Tusk” starts Fantastic Fest off with a bang

Alex Williams

The opening night of Fantastic Fest is always a memorable event, and this year proved to be no exception. Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema CEO, kicked off the evening with pyrotechnics and an extended rap session before introducing director Kevin Smith, who brought his “Human Centipede” remix “Tusk” to open this year’s festival. Smith pledged to retire from film after self-distributing the insufferably self-important “Red State,” but “Tusk” is a welcome improvement and a promising revitalization for the director.

The film was notoriously conceived on one of Smith’s many podcasts, and Justin Long fittingly stars as Wallace, a podcaster who travels the country interviewing social misfits and Internet video stars. When Wallace travels to Canada for an interview, only to have it fall apart at the last minute, he is desperate to come home with a story. Luckily, he stumbles upon Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a secluded old man who promises tales of a life of adventure. Howe has other plans, though, and Wallace soon finds himself a captive to a psychopath with one plan of action: to turn his new roommate into a walrus.

It’s an unabashedly absurd premise, and Smith deserves commendation for bringing his film’s concept to its grotesque logical end point. The film packs some truly unsettling imagery — and spectacular make-up effects from Robert Kurtzman — and even flirts with genuine social commentary, a first for the generally low-brow Smith. Although “Tusk” entertains throughout, the film occasionally drags, and it’s hard not to notice that the plot hinges on a series of coincidences, at best, and utter gaps in logic, at worst. 

Smith assembled a bold cast, led by Parks, one of the most reliable supporting actors in the business. Parks is hypnotizing as Howe, a lonely man with a lifetime of stories and regrets, and, even as the film delves into seriously bizarre territory, Parks keeps things on the rails. Long initially comes off as brash and unlikable, but his terrified work as he transitions from human to walrus is remarkable and disturbing. Meanwhile, an age-ravaged Haley Joel Osment is utterly distracting as Wallace’s podcasting partner, and Genesis Rodriguez is unmemorable as Wallace’s long-suffering girlfriend. 

At the post-film Q&A, Smith confirmed plans to make a trilogy of films set in Canada, kicking off with “Tusk” and ending with “Moose Jaws,” which is exactly what it sounds like. While “Tusk” is an imperfect work, predictably flabby with dialogue on occasion, it’s a promising start to a new phase in Smith’s career. 

Opening night of Fantastic Fest concluded with a double feature of raucously entertaining sequels: “The ABCs of Death 2” and “Dead Snow 2.” “ABCs” is an anthology of horror shorts, with 26 directors helming 26 methods of demise in alphabetical order. While the first film delighted in a disgusting variety of bodily fluids, the sequel reins in the fart jokes and ups the tension and creativity, resulting in a vastly improved product. With segments in a variety of languages and formats — one of the most memorable is a nightmarish stop-motion piece — “ABCs of Death 2” has a far-from-perfect batting average but remains engaging and entertaining throughout.

Meanwhile, “Dead Snow 2” builds on the original film’s Nazi zombie premise by introducing an army of Russian zombies who are destined to meet in the extended climactic battle. That should tell you everything you need to know about the film, which has plenty of blood, guts and even a small helping of brains. Martin Starr brings the laughs in his small supporting role, but Vegar Hoel is fantastically brawny as the unflappable lead character.