathomable reason, Howe leaves Wallace's cell phone on a table in the parlor (even though in an earlier scene he said it was accidentally stepped on and destroyed). Wallace gets ahold of it and manages to leave several frantic messages for help on Ally and Teddy's phones.

The two then begin a surprisingly sophisticated and methodical search for Wallace. I don't know if it was deliberate of just a coincidence, but this section of the film is very reminiscent of Alfred Hitchock's Psycho (except not as well done, of course), in which Lila Crane and Sam Loomis search for the missing Marion Crane, with the help of Detective Arbogast.

• Ally and Teddy contact eccentric Detective Guy Lapointe, who's devoted his life to capturing serial killer Howard Howe.

Despite the cutesy credits that assure us that Guy Lapointe stars as himself, he's actually played by Johnny Depp in heavy prosthetics (please excuse the poor quality photo; that's the best I could find). Unfortunately he gives Lapointe a ridiculous, over the top French-Canadian accent that would make Inspector Clouseau blush. It's a performance that makes Captain Jack Sparrow seem subtle.

I'm sure Depp was having the time of his life playing this role, but pity the poor audience that has to watch it. 

The Lapointe character seems like he wandered onto the set from a completely different film, and changes the entire tone of the movie. I assume his antics are supposed to be humorous, but they're just jarring, particularly when interspersed with the gruesome body horror scenes. 

Up to this point the film was a relatively competent combination of black comedy and disturbing horror. Depp's character sends it reeling straight into farce. He singlehandedly torpedoes the entire film.

I don't know if Smith just ate up Depp's performance and encouraged him to take it even further, or if he was afraid to try and reign in such an A-list actor. Whatever the reason, someone needed to tell Depp to tone it down a notch or twelve. Or better yet, edit him out of the film completely.

• Smith obviously realized that the main "turning a man into a walrus" story couldn't sustain an entire film, so he periodically splices in lengthy and talky flashback sequences. They do manage to pad out the runtime, but at the cost of the audiences' patience.

The most unnecessary of these flashbacks concerns Detective Lapointe's chance meeting with Howard Howe two years before the events of the film. It's a tour-de-force of scenery chewing, as the two actors try to out-overact one another with their outrageous accents.

The scene goes on far too long, does absolutely nothing to further the plot, and could easily be excised with no damage to the film whatsoever.

• After Wallace is abducted, we find out that his girlfriend Ally is having an affair with his best friend and co-host Teddy. Smith shoots these scenes in such a way that the identity of Ally's paramour is concealed for some time before finally revealing him. I honestly don't understand why he bothered to hide Teddy's identity as long as he did.

There're only five main characters in the film. Ally can't cheat on Wallace with himself, Howe's busy transforming Wallace, and she didn't meet LaPointe until after she started her affair. Teddy's the only other person in the movie! Who the hell else could she have been cheating with?

This reminds me of the time I wrote a detective story when I was around 13. I showed it to a friend and was dismayed when he immediately guessed the identity of the murderer. He said it wasn't tough to figure out– I only had three characters in my story. The victim, the detective and the suspect!

• Back when I saw the first Iron Man movie in the theater, I turned to my pal and said Black Sabbath's Iron Man would appear on the soundtrack at some point. How could the filmmakers resist such a thing?

I did the same thing here. I said we'd hear Fleetwood Mac's anthem Tusk before the film was over. And I wasn't disappointed. It was inevitable.

• Howe further mutilates Wallace's body, removing both his legs, grafting his upper arms to his torso and removing his tongue. He then sews Wallace into a grotesque walrus suit, made from the skin of his previous victims. Howe then demands that Wallace act like a walrus, so he can recreate the months he spent with Mr. Tusk. Yep, you read right. All that really happens. This probably wouldn't be a very good date movie.

• In the film's climax, Wallace savagely kills Howe with his tusks. We realize that he's not only become a walrus physically, but mentally as well. 

A year later Ally and Teddy visit an exotic animal sanctuary in Canada. Wallace is living in the sanctuary, still inside the walrus suit. He's now gone full walrus, and there's no coming back for him.

So... how the hell did this happen? How is he living in the sanctuary? How'd they approach the owner about this? Wallace is obviously not a real walrus. Don't you think the owner, not to mention the authorities, might have a problem with the idea of a mutilated man in a walrus suit sewn out of human skin being kept in a zoo? 

Apparently this ridiculous arrangement is none of our concern, as the film abruptly ends here.

• Kevin Smith recently announced that he intends Tusk to be the first part of a True North Trilogy. Part Two would be called Yoga-Hosers, and will feature the two aforementioned Convenience Store Girls in their own adventure (!), along with the entire cast of Tusk. Part Three of the trilogy would be titled Moose Jaws, and according to Smith, is "basically Jaws with a moose." 

The entire world waits with baited breath...

Tusk is a horrifying and disturbing film that can't seem to settle on a tone, as writer and director Kevin Smith reverts back to his old self indulgent ways. Michael Parks is worth watching as always, but Johnny Depp's over the top cameo torpedoes any sense of horror and dread the film may have had, and actually dragged down my score. I give it a C+.

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