Kevin Smith’s Tusk does not exist in a vacuum. It owes its existence, directly and indirectly, to two preceding works: directly, to Smith’s own podcast, during one episode of which Smith and longtime creative partner Scott Mosier pitched the premise of the film to each other in a series of stoned improvisations, and, indirectly, to a seemingly unrelated film. Listening to episode 259 of the SModcast after watching Tusk is like hearing a child relay back the details of a movie they just watched. Smith and Mosier get some things, like the absurd final sequence and the production budget, completely right, while entire plots, such as the romance, are missing. As a window into the creative process, episode 259 (titled “The Walrus and the Carpenter”) is invaluable.
The other work that necessarily predates Tusk is, of course, Tom Six’s 2009 film The Human Centipede. Both Tusk and The Human Centipede are at once the beneficiaries and victims of the same internet fame machine of which Smith has so successfully been a part for the last five years. Without the web’s unique power to spread images, trailers, and fanboy diatribes, The Human Centipede would have left its limited theatrical run (19 theaters) for the ninth circle of Netflix Instant Watch hell, but its very title, along with the simple diagrams of the eponymous creation that served as viral marketing material, captured the internet’s imagination. Despite its lack of so much as a z-list star, The Human Centipede became a cultural phenomenon, and was even the basis for an episode of the pop culture reference machine that late-run South Park has devolved into.
I watched The Human Centipede long after it had faded from the spotlight and was surprised most by its overall competency. It is, to put it simply, a well made horror movie: the film’s centerpiece, the conversion of three individuals into a horrifically conjoined pet, is the waking equivalent of a Cronenbergian nightmare. All of the requisite genre elements are present, from the menacing pacing to a villain so obviously sinister that you want to scream at his potential victims to run the other way to the victims who are so clueless that you hold your tongue because really, they are too stupid to live. In fact, as long as you accept its premise (which is, as the tagline suggests, 100% medically accurate), the only real problem with The Human Centipede is its title.
The best scene in The Human Centipede occurs when Dr. Heiter, in authentic Nazi doctor regalia, shows his plan to his three incipient victims. The doctor plays it straight, as if his patients were volunteers who are enthusiastic about participating in an exciting new medical procedure. Through a series of slides, he reveals the process by which they will be turned from three people into one creature, most notably how their digestive systems will be joined. The scene is intercut with shots of the victims and their dawning comprehension and horror, as, over the course of three minutes, Dr. Heiter takes them through the steps of the operation in a purposeful manner. We, as the audience, are supposed to sympathize with the victims, and our emotions during this scene should mirror theirs: we should be filled with horror by the clinical precision with which the doctor is about to mutilate the victims, by their helplessness (by this point all three are shackled to hospital beds in the doctor’s basement-cum-torture dungeon), and, most of all, by the shock of the revelation.
But therein lies the problem. If you sit down to watch The Human Centipede, you already know exactly what happens in this scene. You already know that the doctor is going to sew these three people together. It’s in the damned title! You’ve probably even seen the final image of the slideshow, the three nearly featureless cartoon people with a singular GI tract running through them which represents the titular myriapod. And this is the scene on which the film’s success is built. Just like the chest burster scene from Alien, it’s the moment that the tone changes from ominous to terrifying. But, just like with Alien in the modern era, the scene’s shadow looms large before the film itself, spoiling the surprise for the audience before they see the first frame. If The Human Centipede had a different title, it would be ranked alongside Audition in the pantheon of cinematic reveals; as it is, it remains unremarkable by simply fulfilling its title's promise.
Smith’s latest film falls victim to the same trap on multiple levels. Tusk exists because of the internet, and, paradoxically, the worst thing one can do before seeing the movie is to read anything about it online. Like The Human Centipede, Tusk’s pacing relies on the audience’s growing unease at the situation in which the protagonist places himself. The main character, a podcaster played by an unfortunately mustachioed Justin Long, travels to Canada in search of a story for his show and ends up seeking out an old sailor, played by Michael Parks, in the hopes of returning with some of the man’s tales from his life at sea. Smith sets the tone so well that by the time Long accepts Parks’ offered cup of tea (while, of course, his host drinks none) we know that our hero is in danger. The scenes that follow only reinforce this feeling, as Parks slowly transitions from maintaining a series of increasingly elaborate lies to telling Long the painful truth of his situation: that he has been kidnapped for the purpose of being turned into a walrus. Again, the scene where the villain lays out all of his cards is meant to be the fulcrum on which the film turns, and should represent a transition from mysterious dread to brightly-lit body horror, which it does only to the extent that the audience is unprepared for the reveal.
