Friday, September 26, 2014

Review: Tusk

Version I Watched: Only version available now, theatrical.

History: Tusk has a bizarre and goofy origin story.
Director Kevin Smith has been doing a podcast with his producer friend Scott Mosier since 2007. Smodcast. A show in the genre I like to call 'two guys bullshitting.'
The example connected to this is episode 259 wherein they read and joked about a housing ad from the UK. The ad said rent is free as long as the tenant would dress and act like a walrus for two hours a day. The ad was later revealed to be a hoax but it inspired Kevin Smith to write and direct this very movie. But not before having his Twitter followers tell him if they're interested by responding with #WalrusYes or #WalrusNo. Take a guess how it turned out.
Filming began five months after the podcast episode was released. Filming was done in less than a month, all during November. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 6th, later released on six hundred screens across the country on September 19th, last week Friday. It was made with a budget of $3 million. As far as I can tell it's made less than $1 million back so far, but we'll see what happens in time. Despite the low numbers it has received mixed reviews. Ratings as low as 0/4 stars to 3/4 stars and 8/10.
Regardless of reviews and box office there are two spin-offs in production right now. The first of which is Yoga Hosers. A more teen-oriented movie based on the two teenage, American hating girls who work at a convenience store in Tusk. The other is Moose Jaws, which is exactly what it sounds like, Jaws but with a Moose.

Personal History: This is of course my first viewing. But as a long time listener of Smodcast I did hear about the production since it's inception over a year ago. So I felt like I saw the movie before seeing the movie in a way.

Review: I like Kevin Smith. I really do. But I definitely don't like him as much as his most hardcore fans do.
Seriously, Kevin Smith's fans are like the Joss Whedon fans of raunchy comedies. They get so caught up in their adoration they not only can't tell when something their hero does is low quality/sub-par they seem to think everything they touch turns into gold the only way their god on earth knows how. Kevin Smith himself, however, can be a little bit of a George Lucas from time to time. Surrounded by 'Yes Men' telling him what he's doing is great without actually examining what he could do to make his work better. Substantiated by Cop Out defenders.
Kevin Smith took this to a whole new level when he went to Twitter, literally asking his fans if they want to see Tusk made. It makes sense in a way. It showed people would actually go see the movie instead of Smith making something because he felt like it. A similar thing was done with Paranormal Activity (after it was made, mind you.) The only issue being that he had almost literally no, 'No's.' Which means Smith made this movie with little to no challenge, something that really should have been present in making what could have been an innovative horror movie.

With that said I was a bit disappointed with how Tusk turned out.

Let's talk about the good first, cause there was plenty of good.
For one it is a great concept. I'm a big fan of this style of horror. The 'crazy eccentric old rich dude with disturbing interests' genre of horror. A style seen in the Hannibal Lecter movies and the more recent Human Centipede. Now as someone who actually liked Human Centipede I liked how Smith was taking that sort of approach. For months I imagined how the walrus would turn out. Thinking how crazy, deformed, and fucked up the final image would be. More on that a little later.

Because the approach was so dark and fucked up this movie can have a great tone when it wants to. Some of the best moments of horror include when Justin Long's character first arrives and Michael Parks' character tells him stories of his past. It's fascinating especially since you know what's lurking underneath. Then after Parks poisons Long (into a deep, deep sleep) and Long wakes up with a leg missing and overall physically immobilized it's great. Parks lies his way out of it claiming the leg is gone because Long got bit by a spider and the doctor had to amputate it. This among other moments all brought together with a fantastic score.
Oh the score! During the darkest moments the score really adds to the feel of the movie. It's a unique kind of score that's mostly low reverberating tones that give a sense of doom. It doesn't jump around with surprise strings like modern, mainstream movies for the purposes of startling. No, this score lives at a lower tone but adds more than the more explosive. I know this is an obscure reference but in David Lynch's Inland Empire he uses a similar score. It's something that lives in your ears during these scenes without you realizing it, in a way, because it blends with the action so well.

The other part of it that may be surprising to most is... it's a very funny movie.
Since a lot of the humor (like most of Smith's humor) is based on Smith's personal experience and interest it should come at no surprise that the protagonists are podcasters. The movie opens with Justin Long and Haley Joel Osment recording a Smodcast-esque podcast called The Not-See Party, wherein Long finds and interviews weird and/or unique people and comes back to bullshit about it with Osment, who doesn't fly. These bits are hilarious to those who find Smith's sense of humor funny, which I do. Plenty of hilarity outside the podcast as well, but the pods are where the humor shine the most if you ask me.

