What Really Makes Humans Human
Written on 10/01/2014, film first viewed by author on 09/23/2014
What is true horror? Let’s rephrase that for the purpose of this discussion. What makes a good horror story? Edgar Allan Poe often presented stories that dealt with generational curses, illnesses, and being trapped. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein made the role of creator, or “god”, a terrifying responsibility. Bram Stoker combined historical figures and old-country superstitions to create the relatively new mythology of vampires with Dracula. The horror genre has expanded upon its origins with these ingredients of its early literature. From murderers, stormy nights, and haunted mansions to dark magic, monsters, and otherworldly invaders, many things make readers and viewers sleep with the lights on.
But, just as listening to the same song over and over again can get boring or tiresome, the familiar elements of the traditional horror story can become overused. In the author’s opinion, they have, especially in cinema. One of the author’s fellow filmmakers has said, “Let’s make a horror film, a good horror film. Something thrilling and provoking that hasn’t been done yet.” The response to him was, “That’s a nice thought, but easier said than done. The genre seems exhausted.” Most horror films today lack substantial production value and fresh storylines and characters. Their plots have become almost comically predictable, and their creators try to compensate with gallons and gallons of unnecessary blood. Sure, people need to die in a good horror film, but, again, it becomes almost laughable to watch a straight horror movie where characters are getting constantly knifed as fast as they are introduced.
For Kevin Smith’s latest flick, he might just have the answers to modern horror. First, he doesn’t play it straight. Second, he turns the conventions of traditional horror plot on its ear. And third, he has a message or two to send.
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In Tusk, Wallace (Justin Long) is a podcaster who ventures to Canada for materials for his show. When his first subject turns out to have died, he follows an ad left on the wall of a men’s bathroom. The writer of the ad, Howard Howe (Michael Parks), promises a room to rent and a story. What Wallace doesn’t realize is that he is walking into a trap. As the snare grips tighter around him, he begins to have flashbacks about his relationships, especially concerning his girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), and his podcast co-host, Teddy (Haley Joel Osment). Meanwhile, the truer side of Wallace is revealed as a secret connection between Ally and Teddy plays out. The two narratives finally collide when Wallace manages to sneak two voice messages to his friends, and Teddy and Ally begin their search for him. Along their way, Teddy and Ally team up with the eccentric private detective Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp).
And what is Howard Howe’s intention? He means to turn Wallace into a beast, and more specifically, a walrus. Why? That was the only creature that had ever cared for Howe.
It sounds funny and absurd. The dialogue is riddled with observational humor, sometimes so much so that one might wonder if director Smith takes his subject matter seriously. It seemed out-of-place that the director of Clerks and Dogma would do a horror film, and it could be argued that Smith does not have a serious bone in his body. Indeed, the very idea for Tusk came from a passing conversation on his very own podcast.
However, this just might be where the genius of Tusk lives; in the idea that it doesn't take itself too seriously. It doesn't need to be anymore serious. The comedy is truly relieving. Michael Parks’ performance and dialogue are chilling enough, the hunt for Wallace and his captor is thrilling enough, and the very implications of what it will take to transform a man into an animal is gut-wrenching enough. This horror flick did something to this author a horror flick hasn't accomplished in awhile. It had him cringing with anticipation-laced glee in his seat.
What Smith is trying to say with the character of Wallace is that people should not take their humanity for granted; their metaphorical as well as literal humanity in this case. Howe insists that humans are animals, and that they do no better than the vicious, instinctive deeds that animals often must do. While that is biologically true, Tusk delves into the subject of what really distinguishes humans from creatures. Smith is also saying, more as a conscious filmmaker, that perhaps horror needs a dash of the utterly absurd to make it new. What is usually expected of horror films should not be expected of Tusk.
Lastly, Tusk seems to be a story about people telling stories. It’s an interesting device that Smith uses. Howe uses storytelling to ensnare. Lapointe uses it to establish credibility. Teddy and Ally use it to try and find Wallace. It is Wallace who also takes storytelling for granted, exploiting it to make money. That is truly one of the most enduring traits of human beings throughout history: to tell stories.