Tusk and Shock Cinema
by Sean Bottai
THIS MONTH WE’LL BE THINKING THROUGH SOME OF 2014’S BEST AND/OR MOST SUCCESSFUL HORROR FILMS. WE’LL TRY TO SPOT CONNECTIONS, TENSIONS AND LARGER THEMES, AS WELL AS FIGURE OUT WHY SOME FILMS SUCCEED AND SOME FAIL AT ACHIEVING THEIR GOALS. MOVIES WILL BE DISCUSSED IN TOTAL, SO BEWARE OF SPOILERS.
Tusk has some great things going for it – a totally game Justin Long, a general sense of storybook weirdness, some winning Canadian/American geopolitical satire – but ultimately it doesn’t work. Mostly that’s because it feels under-imagined, like some key element of the story is missing. The movie is content to just be a slice of EC-horror-comics-style nastiness. That might work for a short, but at feature-length the movie needs more of a raison d’être. The slightness of the movie’s ambition forces it to become The Human Centipede Lite. Like Tom Six, Kevin Smith came up with one ghoulish idea and Tusk, like both Human Centipede movies, merely presents that idea as pure spectacle. It never takes the idea seriously enough to cash in on the hilarity/madness of the conceit.
Tom Six recognizes that there’s a perverse appeal to his concept. We never really ask ‘Why does Dr. Heiter want to make his monster?’ because we just know, at a base level, that there’s a sick logic to the spectacle he creates. Six’s carnival barker/snake oil salesman persona also helps makes sense of The Human Centipede. The posters claiming the film is “100% Medically Accurate” signal that the moviemakers are aware the film’s a piece of exploitation, something that exists only to be gawked at. That’s Six’s brilliance: his movie has the perfect concept that makes us want to see, despite our revulsion.
But Tusk‘s concept doesn’t have that primordial pull. It just evokes a “Huh?” reaction. Why a walrus? What drives Howard Howe’s compulsion to make his monster? The movie provides answers to these questions, but they don’t allow the film to sustain the hysterical haze of suspended disbelief you need for a movie like this. Instead, the details of Howe’s pathology call attention to how hard the movie is straining to make it’s Dadaist premise work. We don’t know what to do with the spectacle of Justin Long’s Wallace when he appears as the walrus-monster. The Human Centipede gives permission for any and all reactions – puke, cry, laugh, shudder, hide. All of them make sense and all of them fit the context. The lunatic tone of Dieter Laser’s performance as the mad doctor Heiter frames everything with a knowing wink, a shrug of assurance that we’re allowed to do whatever we came to the movie to do. Tusk elicits, instead, a more hostile form of revulsion because we don’t understand the context for own disgust and amusement. When we’re watching Howe taunt the chained man-walrus we know it’s ridiculous, we know it’s grotesque, we know we’re partaking in an act of cinematic sadism, but we don’t have any idea why.
That sense of purpose animates the best of shock cinema, which all benefit from their content being recognizable as taboo: rape, incest, cannibalism, genocide, sadomasochism, etc. Movies like Saló, or 120 Days of Sodom or A Serbian Film are framed by political context. Films like Nekromantik or Nacho Cerdà’s Trilogy of Death or the Guinea Pig films or the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis are extreme acts of transgression, forcing us to confront taboos or indulge dark repressed curiosities (like that of witnessing a living human body dissected, examined, and schematized). John Waters’ early films embody a similar aesthetic defiance, powered by queerness, rudeness and a sardonic wit about how hopelessly fucked up the world is. The Nazisploitation movies of the 1970s elicit a similar dark thrill as the Human Centipede films, framed by a perverse fascination with evil, historical atrocity and master/slave dynamics. Similarly, that decade’s Italian cannibal movie boom (Cannibal Holocaust, et al.) exploits racist, genocidal fantasies and charges them with erotic energy.
So which universal taboos are being explored in Tusk? What repressed, disavowed fantasies are being brought to life?
If there’s a void at the center of Tusk, created by the lack of coherent answers to those questions, then maybe we could fill it with an appreciation for Tusk‘s debt to the pre-Code horror comics of the 1950s. EC Comics titles like Tales from the Crypt, Weird Terror and The Vault of Horror established the very narrative logic Tusk relies upon: an unlikable protagonist becomes embroiled in a macabre scenario that exposes them to a sick karmic justice. The horror is imaginatively wild and grotesque. The story is quick, punchy and hammers you with a sudden downer ending. The original 1960s iteration of The Twilight Zone carried on this tradition (though that show balanced it’s arch, mean stories with warmer ones possessing a real faith in humanity).
There’s no doubt that Tusk‘s Howard Howe and his walrus fixation spring right out of the pages of a Tales from the Crypt-style horror comic. Yet the feature-length running time is padded more with Smith’s Clerks-esque bantering than exploring its own disgusting Gothic conceit. Wallace’s transformation and captivity is condensed down to a couple of awkwardly staged setpieces, when it should form the main body of the film. Smith came up with the perfect ending to his shock story, but it doesn’t land because the preceding movie hasn’t earned it. Wallace’s devolution to Mr. Tusk hasn’t been mapped out in any satisfying way; the movie actually doesn’t have the courage to submerge itself in its concept, Human Centipede-style, and luxuriate in it. It’s not mean enough, possibly. And the punchline ending doesn’t resonate morally. We know these kinds of pulp tales have a savage, unsparing sense of morality, but Wallace either isn’t crass enough or a specific-enough asshole for us to get the joke of his character’s arc. That’s another way that Tusk misses the point of shock cinema: the frisson of seeing someone actually get what they deserve.
Next: I, Frankenstein