Tusk is a bit of a mess. But this is what you get from an idea born on writer-director (podcaster) Kevin Smith’s SModcast and molded from both conversations had there and by fan input. It’s an uneven horror-comedy that could have easily worked had it not been for the strained humor that takes control of the narrative halfway through. Balancing horror and comedy is hard, as history has proven, but Smith has an especially difficult time here. Tusk works best when it’s embracing its outlandish nature and the uneasy laughs that derive from the terrifying notion of a man being transformed into a walrus. On that alone, Smith sails uncharted, exciting waters career-wise. However, he steers the film back around into more familiar territory that will no doubt please fans of his podcast and his earlier films but will disappoint those looking for him deliver a tonally consistent horror film.
This is a more successful fright outing than the director’s previous crack at the genre, Red State. The first 30 minutes or so of Tusk charts a strong set-up involving Justin Long’s Wallace, a guy who is enjoying a successful career as a podcaster with partner Teddy (Haley Joel Osment). Leaving his girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) behind while he goes on assignment in Canada, Wallace chases a hot lead for an upcoming episode. He answers a classified ad posted by an older man, Howard (Michael Parks), who merely wants to tell someone about his adventures. Howard has a darker agenda, however, one that involves surgically transforming Wallace into an animal, sating Howard’s desire to have a walrus companion.
Their initial encounter is appropriately tense. When Howard dominates Wallace’s body and sanity, Tusk achieves heightened levels madness. Parks – always a remarkable, fascinating actor – hits all of the right creepy beats and Long, sporting one commendable mustache, embodies the cocky, ambitious podcaster persona quite well. Rodriguez is charming as his girlfriend who is concerned with what fame has done to Wallace and Osment is pretty darn funny. Until Tusk‘s “big reveal” it’s a weird, fun movie that partially fulfills its promise to go off the deep end into a very, very dark place.
But then fucking Johnny Depp shows up.
And that’s not a spoiler, so don’t take to the comment boards to scream at me. His involvement has been known about since Tarantino passed on the roll Depp took on. He’s not credited. Instead, his character “Guy Lapointe” is credited as well…Guy Lapointe. The actor is buried beneath a ton of makeup and he tackles the role as if he’s in an old Jack Lemmon comedy. It’s ridiculous and it forces Rodriguez and Osment to play the straight men. His energy sucks all dread, all danger and any uncomfortable feeling you may have had right out of the film.
Lapointe’s presence represents Tusk‘s second personality. This isn’t the face of a movie the deftly injects shades of humor throughout the horror like the first half, it’s the face that turns its back on the horror of it all entirely and simply wants to become a comedy with a cartoonish character leading the way through an investigation with glaring gaps in logic. Hell, even the story asks for Parks to deliver an admittedly amusing comedic turn. But like everything involving Lapointe, it runs on way, way too long. By the time the film finds its footing back in the world of the insane with walrus Wallace (“Mr. Tusk”), the perception of the film has changed. It’s all comedy. And that’s too damn unfortunate.
Robert Kurtzman and his effects team do some killer work on the walrus suit and makeup and kudos to Long for throwing himself at it with sorrow and primal rage.
Tusk is a movie for Smith die-hards only. I think those who are not so horror-savvy will get into it mostly because of its zany premise, whether they roll with it or not is completely unknown. Personally, I just wish Smith had broken fully outside of his comfort zone and went for it, because there’s something there.
Tusk opens in select theaters Friday, September 19th.