Ridiculously Terrifying: Kevin Smith’s Tusk

Imagine the serial killer logic of Criminal Minds, the inventive and perverse body horror of The Human Centipede, and the wacky, irreverent – yet nonetheless emotional – hijinks of 90s slacker cinema, each taken to their logical extremity simultaneously.
You might then, for the briefest of moments, catch a glimpse of the feverish nightmare that is Tusk.

The trailer for the Kevin Smith’s 2014 film Tusk is as ambiguous as the film itself. For two and a half minutes, it is impossible to tell if you are watching a trailer for a comedy movie, a shlock horror flick, or something somewhere in between – a loving, though no less mocking, send up of the horror genre of the sort which were the rage in the first half of the 2010s.

The basic set-up has a young, hot-shot podcaster going to Canada to interview a well-traveled old man, only to be drugged and abducted by his prospective interviewee who plans to transform him into a walrus. (That’s right.)

Obviously, the events of the film defy all logic – be it scientific, medical, or rhetorical – but they are executed with such unflinching dedication and apparent sincerity so as to demand the audience suspend their disbelief and meet the movie on its terms.

Justin Long is deeply hateable as Wallace Bryton, host of a successful humiliation comedy podcast with the puerile, though provocative, name: “The Not-See Party.” At the risk of attributing meaning where none was intended, Long’s performance may succeed thanks to the implicit moral law: only a complete asshole could find himself in such a situation.

Genesis Rodriguez plays Ally Leon, Bryton’s longtime girlfriend. Rodriguez is the true star and emotional core of this film, without her tender and engaging performance the movie would have devolved beyond its barely manageable absurdity into pure farce.

Haley Joel Osment carefully navigates the divided loyalties familiar to anyone with a best friend completely outclassed by their better half. Osment’s Teddy Craft struggles to balance his involvement with Wallace’s podcasting fame fueled antics and his recognition of increasingly unattractive qualities his friend has developed as a result of success. Osment manages the convoluted emotions demanded of his character with grace and a persuasive friendliness.

Meanwhile, Michael Parks and Johnny Depp (almost entirely unrecognizable under a terrible wig, false nose, and exaggerated not-quite-Quebecois accent) compete for the distinction of most bizarre and unsettling performance.

Parks projects an unsettling menace without ever appearing physically threatening. The psychosis he reveals with every wild-eyed pronouncement is a performance wasted on his would-be interviewer. Long’s Wallace is dedicatedly vacuous and self-involved, ensuring that each scene he shares with Parks incites a piteous horror of the sort usually reserved for small, stupid animals. Parks unflinchingly executes a performance which demands everything from waxing poetic about an animal otherwise banished to satiric 19th century poetry (familiar from another Kevin Smith film, Dogma) to deranged vocalizations and low brow caricature.

Depp’s Guy Lapointe is a washed-up Inspector Clouseau, beaten down by the world and haunted by his past failures, keeping all of the exaggerated ridiculousness of a Peter Sellers’ character and adding an incongruous sense of grief and world-weariness.

Were Depp’s character the beaten down, veteran gumshoe in any other film, he would certainly drink too much. Instead, Smith writes in the fast food diner equivalent of the raw egg hangover cure routine, leaving the desperate protagonists to lay their plight in the dubious – and, in this case, greasy – hands of the only man willing to take them on.

When Parks and Depp share the screen, scenes that would have, at best, been satires of stereotype, become distressingly unsettling and perverse, suffused with a menace that originates as much in the distorted portrayals as it does in the narrative context.

The special effects have that rubbery quality particular to practical effect, yet are no less unsettling or horrific for it. Give the propensity for gory realism and smooth CGI in so much of contemporary cinema, the return to silicone and painted foam exacerbates the conflicting impulses present throughout the film. They are patently ridiculous and heighten the un-reality of the mechanics of the plot, simultaneously, however, they have the inescapable materiality of something that exists.

Smith’s filmmaking is impeccable. He wields the misdirection of the frame and the editing suite to maximum effect, especially in the scenes which delve into the unexpectedly complex relationship ensnaring Wallace, Ally, and Teddy. The film establishes a pattern of flashbacks early on, lulling the audience into a sense of security. The slow unfolding of a dreamy, already unreachable, sun-dappled status quo illustrates the depths of Wallace’s douchebaggery, while demonstrating the genuine affection – rooted in what little remains of the young man she fell in love with – which ties Ally to this undeserving cretin.

