Review: Tusk (2014)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #743

Number of Views: One
Release Date: September 19, 2014
Sub-Genre: Horror/Comedy
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $3,000,000
Box Office: $1,900,000
Running Time: 101 minutes
Director: Kevin Smith
Producers: William D. Johnson, Sam Englebardt, Shannon McIntosh, David Greathouse
Screenplay: Kevin Smith
Based on SModcast #259: The Walrus & the Carpenter by Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier
Special Effects: Robert Kurtzman
Cinematography: James Laxton
Score: Christopher Drake
Editing: Kevin Smith
Studios: Demarest Films, SModcast Pictures
Distributor: A24
Stars: Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Génesis Rodríguez, Johnny Depp, Harley Morenstein, Ralph Garman, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, Harley Quinn Smith, Lily-Rose Depp, Ashley Greene, Douglas Banks, Matthew Shively

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] The Beatles “I Am The Walrus”

[2] The Robert Shaw Chorale “Beautiful Dreamer”

[3] Fleetwood Mac “Tusk”

[4] Lily-Rose Depp & Harley Quinn Smith “O Canada”

[5] Gerard Way “The Water Is Wide”

Here’s one that may tickle your whiskers. The film I am about to appraise was inspired by an online classified ad posted on Gumtree. In it, a man went to great depths to explain how he spent three long years marooned on a desert island with only an approachable walrus to shoot the shit with. Hardly the most conventional of companionships I know, but apparently, said walrus was a better sidekick than any human he’d ever known.

Thus his search was for a tenant who’d be willing to dress up in a walrus costume in exchange for free room and board. I can almost see the ad now – “I’m a fun active guy who likes to hang about in aquariums. My friends say I’m a tank half-full kind of person, at least the friends in my head. Looking for someone to dress up like a marine mammal for my own sick amusement and recite Lewis Carroll to. Blubber provided upon successful application. P.S. Must love clams”. The goofy thing is that there are some whacked-out folk out there and everyone’s a fetishist behind closed doors. Alas this personal ad turned out to be nothing more than a hoax, although by that point, the seed of a harebrained scheme had already been planted.

Enter everyone’s favorite geek with chic, Kevin Smith, who along with close buddy Scott Mosier, made this tall tale hot topic for an hour-long SModcast named The Walrus and The Carpenter. One would imagine there was a fair share of hash being used to usher forth the creative flow as the pair had a whale of a time reconstructing this unlikely scenario. Indeed, Smith wasn’t prepared to let this gem of an idea go so addressed his many Twitter followers, requesting they tweet #WalrusYes if they thought he should go there or #WalrusNo if they suspected he needed an urgent course of electro-shock therapy.

Naturally the majority slapped their flippers enthusiastically and Tusk became his very next agenda. Just for the record, the hoax turned out to be the brainchild of poet and prankster, Chris Parkinson, who wound up being hired as an associate producer soon after. And who said dreams couldn’t come true? It would bring a tear to the eye; if only walruses could cry.

One part Misery and a hundred The Human Centipede, Tusk is that rare creature that almost entirely defies characterization. Billed as a suspenseful horror movie upon its brief theatrical run, it would certainly class as horrifying, and if the flipper fits then I may as well toss Smith a fish from the get-go. However, it is also not without its lighter moments, little tension-breakers if you will, to help you forget that you’re watching a man being gradually transformed into an actual walrus before your disbelieving eyes.

We’re not talking papier-mâché tusks and some piano-wire whiskers either, this is full walrus all the way and said subject will be required to remain in character at all times. God knows he needs a laugh, and like the knight with shining hockey stick that he is, Smith obliges. You see, he made his artistic statements way back when he had something to be miserable about and is at a particularly relaxed juncture in his evolution at present so why the hell not do as the man asks and go full walrus for his adoring fans? Hell, he had me at “arf! arf!”

Our first stop is Los Angeles where smug, self-involved twentysomething Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) hosts hugely in demand and cunningly named podcast, The Not-See Party, with his best friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment). Together they scour the internet for whatever bone-headed viral videos are getting all the hits, before mocking the living shit out of them just because they feel like it. This is much to the frustration of Wallace’s long-suffering girlfriend Ally (Génesis Rodriguez) who yearns for the good old days, before the internet royalties came rolling in.

