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Review:  A gross ‘Tusk’ from Kevin Smith

No matter how many horror movies you’ve seen, it’s safe to say you’ve never seen one quite like the super-freaky “Tusk.”

In the hands of iconoclastic writer-director Kevin Smith, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Although the film may echo bits from such exponentially better shockers as “An American Werewolf in London,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “Misery” and others, this tonal mishmash is a misfire of literally gross proportions.

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If you’re going to make an involving movie about a madman who surgically turns humans into walruses (yes, you read that right), you’d best whip up a sympathetic hero, credible puzzle pieces and propulsive tension to help sell such an off-putting, outlandish setup.

Instead, in telling this bizarro story of Wallace (Justin Long), a brash podcaster who goes to interview an old seafarer (Michael Parks) up in Manitoba only to discover the guy’s a serial killer with an unthinkable predilection, Smith too often kneecaps the picture’s would be terror and urgency. His weapons of choice: an excess of flashbacks, scattershot humor and lengthy bits that evoke TV skits more than organic film scenes.

Crass, self-reverential comedy is hardly new to the Smith oeuvre (“Clerks,” “Dogma,” “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”), but it proves especially misguided here. For example: All the “Not-See Party” (the name of the film’s podcast) versus “Nazi Party” riffing is not funny. At all. And what’s with all the hoary Canadian jabs? Is there an iota of comedy left to be wrung from the fact that Canucks pronounce the word “about” as “a-boot”? Or that they say “eh?” a lot and love their hockey?

Perhaps most troublesome, though, is the snarky Wallace, whom the audience needs to get behind and never does. Smith has drawn him as such an obnoxious opportunist it’s almost karmic that the guy should meet with a ghastly fate. That the role is so annoyingly overplayed by Long, an engaging comic actor of elastic, everyman charms, adds insult to injury.

As murderer Howard Howe, veteran actor Parks (also in Smith’s 2011 “Red State”) dutifully runs the gamut from stately raconteur to mush-mouthed hick (in an interminable flashback) to full-on wackadoodle. But his character becomes so repellent — he’ll surely go down as one of the bigger sickos in genre film history — you just wish he’d go away.

The small cast includes Genesis Rodriguez as Wallace’s needy, put-upon girlfriend, Ally, and Haley Joel Osment as Wallace’s giddy podcast partner, Teddy. (In reality, Smith and bud Scott Mosier host a weekly podcast, from which the idea for “Tusk” reportedly emanated.)

Also on board is an unrecognizable Johnny Depp (billed as Guy Lapointe) as a befuddled, unamusingly accented French Canadian detective who helps Ally and Teddy track down the missing Wallace. Depp’s goofy, excessive third-act appearance nearly grinds the movie to a halt. There had to be a more effective use for the chameleon-like star.

As for the film’s seeming raison d’etre, the walrus-ization of Wallace (walrus, Wallace — get it?), Howe’s anatomical repurposing of his victim is as sickening to witness as it is to imagine. On the upside, Smith’s inevitable use of the classic Fleetwood Mac tune “Tusk” is audacious and, quite frankly, perfect. What, no “I Am the Walrus?”

“Tusk.”

MPAA rating: R for disturbing violence and gore, language, sexual content.

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

Playing in general release.


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