When you’re as big a horror fan as I am, you feel like you’ve seen everything. There are occasional moments of brilliance, pockets of something special, but often they tend to look to the greats of the past as opposed to something genuinely original. Well, with his long-awaited step into the horror genre, beloved indie filmmaker Kevin Smith may have done just that. Never one to do anything half-arsed, he pushes the throttle with his latest film ‘Tusk’, built around a premise that is... the last thing you would expect.
Podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) runs a cult-hit podcast with his best friend Teddy Craft (Hayley Joel Osment), where he travels around the country looking for weird and unusual things and recounts them to Teddy. When a story in Canada comes to a dead end, Wallace responds to an advertisement in a bar offering interesting stories and free board with an old disabled gentleman. Desperate, Wallace responds and comes to the house of Howard Howe (Michael Parks), an eccentric and extensively travelled old man who dazzles Wallace with his stories. But Howard isn’t what as he appears, and Wallace suddenly finds himself in a horrific nightmare and subjected to a... "transformative" experience.
Kevin Smith’s films are usually pretty hit-and-miss, disjointedly swinging between genres mid-film without much success. At his best however, Smith has found ways to spin his pop culture magic and craft into something truly original, like he did with ‘Dogma’ (1999). ‘Tusk’ falls very much into the latter category. At first, we’re introduced to a protagonist that is totally unlikeable, and we await with glee the moments when the tables turn on him. The first act is pretty conventional and familiar, but as with any great horror film, this is all part of the manipulation. When Howard’s plan is laid out for us, it is so bizarre and horrific that you can only look in shock and awe at what Wallace has inflicted upon him. Smith demonstrates once again his sharp ability with dialogue, though his humour sometimes falls flat in comparison to the darker, more carefully crafted moments. Amidst the crassness, there’s an unexpected sophistication to the film, especially in its moments of incredible monologue from Michael Parkes as Howe. It also looks terrific, cinematographer James Laxton opting for a more classical look rather than the adrenaline-fuelled music video-style mayhem we’ve come to expect from modern horror films.
It’s pretty common to walk out of a horror film these days feeling cheated, that it all wasn’t that bad. That isn’t the case with ‘Tusk’. The combination of dense and terrifying psychology, and disgustingly graphic prosthetic work create moments so shocking and unexpected that you can’t even look away. The premise itself is completely ridiculous and you expect Smith to chicken out early on, that he can’t possibly go all the way with this, before he plunges head-first into absolute horror without apology. ‘Tusk’ is graphic but not gratuitous, and it’s a credit to Smith’s skill and commitment to the psychological horror of the film that he never goes for cheap shocks or gags. But be warned, ‘Tusk’ will get you right down in your guts. This one doesn’t take prisoners.
Initially, Justin Long is pretty irritating as Wallace, but once the tone of the film begins to shift, you start to realise that was actually the point and that Long has been doing a sterling job this whole time. The second half of the film leaves him in a position as a reactionary character, but it's to his credit and to the advantage of the film that he does it with such conviction. Then again, it’s hard to image anyone not reacting honestly to the brutal force of Michael Parkes’ performance as Howard Howe. Parkes is absolutely extraordinary as one of the strangest villains you will ever meet, delivering a nuanced and detailed performance full of fury and horror. I’ve always enjoyed Parkes in his bit-parts in genre films, but this is something else entirely. If there was any one reason to see ‘Tusk’, it would just be for Parkes' performance. They’re supported well by Hayley Joel Osment as Teddy and Genesis Rodriguez as Wallace’s put-upon girlfriend Ally. There’s also a great comic performance from Guy Lapointe. He isn’t a particularly well-known actor, but one that has popped up in a few great films and a face you’ll recognise, rounding out a terrific cast.
‘Tusk’ will get you right down in your guts. This one doesn’t take prisoners.
Be warned: when it comes to stomach-churning, surreal and psychological body horror, ‘Tusk’ is the real deal. It may have trouble handling its quickly changing tones and comic moments, but when it works, it really works, especially in those flashes where it grabs you by the throat and drags you into the abyss. Don’t watch any trailers or read anything on the internet lest you ruin the surprises, because they’re simply too good. Trust me, you haven’t see anything like this before.