However this leads into one of the biggest things I didn't like about the movie.
I felt the movie (and Smith by extension) didn't know if it wanted to be a full blown comedy or horror movie. I felt the two genres did not blend as well as well as Smith (likely) believes. Sure there are great moments of each genre here. Mixing them together the way he did, though, was jarring, conflicting, and confusing wondering what it's purpose is supposed to be.
It's like Tusk wanted to be Cabin in the Woods while aspiring to be Human Centipede and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back at the same time.
The reason it turned out this way was because of it's origins. After watching this I went back to the podcast it was based on, episode 259 of Smodcast, titled, 'The Walrus and the Carpenter.' It's a great episode with a lot of laughs. In it Smith and Mosier discuss and joke about what this movie would eventually become. Smith must have felt they got it right the first time around because a lot of what was in the podcast wound up in the movie. Seriously! If you listen to that episode you'll know most of what happens minus the visuals and slight tweaks made along the way. Granted not everything from the podcast was exactly as they described. Plenty of things were changed. Not all in a good way. But describing all those differences would be tedious.

While I believe art can grow from any and all inspiration, sticking to the podcast episode as much as Smith did was his biggest downfall, even when he chose to shy away from other ideas in the podcast.
For one, the horror factor would have been elevated greatly if they spent more time with the killer, watching the walrus process go by slowly, with a horrifying reveal mid-late in the movie. Yes the reveal is a little past the halfway mark, but the pace it took to get there was fast.
Too much time is spent outside the killer's home, away from the walrus and what we came to see. Instead we're given way too much time in flashbacks or with Osment and Long's girlfriend trying to find Long. All the flashbacks do expand the story and some of it is really solid. Something that doesn't last the longer the movie goes on. Especially since the only time the horror comes out is when you're at the killer's home. So when you're NOT there it's more comedy when we should get more horror.

Regardless of story horror can thrive on tone, style, and execution of the visual horrors (or lack of... in a good way... if you know what I mean) alone. I already mentioned the tone is good in many parts. Sadly the style was... not as great.
Smith's movies have never been known to be visually appealing. Outside of Clerks they all have a really plain look to them, even in the more special effects heavy Dogma. Unfortunately this plainness transferred into Tusk. In a movie that could have been well presented, well lit, well shot, is instead a bland and flat looking movie with little visual depth.
Don't blame the budget, either! Yes this was made for $3 million. Want to know what else was? The previously mentioned Human Centipede. A movie with a beautifully gruesome visual approach. Want to know what else had a similar budget? The Purge. A movie that looks like it was done with way more money. But The Purge proves you don't need budget, just talent and good ideas. Tusk, however, is a $3 million movie that looks like it was made for $3 million or less. Even Smith's last movie Red State, which admittedly I haven't seen since it came out, looked more visually appealing and it was made for a similar budget. I know Smith is capable of making his movies look better.
Even though it had that big downfall the biggest crime of all is... the suit.

This was the one thing I was more excited for than anything else. If the suit was nailed it could have forgiven many of the downfalls before and after it is presented. Sadly the suit was not all it could have been.
The suit is described in the podcast and shown in the movie to be made out of skin. Which is fine. It's a pretty typical horror trope to have some sort of suit, costume, mask, and so forth made of skin. A bit overused now but can still be creepy. That's not the problem I have with it. The problem I have is the suite looks bad, so bad. The skin does not look like skin. It looks way too much like plastic. Again, don't blame it on the budget. There are movies made with a similar budget (or less) that made more convincing effects and outfits.

It also didn't help we didn't see the process of going into the suit. Instead we see a small glimpse of Long being operated on in the early stages. But we never see the suit before they put him in, nor do we see him being sewed into the suit. It's just Long early in the surgery, then full blown walrus. Something that would be much more effective if the suit looked better. A design that would actually make me shocked, disturbed, or something other than disappointment.
Really it shouldn't have been made from skin anyway. If Parks' character was really in love with walruses as much as he claimed to be I imagine the suit would be more realistic looking in their world. Something he sets up when he says "I've been constructing a rather realistic walrus costume." Still have the surgery, still have everything else but make it look more like walrus skin. Hell, even have the character use actual walrus skin. Something other than what we had, and certainly something that looks less plastic as the skin in.
Although if I wrote it I would have had Parks stuff Long with blubber in the skin he already has. Not put a suit around him. Literally turn him into a walrus like it's a sex change instead of crippling him, then putting him in a suit. It would be more interesting and a lot more depraved (in a good way for a horror movie) to have it that way. The suit just seems so... unimaginative.

Tusk is a fantastic example of what happens when you take an inside joke or wild concept and try to expand it to a full story. Rarely does something wild like this work. Machete is a good example of what can work as is... well... most of Snakes on a Plane, in retrospect. But Tusk was a wild inside joke that wound up being a mess of a movie when it should have stayed a funny bit on a podcast. That or just decide if it'll be a comedy or a horror. Not both. AND if it has to be both then take a lesson from something like Cabin in the Woods, not the View Askewniverse (which couldn't be helped in this case.)
At least there are lots of very funny bits and great scenes of impending horror. A great tone, great performances, and really great ideas. I just wish the outcome could have been better. I wish I wasn't this disappointed. At least I didn't not like it. I just didn't like all of it.

I'm sure I'll catch Yoga Hosers when it comes out. Not feeling strong either way on that one. What I am hoping turns out well is Moose Jaws! Please make that one the kick ass one!

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