You see, by all accounts, Wallace is something of an ass hat, and his bad behavior is validated by the sheer multitude of people who have nothing better to do with their time than listen to him scoff at the misfortunes of others. Sporting a mustache that has no place whatsoever nestling beneath his nose, Wallace is the kind of snarky megalomaniac who could really do with being taken down a peg or two.

Like he needs any more encouragement, Wallace unearths “The Kill Bill Kid”, an overnight internet celebrity whose claim to fame is cutting off his own leg during a demonstration of his mad skills with a samurai sword. Fascinated by the story, he decides to embark on a road trip to Winnipeg, Canada, in order to grab the all-important lowdown, leaving Teddy and Ally to press on with the illicit affair they’re embroiled in unbeknownst to him.

However, upon arrival, he is bummed to learn that The Kill Bill Kid has since committed harakiri and the whole cross-border trip has effectively been for nothing. Refusing to chalk this one down to experience, Wallace searches for alternative scoops and happens across a curious handbill posted in a bar restroom that instantly piques his interest. Said flyer offers free room and board at a palatial rural mansion in exchange for listening to a lifetime’s supply of misadventures. Seems like a cushy gig right?

Wallace responds and heads straight on over to the isolated estate of Pippy Hill, where he is warmly welcomed by eccentric old coot Howard Howe (Michael Parks), who instantly regales him with seafaring tales from decades past. One such recollection involves a D-Day drinking session with none other than Ernest Hemingway (or Ernie as he affectionately refers to him) and another fondly recalls a friendship struck up with a walrus named Mr. Tuskegee while lost at sea.

Wallace is simply thrilled to have stumbled across the mother lode and also pleasantly surprised by Howard’s simply delightful brand of tea. Alas, little does he know that his host has laced said brew with a potent barbiturate that doubles up as the king of all sedatives. It’s time for Wallace to turn in for the night as tomorrow proposes to be a brand new day filled with fresh adventure.

Before he can perform his morning stretches, Wallace makes a rather startling discovery. Woozy and disoriented, he is horrified to find himself strapped to a wheelchair and minus his left getaway stick. Howard kindly puts his mind at rest by reassuring his grief-stricken co-pilot that he actually dodged a significant bullet. You see, according to Howard, he was bitten by a particularly mean-spirited brown recluse spider and amputation was the only conceivable option.

Needless to say, Wallace isn’t best pleased by this unfortunate turn of events and voices his disapproval accordingly. However, he doesn’t know the half of it as the old man has cruel designs on leveling the playing field so to speak and this entails lopping off his other leg at the knee. Moreover, he has lovingly prepared an authentic walrus suit, complete with ivory tusks, for his subject to slip into and further accommodate his whimsy. In short, Wallace Bryton is right up to his twitchy whiskers in trouble.

Mercifully the cavalry is on the way as Teddy and Ally are wracked with guilt over their ongoing deceit and more than a tad concerned for Wallace’s well-being after receiving his disconcerting voicemail. Desperate to atone for their indiscretion, they book the next available flight to Canada and enlist the services of former Sûreté du Québec inspector, Monsieur Guy LaPointe (a barely recognizable Johnny Depp), to assist in the manhunt.

It turns out that the vaguely peculiar French-Canadian fellow has been hunting Howard Howe for many years and is only too aware of what he’s capable of. Time is of the essence here as things are taking a decidedly sharp turn for the grotesque back at Pippy Hill, where Wallace The Man-Walrus is developing something of a penchant for mackerel.

This is where Tusk runs the risk of alienating its audience somewhat as the formerly blithe narrative approach is discarded and Smith shifts from supplying knowing winks towards Canadian hospitality to something far more sinister and unnerving. He seems uncertain on which angle to settle on, and by his own admission, horror is a genre that he’s never particularly been au fait with tackling. That said, there’s enough self-awareness to proceedings to convince that he knows precisely what he is doing and the colorful characters he paints do more than enough to keep us invested through any drastic tonal U-turns.

