It’s hard to describe “Tusk” in a way that fully captures its unapologetically demented weirdness, but I’ll try. Something of a departure even for writer-director Kevin Smith — whose burgeoning oeuvre now spans sex farce, horror, romance, fantasy and documentary — the film is a hybrid of fairy tale, gothic horror, psychological thriller and comedy. It’s the saga of a Canadian lunatic who lures an American traveler into his home and then imprisons him for the purpose of transforming the man, surgically, into a walrus.
If you think it sounds like “The Human Centipede,” minus the coprophagia and with a few more laughs, you’re not far off.
Although I detected some gleeful snickering coming from one or two members of the invited audience at a recent press screening (which, given the demographics of the movie-reviewing population, may have included some actual psychopaths), the louder reaction seemed to be a deafening stunned silence.
The hush was nice because it allowed me to drift off from time to time, without distraction, during the film’s draggier bits.
Did I say draggy? Once the outlandish premise is established — and this occurs fairly early on — the movie is an exercise in foregone conclusions. As unimaginable as it may sound on paper, the story of one man (Michael Parks) turning another (Justin Long) into a 4,000-pound marine mammal plays out pretty much exactly like it sounds. First the legs are amputated and fused into a tail, then the arms are wrenched into rudimentary flippers, tusks are implanted in the jaw and the scarred torso is filled with — I’m not quite sure what. Maybe chicken fat, maybe 100 percent goose down, creating something that looks like a cross between a flesh comforter and a Snuggie made of human skin.
Toss the man a raw mackerel and let’s get on with it.
Only the cameo appearance of an uncredited Johnny Depp, playing a French Canadian detective with a ludicrously broad accent, was sufficient to rouse me, briefly, from the torpor induced by listening to Parks. For much of the film, the actor drones on about how his character, Howard Howe, fell in love (or something) with a walrus that had saved his life. As mesmerizing a raconteur as Parks is — and he’s absolutely the best thing about “Tusk” — the actor ultimately turns the film into a bedtime story with his soporific delivery.
Much of the film features Howe regaling Long’s Wallace Bryton — a Los Angeles comedy podcaster who collects tales of the bizarre from around the world — with a shaggy-walrus tale that’s meant to explain his pinniped obsession. Despite some flashback scenes, none of this is especially cinematic. This is unsurprising, considering that Smith’s film is based on “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” a 2013 podcast that the filmmaker created with collaborator Scott Mosier for their omnivorous dissection of pop culture, Smodcast.
There’s something about “Tusk” that feels like it would work better as old- fashioned radio. What dazzles the mind’s eye — or the ear — comes across as disappointingly literal on celluloid.
All that being said, I have no doubt that there is an audience for “Tusk.” On his way out of the theater, one critic compared it, not unfavorably, to Tod Browning’s masterpiece “Freaks.”
The comparison is not entirely inapt. But where Browning’s 1932 film about circus freaks was actually about something — the loneliness of outsiders and the monstrousness of so-called normal people — “Tusk” seems to harbor no grander ambitions than to create a gross-out gag. It leaves us with the indelible image of a man in a walrus suit, but it’s really something much slighter: monkeyshines dressed up like a movie.
R. At area theaters. Contains violent and disturbing imagery, some gore, crude language and sexual content. 102 minutes.