The only reason “Tusk” didn’t go straight to video as a schlocky B-flick with a built-in cult following is the same reason it exists in the first place: Kevin Smith. The director has been making movies on the cheap for 20 years, since he shot “Clerks” for less than 30 grand and launched a mini-empire of geek-fueled slackerdom. He also wrote “Tusk,” off an extended riff that started on his podcast, and made it for a modest $3 million. What emerges doesn’t feel like anything the director has done before. It’s quite respectable low-budget horror — thanks largely to a creeptastic turn by Michael Parks as a stately shut-in — casseroled with honest laughs and dollops of pathos. If you find a more unsettling movie at a multiplex this fall, mercy on your soul.
Justin Long (you’ve heard him say “I’m a Mac” ad nauseam) plays a wiseass podcaster named Wallace, who along with his buddy Teddy (Haley Joel “I see dead people” Osment, all grown up) has built quite a following, mostly by jabbering about Internet flotsam. He flies to Manitoba to interview a kid who’d injured himself in a viral video, only to arrive in Winnipeg and find it’s a no-go. Scrambling for a backup he hits upon a curious flier that advertises a place to stay in exchange for help around an old man’s house — but he calls up to hear the guy talk about his life, which the flier makes sound like pulp-novel outtakes of war and the high seas.
The old man (Parks) doesn’t disappoint, welcoming Wallace into his countryside mansion and regaling him with tales of manly adventurism. We learn during this discourse — through which Wallace, trying to be ingratiating, remains oblivious to a hint of swirling danger — that the aging seafarer has an enduring affinity for a certain elephantine-flippered Arctic sea mammal. Without spoiling things here, after a bit of yadda yadda and some goo goo j’goob, you’ll never look at a walrus the same way again.
Smith’s characters have always been discursive, talky sorts, and in “Tusk,” he gives them range to jabber. Surely this is, in part, tactical: Long conversations obviate scene changes, and when you’re making a feature film for peanuts, it’s better to give your podcaster a few more lines than to, for instance, blow up a stadium. The director at one point apparently considered Quentin Tarantino for the role of the hermit, and you can see that admiration in the Tarantinoesque pacing of scenes and nested anecdotes within long stretches of dialogue. By the time Johnny Depp arrives, unrecognizable as a Quebecois homicide inspector, a tilted air of dark comedy has settled over what could have remained a fairly straight-ahead horror tale. And once he gets a burger in him, he, too, is content to prattle on.
Its reliance on the perversely funny and on deeper character stories makes “Tusk” curiously sinister. Even Wallace’s girlfriend, played by Genesis Rodriguez, a typical throwaway part in a movie of this ilk, carries enough backstory that you give a damn about her, and about her affable rake of a boyfriend. “Tusk” gets away with being so relentlessly weird because it manages to create a functional, believable world that it then distorts, gruesomely and joyfully. Rarely does a movie so succeed in becoming what it wanted, even when the goal is no more ambitious than to realize a laughing-gas nightmare on the Canadian prairie.