Kevin Smith takes body horror into The Human Centipede territory- infusing it with a little of The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour– with his 2014 oddity Tusk. Using similar aspects to Tom Six’s forerunning darkly camp shocker, Smith goes the whole hog in delivering something- not only disturbing when you really get to thinking about it- but off the scale when it comes to encompassing totally out there concepts. The film has been attracting mixed reviews; the gross-out humour involved in crafting this oddball tale is apparently not everyone’s cup of tea. As if the sight of a fully bearded Haley Joel Osment (aka the kid from The Sixth Sense) wasn’t disturbing enough a consideration, wait until you see what other ‘delights’ Smith has to offer here.
The story follows the awful plight of Wallace Bryton (Justin Long, Jeepers Creepers), one part of the Not-See Party– cue a ton of not very funny Nazi party misunderstandings- Podcast team. Wallace travels to Canada to find a story for his show. This is prompted after finding an online video of a kid accidently chopping his own leg off with a sword while dancing in his garage; something both Wallace and podcasting buddy, Teddy (Osment), find hilarious. Teddy won’t go on the trip, and Wallace is reluctant to take girlfriend Allison- in case he picks up some women on his adventure, demonstrating the slimeball that he is- so he travels alone, finding on arrival he’s too late to get his story. Up until this point the audience is served up a barrage of writer/director Kevin Smith’s humour; mainly revolving around jokes about the differences between Canadians and Americans (sorry, this was completely lost on a British viewer). Smith’s brand of self-styled ‘loser humour’ might have felt funny back in 1994 with Clerks, and even by 2001 with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but here it feels slightly too deliberate. The jerky editing during dialogue on Wallace’s arrival in Canada proves distracting too, and it was at this point that I felt I may have made a mistake. Never fear though, by the time poor Wallace finds an interesting advert for a roommate, above a urinal in a men’s bathroom, the story really comes alive.
This is no ordinary advert. The author is a one Howard Howe (Michael Parks); a wheelchair bound old man who enthrals young Wallace with his tales of knowing Ernest Hemingway, travelling the high seas, and spiels out a poignant tale of the six months he spent living on an island with the walrus that saved his life after he was shipwrecked: the appropriately named Mr. Tusk. The deal is this, Howe wants someone to live with him and clear up around the place. In return they get free rent and board at his huge isolated home. Wallace just wants the stories this guy has to tell, and so agrees, only to discover stories aren’t all Howe is offering. Wallace is about to undergo a life changing experience thanks to his new friend Howe. It’s easy to fill in the gaps when you consider the cover art for the home video release, but knowing this in advance does nothing to prepare the viewer for the, frankly, stark raving bonkers scenes that ensue.
Overall we have a narrative that, at its core, conveys some fabulously mental concepts which are beautifully envisioned by the two leads Parks and Long. But then we also have moments that don’t function as well- making this in essence a two horse race, with the supporting factors becoming nothing more than a distraction to the main event. Parks is mesmerising as his multi-facetted character Howe; his performance continues to add depth and resonance right up until his final scenes. Long, likewise, is strong in his role as an initially somewhat smug asshole that pays the price for his stupidity. To play an asshole with pathos is quite a task, but Long never lets the side down. The energy between the two sparks, and it is during the scenes between them that Tusk becomes fully immersive; so much so over three-quarters of an hour flies past effortlessly. That is until Johnny Depp- heavily disguised in make-up- appears, to perform a bumbling rendition of an Inspector Clouseau type character. Thus demonstrating he is no Peter Sellers, and his arrival is where things start to lose their grip; the (deliberately) awkward performance by Depp shattering the momentum. Kudos to the make-up team however. I didn’t want to believe it was A-lister Depp under that fake nose, given the terrible performance involved, as he is unrecognisable (although my other half was, quite rightly, insistent it was him all the way through his misplaced scenes). It just goes to show you can lead a horse to water, but if they are going to gargle it up and spit it back out in your face, there’s not a lot you can do- A lister, or not. It also demonstrates that humour is one of those deeply personal things, and with the greatest respect to Depp and Smith, I am sure they found the deliberate nature of Depp’s overwrought caricature funny at the time. I didn’t. However, the supporting characters of Teddy, played by Haley Joel Osment, and girlfriend Allison (Genesis Rodriguez) also do little to add to the mix either; again breaking the flow. The fact is the two leads dominate matters to such an extent, with their boldly illustrated and tightly scripted showpiece, that it’s all the others can do to keep up. Parks demands so much attention from his portrayal of an absolute mentalist, playing it straight, and giving his role a camp flair that is bewitching, freakish, and darkly funny, that apart from his counterpart Long, the others are left to stand in his shadow.
Final mention has to go to the effects and make-up team, who have taken a somewhat limited budget and fashioned it into something that conjures up a fantastic aura of circus sideshow flair with beautiful moments of the grand guignol grotesque. This just adds to the great performances in the main act, making something that, while not flat out amazing, is entertaining, memorable and fun in a really warped way, despite its obvious weaknesses.