You need to watch this sci-fi thriller before it leaves Netflix this week
Before Kevin Smith returned to the View Askewniverse, he was embracing his dark side in a trilogy of horror movies. His second remains the best.
Before Kevin Feige launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a different Kevin from New Jersey created a shared cinematic universe of stoners, slackers, and Star Wars nerds. But after leaving his "View Askewniverse" with Clerks II in 2006, director Kevin Smith embraced a darker side to his artistry with stories that detoured far away from the Garden State Parkway.
The result was a messy yet daring trilogy of horror movies that peaked in the middle with the bizarro body horror Tusk. An unlikely alliance between Smith and prestige house A24, Tusk is the horror movie you need to watch before it leaves Netflix on July 18.
In Los Angeles, Wallace (Justin Long) and his best friend Teddy (Hayley Joel Osment) are the hosts of a crass podcast empire. Wallace flies to Canada to interview a new viral celebrity, only to learn they've killed themselves in embarrassment. Desperate for a story, Wallace finds an ad for a roommate, offering free rent in exchange for listening to what the host promises are vastly interesting stories.
Wallace takes up the offer and meets Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a former seaman in a wheelchair with tall tales about a walrus that saved his life. Howard then poisons Wallace, who wakes up to find his legs amputated. Howard soon reveals his plans to surgically transform Wallace into a walrus to recreate his old memories of being lost at sea.
An unholy concoction combining The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with The Human Centipede, Tusk begins as an earnest attempt by Smith to make art that feels deranged and inhuman. That's a daring thing from someone whose work has been mostly light and earnest for the better part of 20 years. Even in his emotionally difficult movies, like Chasing Amy and Jersey Girl, there's always a smile on his everyone's faces when the credits roll.
Unfortunately for Tusk, which begins as a real effort by Smith, the auteur gets in his own way. It is a movie with a spectacular first half and a tonally dissonant and ugly second half. In the end, it's unclear how we are supposed to feel. When Justin Long's walrus is revealed, shock becomes horror, and horror becomes bad comedy.
Long's agonized wailing, presumably as a result of trauma that's robbed a podcaster of speech, ends up feeling like a weird joke. Johnny Depp, who inexplicably appears as a Quebecan detective, is a punchline dragged on too long with the sole purpose of dispensing Smith's endless fascination with Canadian accents. That Tusk is lit like a comedy, like other Smith's movies, makes it clear Smith had second thoughts about alienating his built-in audience.
Tusk is nowhere near Smith's best or even most interesting movies. That honor is still waged between his romantic drama Chasing Amy and his Catholic satire Dogma, a movie you can't stream on any existing service due to its ownership under the devil. (So here it is on YouTube.) But Tusk remains a fascinating anomaly in the director's filmography, the midpoint to an experimental period for Smith who finally ventured beyond his comfort zone.
The making of Tusk and the circumstances to its creation in many ways eclipse the movie itself. First, its origins can be found in an episode of Smith's own podcast where he and co-host Scott Mosier read a Gumtree ad for a homeowner offering free space, so long as the guest dresses like a walrus.
Fascinated in the same way stoners are fascinated by their hands, Smith and Mosier cook up a story inspired by the ad. Smith ends the podcast daring his listeners to tell them if it's a movie they should make, and you can guess how they answered. (In a twist that is maybe not that unpredictable, the Gumtree ad was a hoax planted by UK prankster Chris Parkinson. Upon finding out, Smith brought on Parkinson as a producer for the film.)
But there are origins before a podcast. In 2011, after Cop Out turned out to be the director's last studio comedy, Smith returned to independent film and embarked on a new creative avenue: horror.
It started with the 2011 picture Red State. Once a devout Catholic, Smith's first horror movie is cast by the shadows of his battles with the radical Christian right (who protested Dogma) and the work of friend Malcolm Ingram, whose 2006 documentary Small Town Gay Bar (which Smith produced) interviewed Westboro leader Fred Phelps. In Red State, a few horny teenagers are catfished and become prisoners of a violent Christian church. Their leader, Abin Cooper, is "very much inspired by a Phelps figure," Smith told Rotten Tomatoes in 2007.
In casting Red State, Smith turned to Michael Parks, once the star of the NBC western Then Came Bronson, who was blacklisted from Hollywood. Searching for a fanatical religious villain not unlike Fred Phelps, Smith found his antagonist in Michael Parks.
Smith loved Michael Parks. When the actor died in 2017, Smith praised him as "the most incredible thespian." Following Red State, Smith said he pretty much made Tusk just to work with him again.
"I just wanted to showcase Michael Parks in a fucked up story, where he could recite some Lewis Carroll and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to some poor motherfucker sewn into a realistic walrus costume," wrote Smith in 2013. When Parks died, he expressed: "Only Michael Parks could have delivered the line 'Is man indeed a walrus at heart?' and make it scary as fuck."
With Red State, Smith sought to explore explicit contemporary American politics through the filter of a violent horror movie, which is in keeping with the genre's rich traditions. With Tusk, Smith just wanted to be as fucked up as possible — which is in keeping with human nature.
Update 7/14: A reader pointed out to Inverse that Tusk is not yet part of a formal "trilogy." Moose Jaws, set to be a continuation of Smith's Canadian horror universe (called the "True North Trilogy"), is still in development. But Tusk is the second in a trio of horror movies, starting with Red State and ending with Yoga Hosers, that Smith wrote and directed before returning to comedy with Jay & Silent Bob Reboot in 2019.
Tusk is streaming now on Netfllix until July 18.