Sept. 16 2014 06:52 PM

Kevin Smith's new horror film merges folklore, allegory and online savagery

Justin Long (left) and Michael Parks, before the horror

What hath the Internet wrought? Savagery, weakness and arrogance—nothing mankind hasn't been mastering for the last few thousand years. The only difference is, nowadays predators don't have to face their victims in person; they hide behind the safeguard of technology instead. 

Kevin Smith slams this point home with Tusk, a new horror film that destroys the virtual distance of online aggression by slowly transforming one of its seediest offenders into a primitive beast. Yet there's something far more sinister going on than simple comeuppance. Like Clint Eastwood's William Munny growls at the end of Unforgiven, "Deserves got nothing to do with it."

In Tusk, Justin Long plays Wallace, the philandering co-host of an abrasive and raunchy podcast called "The Not-See Party," who travels around the country interviewing strange and eccentric people before making fun of them on the air with his equally foul best friend (Haley Joel Osment). As we learn in a key flashback with his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), Wallace was once a sweet, dorky stand-up comic who's turned into a slippery monster now that he has found fame. This won't be his final metamorphosis.

For the latest episode, Wallace travels to Canada, referred to condescendingly in the film as "The Great White North," to interview a clumsy YouTube sensation who cut off his own leg with a samurai sword while performing for the camera. He finds a corpse instead of an easy target; and it's the first sign that any and all expectations will be thrown out the window in Tusk. Dejected and aching for a story to salvage the money spent on his plane flight, Wallace discovers a mysterious note in a bathroom stall, written by a worldly sailor with stories to tell. What could go wrong, right?

The salty ghoul (Michael Parks) calls himself Howard Howe, a lover of literature, artifacts and menacing metaphors who lives in a massive mansion off the beaten path in Manitoba and en route directly to hell. Wallace enters Howard's shadowy abode seeking an easy target that he can turn into a salacious and manipulative segment for the podcast. He gets something else entirely. During their first lengthy conversation, the old man often references the time he spent shipwrecked on a frozen island with a walrus he named Mr. Tusk. Seconds later, Wallace collapses.

Tusk takes the torture-porn template and turns it upside down. As Wallace is drugged, gagged and bound, he quickly realizes that Howard's motivations are vastly different from your normal sadist. His desires are purely organic. The touch of skin, the howling yelps of an animal, the pearly white of teeth—everything boils down to close-contact terror. Smith purposefully makes the final act of the film a sideshow of practical effects, as if his style and theme were primitive warriors against all postmodern narrative forms.

One of Howard's peculiar quotes rings truer than others as Tusk unleashes its bloody, disgusting finale: "We survive at all costs, until we butcher again." According to Smith, Wallace and Howard aren't that different from each other; they just slaughter in unique ways. The Quebecoise detective, played by an almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp, addresses this issue during a hilarious but haunting monologue about the layers of guilt and missed opportunities. For the first time in nearly a decade, Smith seems to be honestly addressing complex ideas through purely cinematic means and not his own ego. 

Finally, and most importantly, Tusk concerns itself with the ongoing generational divide perpetrated by technology. There's a disconnect between Wallace and Howard (despite their mutual aims to deform bodies and minds) that stems from the fact that members of the Internet generation are so emboldened by their own omniscience that they can't see a monster coming until it skewers them in the neck. Reality bites.

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