Imagine the serial killer logic of Criminal Minds, the inventive and perverse body horror of The Human Centipede, and the wacky, irreverent – yet nonetheless emotional – hijinks of 90s slacker cinema, each taken to their logical extremity simultaneously.
You might then, for the briefest of moments, catch a glimpse of the feverish nightmare that is Tusk.

The commitment to seeing the film through without giving in to the nudge-nudge-wink-wink of irony is quite possibly the thing which makes it surpass all other recent horror films in terms of absolute perversity. It has none of the ironic trope inversions which made Tucker and Dale vs. Evil or Cabin in the Woods so delightful. Instead it operates with the white-knuckled sincerity of a horror film unselfconscious of genre.

Somehow, regardless of the way it should absolutely be a bad joke, Smith never breaks the tension, keeping the audience captive (quite possibly against their will and their better judgement) up until the very end. The audience is left dangling over the abyss, uncertain if the soft cushion of a punchline awaits them at the bottom. Without ever telegraphing whether the story will end on a laugh or a piteous cry, Kevin Smith has brought the metahorror of cognitive dissonance to its apotheosis. The film traps the audience in that moment where they are uncertain whether or not they should laugh.

After all, a joke without a punchline is a horror story.

 

Content Warnings: mutilation, suicide, kidnapping, infidelity, crass language, douchebaggery.

Capsule Reviews I

It has seemed incomprehensible to some that there should be any need or desire for horror fiction when one need only look to the newspaper or out the window to find things to make one’s blood run cold.

But Professor Nobody, who makes his appearance in Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer, explains why it is exactly, in moments of turmoil and distress, that we turn to horror fiction, not as individuals, but as a collective:

“In transforming natural ordeals into supernatural ones, we find the strength to affirm and deny the horror, to savor and suffer them at the same time. […] In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species.”
— “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures,” Thomas Ligotti

With that in mind, consider picking up the following titles the next time you are at loose ends and looking for something to read.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Beyond a barrier blocking off a portion of the Floridian peninsula, some kind of otherworldly natural rejuvenation is at work. In Annihilation, the first book, we join the 12th expedition, this time comprised entirely of female scientists, across the barrier as they seek to understand what is happening in Area X,. Few things in that otherworldly Eden are as they first appear.

The first installment works excellently as a stand alone narrative, introducing us to Area X and establishing the tantalizing promise of the Southern Reach, the government department tasked with understanding Area X. The subsequent two books take you deeper into the mystery of Area X and the Southern Reach to find answers that are as strange and satisfying as the questions to which they correspond. Vandermeer’s lush prose is rivaled only by the Florida landscape it describes and the elegant tapestries of his characters.

Ultimately, Jeff Vandermeer’s alienating masterpiece might best be described as it was by the reviewer Scott Christensen on Google Books: “It’s kind of a love story at the end. And I thought that was sweet.”

(Read Annihilation to prepare for its cinematic adaptation, starring Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac.)

Looming Low (Vol. 1) Edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

The first anthology out from Dim Shores, a press established by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan in 2015 dedicated to Weird and dark fiction. The press has has made a name for itself publishing chapbooks from esteemed Weird fiction authors including Jeffrey Thomas, and more recently, Gemma Files and Joseph S Pulver, Sr.

Looming Low Vol. 1 serves as a whistle-stop tour of contemporary Weird fiction. While it features works by established names like Michael Cisco, Brian Evanson, Livia Llewellyn, and S.P. Miskowski, it also includes stories from less immediately familiar names. As a whole,  it serves as an excellent introduction to Weird fiction and its impressive variety of styles and topics; from the supernatural to the mundane, the romantic to the fraternal, and beyond, the human heart is metamorphosed before your eyes as it tangles with the incomprehensible and the irreconcilable.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti has been described as a mix between Kafka and Lovecraft. His personal brand of transcendental horror, as if Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau had ascended to that higher spiritual plane only to realize that life is something worse than a cosmic joke, is utterly unlike anything else. His dreamy, rotting post-industrial landscapes peel back to reveal humanity dancing on the end of a string, while elsewhere, close by, the universe laughs.

Perhaps most effectively, unlike the hapless or blissfully ignorant characters which populate Weird and Science Fiction, who unwittingly stumble upon unimaginable horrors, Ligotti’s characters often walk to their doom with some foreknowledge. His protagonists are seekers after truth, aware that they are damning themselves by looking but unable look away.

