Sunday, January 4, 2015
Kevin Smith's 2014 horror film, Tusk, on the evidence of the closing credits seems to have been largely financed by crowd-sourcing. An immense list of donors appears after the final credits, apparently, representative of Smith's fans. The movie is a variant on torture-porn -- in this case, torture by disfiguring surgery at the hands of a mad scientist. In this respect, the movie resembles specimens like The Human Centipede and Almodovar's Skin. Although Smith directs the film for ironic, tongue-in-cheek gross-out humor, the picture is a bit too dire to be regarded as comedy. Although there are a few funny scenes featuring abusive humor about Canada and Canadians, the ostensible setting for the plot, the movie is best characterized as a well-written, over-the-top horror movie. Horror films are inherently allegorical and ordinarily moralistic -- the monstrosity that such films show often is intended to call into question, and allegorically illustrate, moral evil, that is, ethical monstrosity. Smith, who has been a pious Catholic, is inherently a moralist. His best films convey moral messages with almost theological intensity; for instance, Chasing Amy is a film about the destructive narcissism of unbridled sexual desire; Red State is about religious fundamentalism and Dogma, of course, takes on the Catholic Church. Tusk is similarly moralizing: the film's ostensible hero, a sardonic, opportunistic podcaster travels to Canada to exploit a boy's video-taped accident: a fat kid practicing with a samurai sword has accidentally cutoff his leg on-camera. The podcaster, who is morally monstrous, is kidnapped by a mad scientist played effectively by Michael Parks. (Parks channels some of Vincent Price's more plummy and orotund theatrical effects; he speaks in grandiose, grotesque high rhetoric, citing poetry and various historical disasters in Canadian history as the basis for his insane project.) The mad scientist first amputates one of the smarmy podcaster's legs, as if in recompense for the (anti-) heroes exploitation of the unfortunate fat kid. Then, he proceeds to surgically alter the podcaster's body, suturing his arms to his sides to create flipper-like appendages, inserting his victim's amputated polished tibia into the man's upper jaw, and, then, grafting him into a blubbery walrus suit, composed, as it happens, from fragments of dead human bodies. Once, the podcaster has been metamorphosed into a reasonable, if hideous, semblance of a walrus, the madman teaches him to swim -- his concrete lagoon is filled with other walrus-suited victims, decomposing on the bottom -- feeds him mackerel, and, ultimately, engages him in combat tusk-to-tusk (while the soundtrack plays "Tusk" by Fleetwood Mac.) The big "reveal" shot showing the final effects of the madman's surgery is shocking enough -- indeed, the image is staged to resemble somewhat the climax of Tod Browning's Freaks in which the audience is shown the once-beautiful ballerina, Cleopatra, surgically transformed into a ghastly squawking duck-woman, and Smith's film packs a similar punch. Tusk is too long -- it's adapted from a podcast skit and the material is too thin to support the ninety minute length of the film. Further, the grim story seems padded and the horrors in the last forty minutes are intercut with a rescue effort mounted by the podcaster's girlfriend and his partner played by the spectral and fat Haley Osment. The couple, who have become lovers, travel to Canada and enlist the services of a slovenly French Canadian detective played by Johnny Depp. Of course, the couple and their idiotic side-kick are far too late to render any meaningful service to the poor podcaster who has now become a bellowing, horrific walrus, irrevocably transformed by the mad scientist's scalpels, sutures, and skin-grafts. The low-comedy sequences with the rescuing couple and Johnny Depp are self-indulgent and bring the movie to a standstill -- these scenes resemble the similarly low-comedy episodes in Wes Craven's Last House on the Left involving bumpkin cops coming to the rescue too slowly or not at all. It's a kind of half-wit sit-com humor intended to lighten the otherwise grim mood but not particularly effective. And, in this case, Johnny Depp is allowed to chew the scenery; he's a big star, even in a caricatured cameo like this one, and his improvised ramblings are allotted too much screen-time. (The scene with Depp is shot at a fast-food joint ostensibly in Gimli, Manitoba -- a homage, I think, to the genuinely great, and bizarre, Canadian film maker Guy Maddin, whose first feature film was called Tales from the Gimli Hospital.) The film is most effective during its first forty minutes; the horror sequences at the climax of the movie are spectacular enough and, certainly, nightmarish although the tusk-to-tusk combat is ineptly staged -- Smith doesn't know whether to play this stuff straight or to go for comedy and so he ends up with something that's neither funny nor effectively horrible for his violent climax. In a way, the film is a little too conventional and doesn't quite go far enough. The mad scientist claims that he was the victim of priest pederasty and there is a sexual component to his walrus fetish. About thirty minutes into the movie, the podcaster fingers the bludgeon-like penile bone of a walrus displayed in the mad scientist's Gothic Addams family-style home. I recall a comment made about Mickey Rourke's movie 9 1/2 Weeks -- a critic wrote that if you show someone buying a riding crop in the first ten minutes of the movie, the audience will be disappointed if someone doesn't get thrashed with that crop. I would amend this comment in application to Tusk: if you show a character fondling a 24-inch long penile bone from a walrus, the audience will be inevitably disappointed if the film is too chaste to have someone murdered with that artifact or, even, fucked to death by a walrus. But, for some reason, Kevin Smith isn't willing to go that far in this self-styled transgressive horror-comedy and, in fact, even inserts dialogue to the effect that the poor podcaster has not been sexually altered by the mad scientist. Here's my question: if you're in for a dime, you're in for a dollar and so why not go for broke?