The Walrus and The Carpenter: Kevin Smith's TUSK
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Republished today in memory of Michael Parks.
I became acquainted with a Walrus when I was lost at sea.
I would describe Tusk as a horror-comedy. I really would. I'd also describe it as the most atrocious, upsetting, horrific concept I've ever had to wrap my head (and my poor, poor eyes) around. So, while Kevin Smith will offer you his usual jokes, I cannot be responsible for how many of you will not find this funny. Just not even a little bit at all.
But I couldn't pass it up. It's about a walrus. A man who wants to make a walrus. I can tell you it was one of those movies I watched with my mouth open for most of its run-time, and that when I brought up the idea of watching it a second time to write this post, my boyfriend - who really liked the movie - could not bring himself to sit down and watch it again. He was not prepared to go #fullwalrus.
If you're a Kevin Smith fan, and you follow his podcast, you'll know that the idea for Tusk comes from an episode of the show. It's also easy to see that the social commentary on comedians, podcasters, and L.A. assholes comes right from Smith's own experience. And it is funny - it's spot on, in fact. So much so that we really don't like our main character, one of those prototypical L.A. assholes. If some guy in a house in the Canadian countryside wanted to turn him into a walrus, I wouldn't mind. Would I want to watch? Well...
Reading this from the perspective of a regular horror conssieur, however, I'm less interested in the story's actual roots, and more in what the film references - consciously or unconsciously. Are you familiar with The Human Centipede? No? Good. Don't seek it out. I'll tell you everything you need to know.
There's this movie. It's not very good (sorry, whoever I'm offending today), and its "scares" are dependent entirely on its gross-out premise: a sadistic doctor (German, because logic, right?) abducts people and proceeds to surgically connect them together into one, long, centipede-like creature. Need I detail what orifices are being stitched together to make the monster? No? You got it? Thank God.
Anyway, this bit of ridiculousness was not only assaulting to your better tastes, but had so much "ass-to-mouth" (now you get it!) that the unintentionally funny meter was just maxed out for me. So, when Kevin Smith, master of comedy, and new master of whatever you'd call Red State, decides to make a film about a deranged man who wants to make himself a walrus companion, I can't help but think somebody's been watching some Human Centipede recently.
And I'm glad he did. Because what sets Tusk apart is that it's not only lampooning this branch of the torture-porn sub-genre of horror, but legitimately one-upping it in its own brand of revulsion and disbelief.
Tusk is scarier, more horrifying, and so much worse than Human Centipede (or any of its additional sequences- yep, they call them that). Like the best theatre of the absurd, it goes so far beyond normality, it reveals something deeply disturbing in its silliness. Lewis Carroll wrote a piece of poetry called The Walrus and The Carpenter, and like any of his nonsensical writings, it is pleasantly purposeless. Tusk is a lot like that. And played correctly, that can be the scariest thing of all.
Let's talk about that poem a moment - because I love Through the Looking Glass, and I just happen to have my copy sitting right next to my desk (really). The basic shtick is that a Carpenter and a walking, talking Walrus (!!) hit up the beach to make friends with some Oysters. Then they eat them. The Walrus is incredibly upset, crying about the injustice and trickery of it all. The Carpenter doesn't see the problem. And Alice, after hearing all this, can't decide whether to side with the human Carpenter, who's so callous about the whole thing, or the Walrus, who feels bad, but absolutely inhaled the most oysters. Hypocrite. Either way, the dilemma here seems to be, who's more human? The actual human, or the blubbering walrus?
Tusk's Howard Howe poses Alice's riddle to Wallace:
To solve a riddle older than the Sphinx. To answer the question which has plagued us since we first crawled from this Earth and stood erect in the sun. Is man, indeed, a walrus at heart?
This captures the best of Alice's story and Lewis Carroll in that it makes absolutely no sense. We have never asked this question. This isn't even really a riddle, because riddles have answers. What it is, is the ramblings of a sinister crazy person who wants to chop people up and make them into his beloved Mr. Tusk, a walrus he remembers fondly from the time he was lost at sea. This is all so unbelievable, it's marvelous. And much like the real Walrus and The Carpenter, it's a nonsensical, illogical masterpiece. I mean, the oysters have shoes. The Walrus cries giant tears, but still eats every one of them. This movie encapsulates all those things.
It's lovely. Watch it, then you'll understand.
It's clear to me that Howard Howe is a crazy S.O.B. from the moment asshole Wallace calls him up about his weird men's bathroom ad that's written in a beautifully perfect cursive script. However, it doesn't become clear to Wallace until he's waking up from a drug-induced haze and Howe is telling him a story about a brown recluse spider that bit him in the leg. Watching Howe (the brilliant Michael Parks) sing The Itsy-Bitsy spider is sickening.
Other Things to Notice:
If you haven't seen Red State, you may not be familiar with Michael Parks or the type of part he's capable of playing. He essentially carried that film as a devout and manipulative pastor, with long, aching monologues and a presence that felt unshakeable. He's doing something else entirely here, but it's no less effective. His mockery of Wallace is funny, but mostly awful. When the victim screams, you don't expect the butcher to scream right back at him.
Justin Long is so, so, so unlikable in this part. Yuck.
Guy LaPointe is Johnny Depp. This is the best part Depp has had in years. Stop being a pirate, Johnny. Please.
And the best joke: Haley Joel Osment's character doesn't want a gun. "What kind of American are you?" - Guy LaPointe.
If You Like It, Watch:
- Drag Me to Hell: Justin Long is just the exact opposite in this Sam Raimi movie about Gypsy curses. And Alison Lohman is even better as the lead, trying to get rid of a cursed button that an old woman gave to her at the bank where she works. Moral of this story: Don't be a loan officer. Maybe just don't work for a bank. It's very good, very funny, and also quite scary. The best Raimi since Evil Dead.
- Cabin Fever: Eli Roth and I have this strange critical relationship where I just don't think I should like what he makes, but then I find that I do, and it's a big mess to try and explain. But this is another instance of horror-comedy that both sends up a genre and betters it. Kids go into the woods, hit up a sinister gas-station full of hillbilly locals, then proceed to come down with the worst case of poison ivy ever. Definitely need a strong stomach for this one.