From man-eating beds to serial-killing gingerbread cookies, there’s no shortage of absurd premises in the horror genre. However, not all of these weird movies are created equal, and I’d argue that a silly premise is only half the battle when crafting a legitimately entertaining piece of absurdist genre cinema. Personally, I think that the very best of these strange projects succeed because they take an utterly ridiculous concept and play it completely straight, often revealing unexpected terrors as filmmakers show us worlds where tumors can go homicidal and mad scientists can stitch people into human centipedes.
One of my favorite examples of this kind of cinematic absurdity done right is Kevin Smith’s controversial horror-comedy Tusk, a divisive feature that’s almost equally loved and hated by the horror community. And with the flick currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, I thought that this might be a great time to look back on the only film that dares to question if man is truly a walrus at heart.
Appropriately enough, the idea for Tusk originally came about on Kevin Smith’s SModcast back in 2013, with the director and his friend Scott Mosier finding out about a supposedly real ad where a landlord would set up a lodger for free if he agreed to dress up as a walrus. Naturally, Smith and Mosier proceeded to make up a humorous backstory for this bizarre agreement, and while the ad was later revealed to have been a hoax orchestrated by writer and prankster Chris Parkinson, this memorable episode of the podcast ended up becoming the basis for Smith’s next film.
Still waiting on approval for Clerks III (which would ultimately only come out in 2022), Smith developed the idea into a proper screenplay and began to shop the project around as another opportunity to “showcase Michael Parks in a fucked-up story” after their collaboration in Red State. The cast would eventually grow to include genre veteran Justin Long and even Johnny Depp as the French-Canadian detective Guy LaPointe (though Smith had originally envisioned the role for none other than Quentin Tarantino after seeing his brief performance in Django Unchained).
In the finished film, which somehow ended up being distributed by A24, Justin Long plays jaded podcaster Wallace Bryton as he embarks on a trip to Canada and gets kidnapped by the mysterious seaman Howard Howe (Michael Parks). When Howard reveals that he plans to transform Wallace into a freakish recreation of a walrus, it’s up to Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) and Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) – as well as the French-Canadian inspector Guy LaPoint (Johnny Depp) – to track him down before it’s too late.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of reviewers didn’t really get the movie when it first came out, with the flick being accused of being both too disturbing and too silly by different outlets. Some critics even went so far as to call Tusk one of the worst films of all time, something that I find baffling when one of the funniest parts of the experience is the fact that it’s often too well made when compared to its ridiculous origins. That being said, even the harshest critics had to concede that the film’s casting was impeccable.
While Justin Long is always a joy to watch in horrific situations and Johnny Depp’s near-offensive portrayal of a bumbling French-Canadian is impossible to look away from (though I can only imagine what Tarantino would have done with the role), I think it’s pretty well established that Michael Parks is the real stand-out of this talented ensemble.
The late, great character actor’s unhinged take on Howard is so iconic that it feels like the film only exists as an excuse to allow the veteran thespian a chance to completely let loose. Smith has even gone on record claiming that watching Parks and Depp ham it out onscreen together was akin to witnessing two wizards battling with ancient magic, and it’s precisely this disproportionate level of dedication that I think makes the film so damn hilarious.
Much like the very best classic comedies, the characters here are unaware that these situations are supposed to be funny, with Tusk taking itself extremely seriously as Justin Long’s humanity is forcibly stripped from him in increasingly insane manners. The difference here is that the horror elements are so well executed that you’ll often forget that you were laughing only a couple of minutes ago.
I mean, the concept alone is terrifying enough if you dare to take it seriously and contemplate the body horror of an irreversible transformation at the hands of a madman. The scene where Parks sharpens a tusk while speaking to a wheelchair-bound Justin Long only to imply that the bone is in fact his tibia is truly the stuff of nightmares – which only makes the film’s bizarrely mean-spirited depiction of Canada that much funnier (something that I actually appreciate even more having grown up in Ontario).
Tusk may not be a perfect film, suffering from a slightly bloated runtime and some uneven jokes, but if Smith’s goal was to create a unique cinematic experience that both shocks and entertains in equal measure, I think he really hit the ball out of the park here. Your enjoyment of the flick will likely depend on how accepting you are of the director’s particular brand of humor, but this is a deeply weird story that only gets better with age.
So whether you’re in the mood for some extreme body horror or just want to enjoy Michael Parks chewing up the scenery like it’s made of homemade poutine, this bizarre little thriller is still worth revisiting a decade later.