The Penguin classics single volume re-release of his first and second collections of short stories (Songs and Grimscribe, respectively) is an opportunity for everyone to re-/discover this master of dread.

Edited 26 JULY 2018 (for typos/clarity)

On Thomas Ligotti

A follow up on my review of The Grimscribe’s Puppets:

I have now read Thomas Ligotti.

It changed my life.

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Thomas Ligotti can paint tableaus with his adjectives that repulse me. He can fill my head with images that burden me as they burden his protagonists. But no one has ever made me want to draw the way Thomas Ligotti does.

Justin Steele’s comment that Ligotti is not for everyone feels unavoidable, but nevertheless, I think everyone should read Thomas Ligotti. The things that make him difficult are, like with all good authors, the things that make him enchanting. His stories are immersed in an almost academic rhetoric that pushes the mind beyond quotidian engagement with the universe. In contrast to other kinds of contemporary fiction, he strays from the traditional depiction of the everyman. What makes his protagonists ordinary is their tendency towards base emotion: curiosity, irritation, selfishness, egotism.

More than all that, Ligotti is a Transcendentalist.

He follows in the footsteps of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, exploring the possibility of an interconnected universe. He leaves no doubt; his universe is interconnected. There is a higher knowledge, a greater understanding, and sits just beyond our usual sphere of perception.

But unlike Whitman or Thoreau or New Age prophets, his interconnected universe is not nearly so pleasant. Ligotti writes of a world where higher knowledge, undeniably satisfying to achieve, is always a burden. The existential project is a fruitless one, to understand the universe is to destroy the self. When you can see the cardboard trees for what they are, when you understand—truly understand—how the universe is all strung together, and what things exist, just beyond the blue sky – you might wish you hadn’t.

Book Review: The Grimscribe’s Puppets, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. ED. Miskatonic River Press, 2013

“I don’t really want to see a ghost, but if someone said, ‘Do you want to go to a haunted house and see a ghost?’ I would say, ‘Yes’.”  — Kelly Link. Oct. 6, 2015. Brown University

A review of The Grimscribe’s Puppets by Justin Steele on arkhamdigest.com said, “Thomas Ligotti, one of the finest horror authors, can be a tough pill to swallow. […] His work is definitely not for everyone though, casual horror readers would most likely be turned off by this particular brand of philosophical horror, yet everyone should read Ligotti at least once.” Though I have never read Ligotti, I can easily (and eagerly) imagine his desolate cityscapes, and agonized protagonists who lurch through them, revolted by the existential truths they have uncovered. Their miserable voices call to me saying, “We are all connected. None of us is alone.”

Book photo from MIskatonic River Press

Pulver’s collection here is (according to Wikipedia) award-winning and rightfully so. The stories in it bring a range of voices, both narratively and creatively, together in a dizzying rush through the darkened, greedy corners of our universe. I started the book in the middle, with Jon Padgett’s 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism, and from there explored outwards from the center of the book, devouring the stories and letting the thread, whatever Ligottian impulse Pulver had called forth from them for this collection, which bound them together, thread its way through me and draw me in, another puppet for the Grimscribe, or whatever else is hiding out past the blue veneer of the sky.

Of extra special note are Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace, Kaaron Warren’s The Human Moth, Robin Spiggs The Xenambulist, and Gemma Files’s Obliette (which I didn’t save for last, and highly recommend you take the editor’s implicit recommendation and let it be the last morsel of this collection you savor to end the experience). The Human Moth left me feeling like Ms. Link, now that I know stories like it exist, though I might prefer to have eschewed that knowledge, I must seek them out.

ORIGINALLY APPEARING IN PRINT AS THE FIRST STAFF PICK 
AT THE LOVECRAFT ARTS & SCIENCES COUNCIL

An unexpected triumph: Jupiter Ascending, the most feminist sci-fi film of the year

Jupiter Ascending got wrecked on the critical shores. The most recent film from the Watchowski siblings (who brought you The Matrix), is a critique of capitalism, disguised as a space opera romance. I can see some of you shaking your heads, thinking, “She’s both drastically overselling this film” and “Come on, sure, the Matrix had some philosophical undercurrents, but this is a film about Channing Tatum helping Mila Kunis become a space princess.”

Give me a moment to sell this movie to you again.

