Today, I’m going to take a look at Kevin Smith’s 2014 creature feature, Tusk.
The plot of Tusk is summarized on IMDb as follows:
When podcaster Wallace Bryton goes missing in the backwoods of Manitoba while interviewing a mysterious seafarer named Howard Howe, his best friend Teddy and girlfriend Allison team with an ex-cop to look for him.
Tusk was written, directed, and edited by Kevin Smith, who is known for films like Chasing Amy, Clerks, Clerks 2, Mallrats, Jersey Girl, Red State, and Dogma, as well as his numerous successful podcasts, television shows, comic books, and live Q+A events.
The primary cast of Tusk is made up of Michael Parks (Red State, From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill), Justin Long (Dodgeball, Drag Me To Hell, Accepted, Galaxy Quest), Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, A.I., The Spoils Before Dying, Secondhand Lions, Pay It Forward), Genesis Rodriguez (Big Hero 6, Run All Night), and Johnny Depp (Yoga Hosers, Pirates of the Caribbean, Ed Wood, Donnie Brasco, Black Mass, Sweeney Todd, Edward Scissorhands).
The cinematographer on Tusk was James Laxton, whose other credits include Moonlight (which netted him an Academy Award nomination), Yoga Hosers, Bad Milo, and Holidays.
The musical score for the film was composed by Christopher Drake, who also provided music for Yoga Hosers and Holidays, as well as a number of animated DC movies like Batman: Under The Red Hood and Batman: Year One.
Tusk was distributed theatrically by A24, which was at the time an eccentric independent distributor that was building a positive reputation. Today, it is a renowned brand in independent cinema: it boasted the Best Picture winner Moonlight, as well as acclaimed films like The Witch, Swiss Army Man, 20th Century Woman, Room, Green Room, The Lobster, Ex Machina, The Rover, Under the Skin, and Enemy.
The bizarre creature effects for Tusk were provided by Robert Kurtzman, whose other credits include It Follows, John Dies At The End, Bubba Ho-Tep, Vampires, Ghosts of Mars, Spawn, Scream, In The Mouth of Madness, Intruder, The People Under The Stairs, and From Dusk Till Dawn, among many others. He was recommended to Kevin Smith for the project by special effects guru Gregory Nicotero, who turned down the job due to schedule conflicts with other projects.
The idea for Tusk came to Kevin Smith after discussing a prank Gumtree advertisement on his flagship podcast, SModcast. The bizarre advertisement offered free board to a housemate in exchange for wearing a walrus suit for 2 hours a day, and fully performing the part during that time.
Tusk was the first entry in Kevin Smith’s proposed True North trilogy: three movies with similar horror themes and common characters set in Western Canada. The second of these was Yoga Hosers, which featured a number of returning elements from Tusk. The third film in the series, a Jaws parody called Moose Jaws, has still not begun filming as of May 2017, likely due to the overwhelmingly negative reception to Yoga Hosers.
In order to gauge his fanbase as to whether there was enough interest for him to make Tusk, Kevin Smith launched a hashtag campaign. Anyone could respond on Twitter with either #WalrusYes or #WalrusNo to indicate whether they thought he should take on the outlandish concept.
Tusk was made on an estimated production budget of $3 million, on which it managed to gross only $1.8 million in a limited theatrical run. Critically, the movie didn’t fare any better: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.4/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 41% from critics and 36% from audiences.
As you would certainly expect, Tusk is weird by design, on the virtue of its concept. Accordingly, it features some of the strangest makeup and creature effects in recent years, which is fortunately compellingly strange and unnerving. Designer Robert Kurtzman definitely outdid himself with this body horror execution of a humanoid walrus, and its presence is arguably the highlight of the film.
As far as other positives of the film go, I would be remiss not to mention the late Michael Parks. Parks, who previously starred in Smith’s religious thriller Red State, is firing on all cylinders for his unhinged role in Tusk. Not an ounce of scenery goes unchewed by Parks, who nearly makes the movie on his own. Particularly in the first act of the film, he manages to act circles around Justin Long, and builds an immense amount of tension through his storytelling and body language. However, a lot of the tension dissipates as the movie goes on, and changes focus to other characters. Unfortunately, by the film’s supposed climax, the movie has already peaked, and is significantly hindered by weaker elements that whittle on its effectiveness throughout.
Mark Jenkins, in his review of Tusk for NPR, had the following choice words for the film:
Tusk is an overextended, tonally incoherent joke that would make viewers squirm even if it didn’t involve a bloody and demented medical experiment.
While Parks is impressively suave as the absurd obsessive, the other performances range from unpersuasive to distracting. Long is off-pitch throughout, and a slumming, uncredited superstar functions only as a half-comprehensible in-joke.
That review hits on what are, by far, my two biggest issues with Tusk. The first of them is the “uncredited superstar,” Johnny Depp, who puts in what might be the worst performance of his career. In a word, his portrayal of a French Canadian detective is unbearable. His facial prosthesis look ridiculous, his accent is all over the place, and his presence and performance grind the movie to an unnecessary stop. Honestly, Tusk would have been a better overall feature if his point-of-view section had been excised altogether. For the life of me, I can’t fathom why it wasn’t left on the cutting room floor, outside of Depp’s supposed marketability.
The second issue that Jenkins brings up that I emphatically agree with is his assessment that the film is “overextended.” On top of the pacing troubles brought on by the aforementioned Johnny Depp segment, everything after the intriguing first act setup feels bloated and stretched, like Smith was having trouble making a full feature out of the concept. Progress happens slowly once the second act begins, and the shifts in perspective make it feel even slower. I honestly think, however, that there was enough promise and material for this idea to make a pretty kick-ass short film, but the necessary run time to hit feature-length brought about a lot of the problems that hinder Tusk. With some of the extended gags omitted, Johnny Depp’s part reduced, and the rescue attempt shortened, I think the total run-time could have been brought down to about an hour, and been a pretty intriguing flick to plug into HBO or Netflix. As it stands, however, the pacing leaves it a bit on the dull side.
Overall, I do think that Tusk is a fair bit better than the mess of Yoga Hosers, and had some initial promise. The effects are pretty decent, Parks puts in a chillingly strange performance, and there is certainly an intriguing setup for the story. However, the screenplay has some serious pacing issues, which are exacerbated by a mind-numbingly terrible performance from Johnny Depp, and a generally very unlikable lead character. I do think that the movie was written off prematurely by some based on its concept alone, but ultimately, I think that the failure of this flick is 100% on Smith’s screenplay and dual director/editor role. If he had someone else take on any number of those roles, he might have had a mitigating force to keep things in check. Alas, that’s not how it went down.
As far as recommendations go, Tusk is complicated. Kevin Smith fans certainly should check it out, as this was basically made for their benefit. Beyond that, body horror fans might as well check it out for the effects, but the rest of the film will probably leave a lot to be desired. As for everyone else, I think this is a toss-up. I have talked to people who have loved this movie that I didn’t expect, and people who passionately hated it that I thought might go the other way. If the concept intrigues you, I say dive in at your own risk.