In terms of pure craft, Tusk may be Smith’s finest achievement to date. Before he made Red State, it was unclear if Smith was capable of directing something besides a dialogue-heavy comedy, but in his last two films Smith has honed his style to a remarkable degree, deploying his signature close-ups and lengthy dialogue scenes with precision while eschewing the cliches that began to creep into his work during Jersey Girl and Clerks 2. Smith adopts the low angles and ominous pans of the horror genre, and he allows the inherent absurdity of Parks’ plan to play itself out naturally instead of relying on humorous dialogue to set the tone (although the film is far from devoid of funny lines). Smith also coaxes nuanced performances from all of his actors, including surprise guest star Johnny Depp, who arrives in the third act playing a deeply awkward French Canadian detective obsessed with catching Long’s kidnapper. Depp sinks into the role with characteristic enthusiasm, elevating Smith’s dialogue to occasionally blissful heights.
This is not to say that Tusk is a perfect movie. Many of its problems, such as the melodramatic love triangle that is revealed about halfway through the film, are symptoms of the genre, and are as necessary to the film’s structure as are its more successful elements. Others, like Smith’s tendency to write his protagonists into jobs that he himself has, have more to do with meta-knowledge of the director’s life than anything textual. But the largest problem with Tusk has nothing at all to do with what takes place on screen. Instead, it is betrayed by the circumstances of its own creation and promotion. The best audience for Tusk is, therefore, a horror movie fan who has no knowledge of Kevin Smith outside of his movies and who watches the film without reading a review, because most of them (including this one) spoil the film’s central premise and surprise guest star in their bodies, if not their headlines. But, if you’re a fan of Smith or, god forbid, a dedicated listener of his podcasts, Tusk will likely fall flat, as the air that is meant to inflate its body was released during episode 259 of the SModcast and subsequently at every appearance in which Smith has discussed the film’s premise as a promotional method.
Films have a special relationship with the materials that surround their release that is due as much to the amount of money at stake as it is to the medium’s highly narrative nature. Consider the concept of a spoiler: aside from the increasingly-rare novel that is anticipated before its release, narrative film (including television) is the medium where the viewing experience is most affected by details of the work being shown to the audience outside of the context of the work itself, details being, to put it colloquially, spoiled. The most common and flagrant offender is trailers, which, in the modern era, tell at least 2/3 of a movie’s story as a matter of course, and which will usually allude to whatever the final conflict or character turn is. The trailer for Tusk teases the reveal with uncharacteristic grace, but it matters not, as the film was conceived in a public fashion and has been marketed by Smith himself using the hashtag #WalrusYes. As such, it falls victim to the same trap as The Human Centipede, in that most of the audience walking into a theater will know what to expect. This sets the film up for an odd kind of failure: either it fulfills that expectation or not. The film is not allowed to exist in and of itself, instead functioning simply as a delivery method for fulfilling the promise that you will get to see Justin Long wearing a walrus suit made from sewn-together human skin.
Films exist to tell stories, and therein lies the ultimate paradox of Tusk. Taken on its own, it tells a very strange story in a compelling way, yet, when taken as a part of the sum total of the materials surrounding its creation, promotion, and release, it is but the fulfillment of a concept whose very premise constitutes the worst kind of spoiler, that which sabotages the enjoyment of the film itself. The paradox manifests itself when trying to get people to see the movie: do you tell them the premise, thereby ruining some portion of the experience for them, or do you try to dance around it, thereby leaving out the aspect most likely to convince someone to see it? Tusk would best be viewed in a vacuum, with the viewer having absolutely no knowledge about it prior to sitting in the theater, but everything, from the modern methods of film promotion to the creator himself, has rendered this an impossibility. If ever a film would benefit from being discovered late at night in the bowels of Netlfix’s instant watch offerings, it is Tusk.