Your average hard sci-fi fan will find a lot to complain about with Jupiter Ascending. But we need to take a moment and remember that most hard sci-fi fans will complain about Star Wars, too. And everyone is about to fall over in excitement for the JJ Abrams Star Wars sequel set, so I’m not sure “It’s not hard SF” is enough to pronounce this film DOA.
Let me be entirely clear: Jupiter Ascending is a space romance. It’s primary function is to serve up two beautiful people who fall in spectacular love with one another, while elevating Mila Kunis’ Jupiter from a life as a toilet scrubbing illegal immigrant. But in the process it does a number of surprisingly lovely things.
For example, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The monotony of free-falling action sequences, explosions, space battles, and beautiful CGI alien worlds is broken up with moments of foot-in-mouth humor, and a bureaucratic scene unlike anything we’ve seen since Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Buried underneath the verbal faux pas of Kunis’ and Tatum’s courtship is the plot that drives the film forward, throwing the characters together in life-or-death situations to help them fall in love. It is a plot that relies on rather well-developed world building that draws the more indulgent viewer into the politics of a genetically-driven economy.
In fact, the hand-wavey science of genetics undergirds the entire world Jupiter (and the viewers) are thrown into. (I remind you again, that the Force is basically magic. And that a decent number of people sat through the scientifically unteneble Limitless and Lucy. So demanding a strict adherence to “real science” seems somewhat excessive.) With sufficiently advanced technology, the film argues, we will no longer be slave to our natural genetic code (with various characters having been genetically engineered before birth as soldiers, Tatum among them), and not even to time itself, but at a cost.
Ultimately, the film seems to say, it is not the science that produces real evil, but the economic structure with its commitment to profit, and product, that will play out the real evil. There are literal human costs to this system, which uses raw genetic material to produce longevity. Kunis’ Jupiter has been drawn into a battle between the siblings of a corporate empire by virtue of her particular genetic code.

But what of the romantic genre itself? In the quest for better female representation in popular media, Romance as often been called upon to come to the rescue. After all, girls like love and having their social station elevated to grant them access to more finely made clothes, right?
I posted a number of months ago about the Bechdel Test, and asked you to think back on how many films had female characters interacting with each other (an order so tall that even with all the weight of Disney behind it, Marvel has only managed to pull it off on the small screen). Jupiter Ascending succeeds without any huge fanfare. The primary exposition for the film takes place when Tuppence Middleton shuffles Kunis into a vague understanding of her new station. In the words of my father, “What? Exposition between two women? But that’s ridiculous, everyone knows women don’t know anything!” Jupiter also has a relationship with her mother and her aunt, one of the women she keeps house for, and the lady captain of a space police ship.
Walking the tightrope of hyperbole, I would be willing to suggest that this is the most feminist science fiction film you’ll see this year. Certainly by this time this year.

I promised you social commentary on the nature of capitalism and I feel I should deliver. The film is split into a few factions: you have the Egiss who are a regulatory body, they are referred to at least once in the film as “space cops” and they serve as the instrumental power of the state, essentially to try and curb the greed of the ruling semi-aristocratic class who will lie, and murder without compunction to achieve their ends of growing their profit margins. Then you have the “Entitled,” who are a sort of landed gentry. They own planets, which they harvest to create a product that essentially renders people immortal. Bureaucracy makes its appearance as a hinderance, but also a neutral entity that can be used or abused pretty much entirely due to one’s familiarity with the process.
After that, violence is a commodity that can be bought, much as in our world. Bounty hunters abound, and can be made instruments for the Entitled in their battle to get their hands on the best source.

It is not a complex film. If you follow the surface plot, it’s a rag-to-riches, harlequin romance, complete with a handsome and loyal soldier for the romantic lead. If you fall to the second level, it’s a simple parable cursing the rich and their greedy, thoughtless practices, with a coming of age plot about reassessing your place in the world and making the best of your new station.
It also has lovely computer generated sets, that create a lush backdrop for the slightly humorous costume choices (space society is big on corsets). While it is not a film set to win any awards, it should neither be thrust in the category of “completely unremarkable” nor should it be cast out as “foolish” or worse “confusing” (that last one has left me perplexed, as there did not really appear to be anything that actually needed explaining, any “science” working as a large scale plot device devoid of anything resembling math or biology).

If spectacle, a dash of romance, and having a good laugh when space capitalists fail to produce offspring competent in hand-to-hand combat are things you enjoy give Jupiter Ascending a shot. It is, in the honor of a particular science fiction tradition, a damn good time..