Tusk is a one-joke movie whose premise—think The Human Centipede as filtered through writer-director Kevin Smith’s distinctly verbose, at once literate and low-brow, house style—is its only punchline. Justin Long is Wallace Bryton, a podcaster in search of a scoop who travels into remotest Canada and unwittingly meets with a serial killer, Howard Howe (Michael Parks), who turns his victims into walruses. Howard’s creations, homages to the flippered marine mammal he named Mr. Tusk while stranded on a deserted island during WWII, are spectacles unto themselves, monstrously comic frights that, like the name of Wallace’s podcast, The Not-See Party, strain for resonance. This is a film that doesn’t lack for yuks, but its torrent of puns, wordplay, and pop-cultural references only reflects its maker’s flippancy.
As boogeyman, Howard is your stock looney whose paradoxes are his only real fright: His crime is a means to separate Wallace from other animals, even as he contradictorily transforms him into one, by getting him to express feelings that his girlfriend, Allison (Genesis Rodriguez), would no doubt relish. In an early flashback, which begins with Allison giving Wallace a blowjob and ends with him stricken by blue balls, she beseeches him for signs of sincere life. As such, at least for audiences who’ve grown weary of Wallace’s 24/7 spin cycle of snark, the torment the motor-mouthed dolt incurs may be generously regarded as a perverse show of comeuppance. But that’s one of horror cinema’s cheapest thrills, and it feels especially unearned given the way Smith scornfully reduces Allison to a hypocritical cheat. Is there, he seems to ask, room for a Ms. Tusk in Howard’s library?
This is, unusually for Smith, an attractively shot vision. Howard’s home is alive with totems to a past that comes to almost haunted life through Parks’s commitment to his character’s raconteur esprit, and the widescreen frame is alive with nooks and crannies of ominous darkness and revealing light. But Smith’s heart is ultimately in the gutter, in the lair where he asks us to delight in womp-womp sight gags of a man trying to stay alive after being turned into a beast against his pathetic will. To its sentimentally off-kilter end, Tusk’s comedy remains a grotesquely solipsistic fabric stitched from lame digs at Canada, beside-the-point literary references, and one insufferably indulgent Johnny Depp cameo. And as a whole, it suggests the worst possible gene splice of a barbed Terrance and Phillip South Park appearance, Fargo’s blithe condescension, and the smuggest of Quentin Tarantino pastiches.