By Shane M. Dallmann
The year’s biggest surprise almost completely eluded me… I had no chance to see TUSK on opening weekend and by the time I finally DID catch it it was only to see it vanish from local theatres. If you’re in my neck of the woods, you still have a chance to catch it in San Jose. Others may be luckier.
Why “biggest surprise?” Because not once has it ever occurred to me that Kevin Smith had it in him to make the most powerful horror film of 2014… or any year. And that’s not a knock on Smith in the slightest. I knew he was an offbeat comedy filmmaker and a comic book geek, but I quite simply never got the impression that he had any interest in making a horror film of his own. And while TUSK certainly has more than its share of eccentric characters, this is by no means a “Jay and Silent Bob” excursion…
So. Podcasters Wallace (Justin Long) and Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) are enjoying huge success with their “Not-See Party” program, dedicated to the humiliation of everyone who’s ever embarrassed themselves (or worse) for the Internet to see. Wallace decides he’s going to boost ratings even higher with a trip to Canada and an actual interview with a young man (inspired by the “Star Wars Kid”) who accidentally mutilated himself on camera. Long story short, Wallace finds himself with an interview space to fill and almost no time in which to fill it, so he acts on impulse (Long really should have learned his lesson from JEEPERS CREEPERS) and isolates himself in the middle of nowhere for the opportunity to be regaled by one Howard Howe (Michael Parks); an eccentric, wheelchair bound recluse with a mansion full of curious artifiacts AND a truly fascinating supply of amazing stories to tell. Said stories range from his shipboard friendship with Ernest Hemingway to his fateful relationship with a noble walrus to whom he refers as “Mr. Tusk.” (Don’t laugh. You’ll be sorry if you do.) Wallace can’t believe his luck–he’s got the best interview subject EVER. But Howard, of course, CAN believe his luck. He’s got Wallace exactly where he wants him because he laid his trap perfectly.
How to go on? It would be grossly unfair of me to detail any more of this, but I absolutely must talk about some spoilable aspects of the film. So… I’m going to save those comments for an isolated section AFTER the review. You really ought to take TUSK at full strength and without preparation. No, the film is not “perfect,” but even its apparent flaws are provocative. Was the easily-accessible cell phone a gigantic mistake or did Howard WANT something to happen with it? Why are we spending SO much time on all sorts of colorful supporting characters (not just Teddy and Wallace’s tormented girlfriend Ally, played by Genesis Rodriguez)? And where can you possibly go AFTER Smith delivers the most shocking “reveal” moment in recent horror history (I’m not kidding one little bit about this)?
Well, Smith finds a way and keeps you in great company even when you’re screaming for him to “get on with it.” In the best example, Teddy and Ally enlist the services of an extremely eccentric (but NOT stupid) French detective by the name of Guy Lapointe (the actor is named for the character himself, but if you think you recognize him under another name, well, yes). And Guy relates a flashback regarding the time he believes he encountered the elusive villain face to face… the scene goes on “forever,” but you can’t take your eyes off of Michael Parks in particular–if you’ve only seen him as the lawman in numerous Tarantino/Rodriguez films, you will be completely unprepared for his amazing performance in TUSK.
And no matter how weird, quirky (yes, a certain Fleetwood Mac hit is invoked at just the right moment), or (okay) SLOW the film may seem at times, nothing will completely erase the impact of what Smith has already hit you with; nor will you be let off the emotional hook by the time the credits roll. Far from it.
Do whatever it takes to see TUSK. THEN read my spoilers.
Okay, here’s what I REALLY want to say. Yes, the setup echoes MISERY, but it goes back much further. There’s SSSSSSS, there’s the classic NIGHT GALLERY short “Marmalade Wine,” and above all? Well, this is THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE as written by Ernest Hemingway. But it’s better than THC. Now, don’t get me wrong. THC took one of the most potent gross-out concepts ever imagined and played it to the hilt, sealing the deal with the amazing Dieter Laser as an unforgettably batso bad guy. It “works,” all right. But TUSK has a better story and a much better array of characters all around. Can you imagine Laser passing himself off as someone you would absolutely WANT to spend quality time with? Didn’t think so. Parks is every bit the expert in his role and then some. I’ve already mentioned the oddities of the supporting cast (equally well chosen)… but if the Wallace character is in any way a reflection on Kevin Smith the podcaster himself? I don’t think I’ve seen a more effective display of devastating self-loathing set to film. You’ll be thinking about this for a VERY long time after you see it.