Osment adds walrus man to the list of things he can’t unsee and I’d imagine the dead people are glad of the break; Rodriguez is suitably torn as the girl whose wedding plans just got cruelly dashed; Depp is wonderfully wacky as the Quint of the piece, peeking out from behind his elephant in the room facial mole with eyes that cross over by default; and for all his early ignorance, it’s nigh-on impossible not to feel for Long as he relays his character’s thankless plight quite masterfully.

However, the true revelation here is a scenery-chewing Parks, who remixes his maniacal preacher role from Red State to marvelously chilling effect in what was sadly to become one of his final roles. The tea-making skills of our master of ceremonies may not be subject to question, but his endgame most certainly is. When not delivering hearty monologues about the adventures of a seafaring dandy, he’s catching up on the kind of needlework that Leatherface himself would be proud of. It’s just a shame his house guest can’t fully appreciate the handiwork.

So here’s the thing. You see, Tusk is actually the first of a three-piece that Smith is busily concocting as we speak. The True North Trilogy is his love letter to Canada and also consists of teen-friendly spin-off, Yoga Hosers, and his upcoming grand finale, Moose Jaws, which it may not surprise you terribly to learn is pretty much “Jaws with a moose”. While we’re here in Lumberjack Country and Wallace is slipping into his walrus suit, it seems only right that we take a glance at the second in his trinity and find out what it’s all “aboot”.

Lily-Rose Depp and Harley Quinn Smith play 15-year-old daydreamers Colleen and Colleen. When not practicing yoga with their fancy-pants guru, Yogi (Long minus the tusks), they can usually be pinpointed to Eh-2-Zed, the convenience store where they work after school. However, their idyllic existence is about to be shattered as Canadian Führer, Adrien Arcand (Osment), is preparing to unleash his muculent minions, the Bratzis, on the good people of Winnipeg.

Standing one-foot-tall and made up entirely of bratwurst, these pint-sized perils use their drill-bit top knots to bore their way into the rectal gardens of their unsuspecting victims and it will take a pair of 15-year-old daydreamers with precious little reason not to shrug to stall their heinous march. No word of a lie, even I couldn’t make this shit up.

Luckily for the Colleens, legendary man-hunter Guy LaPointe (a far broader Depp) would be only too happy to assist the girls in saving the world, if only his mobile mole ceased moving about his facial coordinates willy-nilly. However, thanks to the warrior poses Yogi has helped them master, these sausage-shaped savages are about to be sent kicking and screaming back to hell (or into the nearest microwave for a thirty-second meltdown).

Smith is clearly kicking back here and providing a starring vehicle for his daughter to cut her teeth on just because he’s reached the point where he can. Yoga Hosers manages the unthinkable by making Mallrats feel like Good Will Hunting by comparison and the word “aboot” grates the very first time it is uttered, let alone the hundredth in quick succession. That said, it is what it is, foolish folly that provides nothing in the way of intellectual nourishment but shows just enough flashes of his inimitable style not to wish it grievous harm (6/10). Speaking of which, I do believe Wallace has got his walrus suit on now and it would be most un-Canuckian of us not to pay one last neighborly visit to his enclosure.

Kind of tragic ain’t it? Indeed for all the grotesqueries and mild hilarity, Tusk is at its most disarming when tugging away at our heart-strings. Wallace Bryant may have been a bit of a dick, but it would be downright callous to suggest that he deserves this kind of sorrowful denouement. At least John Merrick could make ends meet at the local freak show; poor Wallace has to be content with snarfing back fish heads for eternity, and while Ally’s devotion is as sincere as it is unwavering, I’m not entirely convinced that coitus will be placed back on the agenda anytime soon. Smith may struggle to know where to lay his hat but few movies can boast to make you snort, shudder and sob within a 101 minute window. And for that, I’m only too willing to toss him a clam shell. I’d better hurry though as it looks like someone didn’t get their eight hours last night.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: With FX extraordinaire Robert Kurtzman on blubber duties, you just know the titular walrus is going to be a gloriously grim creation. That said, while those of a more delicate disposition will no doubt be relinquishing their lunch by around the midway point, Smith is too squeamish to truly luxuriate in the carnage before him. Instead, he calls on keen-eyed director of photography, James Laxton, to intensify his beast’s foul lair and settles for subtle revulsion instead.

Read Red State Appraisal
Read Dogma Appraisal
Read Basket Case Appraisal
Read Jaws Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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