Take The Human Centipede — the gross-out midnight movie about the mad doctor who stitches humans together — and sprinkle liberally with the old Bob and Doug McKenzie sketches from SCTV and the result is Tusk, director-writer Kevin Smith’s under baked horror-comedy hybrid that, despite some promise, ultimately fails at both of its goals.
Justin Long is Wallace, half of a podcasting L.A. comedy duo with Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), who goes out and interviews odd people doing odd things. When a video of a kid in Winnipeg who apparently slices his leg off goes viral, Wallace is on the next plane to Canada to track him down for the show.
But by the time he gets there, the boy has committed suicide — and Wallace is left with nothing but an expensive plane ticket to show for his efforts. But a note on the wall of a bar’s bathroom catches his eye. An elderly man promises a treasure trove of stories from a life well-lived to anyone who chooses to listen. Now, Wallace thinks, this could be cool.
It turns out the man is Howard Howe (an excellent Michael Parks), a recluse living in a spooky house two hours north of Winnipeg. At first, he plies Wallace with a strangely delicious tea and regales him with fantastic tales of hanging out with Hemingway and being stuck on a rock in the middle of the ocean with a walrus. But then…
Apparently, Wallace has never seen a horror movie before because he should have known you don’t just go into a creepy old house with a creepy old dude serving creepy old tea and expect to go on your merry way. No, Howe is obsessed with walruses and has it in his mind to create a walrus-human creature, and Wallace is the perfect subject.
Tusk is at its best when Wallace and Howe are in a well-written war of wills and words, after Wallace wakes up from his tea-induced coma with a leg surgically removed and realizes what Howe is up to. There’s genuine tension and suspense as Wallace tries to figure a way out.
But that’s undone whenever Smith leaves the house to focus on Teddy and Wallace’s girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) who fly to Canada to find their missing friend. That’s especially true whenever Smith has his characters come into contact with Canadians who are portrayed in the most comically cliched way possible.
The worst offender is an uncredited Johnny Depp who plays a Montreal homicide detective Guy LaPointe, a man who has spent much of his career tracking Howe. Yes, his mock French accent (which wouldn’t pass muster with Pepe LePew) beret, and poutine jokes are meant to be funny but his scenes go on far too long with little payoff. They derail the story and take the audience out of the movie.
Smith has had a checkered career. After the spark of Clerks and Chasing Amy in the late ’90s, he has stumbled through Jersey Girl, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Cop Out and a variety of Clerks/Jay and Silent Bob projects. Tusk could have been the movie that shows he still has that youthful zeal that animated his early films.
Instead, like the mighty walruses of Howe’s twisted imagination, Tusk just feels long in the tooth.
Cast: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment.
Writer-director: Kevin Smith.
An A24 Studios release. Running time: 102 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, sexual situations, disturbing imagery, strong adult themes. Playing at area theaters.