In Hollywood, there are those that reside comfortably inside the confines of their own previous successes, and there are those that purposefully step outside that box. Personally, I very much dig the latter. Whatever your opinion of Kevin Smith – whether you love or loathe the distinctive dialogue-driven style of his early work, and whether you are intrigued or annoyed by his insistence on discussing behind-the-scenes aspects of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice on his podcast, despite having no official involvement – it cannot be denied that his mid-career crisis has led to interesting creative choices. The latest of these is Tusk.
Having ventured into the realm of horror with 2011’s well regarded look at religious fanaticism, Red State, writer-director Smith has remained within that genre – this time, exploring a body horror aspect. The film centres on a podcaster (Justin Long) who travels to find interesting and fascinating people to interview for the show he makes with his friend. Heading off to a remote Canadian location, he meets with a strange and mysterious fellow, who has a bizarre fixation on a particular type of mammal.
Legend has it that the idea for the film came from an episode of Smith’s own podcast, which he hosts with long-time collaborator, Scott Mosier. In the episode, the two riffed at length on a narrative around an ad that had been placed on Gumtree – offering free lodging to anyone willing to dress as a walrus. Using Twitter, Smith ran a poll asking his followers to tweet #WalrusYes or #WalrusNo depending on whether they would like to see such a movie. The ‘Yes’ vote won and the filmmaker began work on the project. It soon transpired that the original Gumtree ad was a prank, perpetrated by poet Chris Parkinson, who is credited as an Associate Producer on the final film. The Twitter hashtag #WalrusYes is included in the film’s promotional campaign.
The trailer itself is effective – gradually building a sense of discomfort and dread, until we see the lead character come to the full realization of what is about to happen. The trailer most notably makes use of itself as a showcase for Smith’s use of sound, as in Red State, and most specifically voices – which are unsettling and haunting to say the least. The casting of the incredible Michael Parks plays no small part in that achievement. The casting of Justin Long is also an appealing choice – as an audience, we associate him most closely with goofy romantic comedies, so his presence in a disturbing horror film adds greatly to the ‘man outside his comfort zone’ atmosphere.
The story is a well-worn horror movie set-up, and is the same one he used in Red State – an unassuming regular person is lured out to an isolated place, and horror ensues. We’ve seen hundreds of variations on this theme in as many films of as many shades of quality. However, the thing that intrigues about this effort is what seems to be the distinct absence of two recurring aspects of such movies: religion and sex (aside from the obligatory clip setting up the lead’s relationship with his girlfriend). There are no hints of commentary on the dangers of zealotry and there are absolutely zero damsels in distress. In fact, the main female character is played by Genesis Rodriguez, and she is the potential rescuer. This is perhaps the most refreshing part of this entry into a genre historically populated by blood-soaked scream queens being victimized and violated in every unimaginable way.
Here, instead, we have a young man in a situation over which he has no control – finding that he is being transformed into something against his will. An allegory for Smith’s own perception of Hollywood’s failed attempt to box him in, perhaps? You can decide for yourself when Tusk is released on September 19. Meanwhile, check out the trailer below.