This post contains massive spoilers for both The Babadook and Tusk.
You have been warned with red letters
Though the buzz and chatter that brings to public attention various films, genre and otherwise, throughout a given year attached itself to any number of horror movies in 2014, including Oculus (I liked it a great deal!) and The Purge: Anarchy (it's a sack of garbage!), ever since sometime around, oh, I don't even know when, the two I was most excited and/or curious to check out -- and here we'll agree to exclude Under the Skin due to its being a whole other thing entirely -- were Jennifer Kent's The Babadook and Kevin Smith's Tusk. I use the past tense for reasons that should be obvious, and it would be nice to now be able to pit the two against each other. The profile of each has been pretty high in the latter months of the year, though while The Babadook's continues to rise, Tusk, after a relatively triumphant -- given Smith's recent track record and abrasive relationship with critics, no love having been lost between either party -- premiere at TIFF, has seen its fortunes slip to a pretty lowly state following a release strategy that strikes me as deeply puzzling (to the extent that I know about such things) and certainly unprofitable, but which, inevitably, has allowed more people to see the film, and thereby more opinions of it to be heard. If there was ever a film that was destined to be loved by all, Tusk most assuredly is not it.
At a glance, the two films have little in common apart from the tenuous connection of their shared genre, but I feel like each represents something about modern horror cinema; they point at, or towards, or maybe away from, something. What that is precisely might be difficult to get at, but what's clear in the case of Kent's The Babadook is that if the film has an impact beyond its enormous success among critics and genre fans, things could possibly be looking up for this eternally degraded genre. Because eventually, the monopoly of influence that has been enjoyed by old grindhouse films and '80s slasher movies has to wear off, right? One might bemoan the notion that naked influence has become horror cinema's lifeblood, but with the understanding that we can't conquer the whole world right out of the gate, wouldn't there be some optimism to be found in the possibility that this influence won't creep along in a predictably chronological fashion so that eventually we're watching movies that proudly bear the stamp of Thir13een Ghosts, but instead spreads back further and wider? It's this spread that The Babadook shows off, from the title on down.
The Babadook stars Essie Davis as Amelia, a woman we first meet being driven to the hospital because she is about to deliver their first child. But there is an accident, and her husband is killed. When we pick up with Amelia many years later, her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is about to turn seven. She has remained single since her husband's death and currently works as an orderly at elder care facility. And she has spent the last several years coming apart. Not only is she a single mother, but her son is also deeply troubled -- he's manic, hyper, anxious. He believes in monsters and constructs weapons, like crossbows, which though crude actually work, a fact that has gotten him into trouble at school time and again. He sleeps in the same bed as Amelia, clings to her like a drowning man to a sinking ship, and he grinds his teeth at night. The absence of his father, or perhaps the effects of some physical trauma caused by the accident, seems to have driven him mad. Anyway, this is how it often seems to Amelia, who finds her life to be increasingly made up of different pockets of isolation and stress. Along with her work, which can't possibly be relaxing, and her home life with a mad but loving son, there's Amelia's sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) who, every time Amelia sees her, appears to be subtly, but clearly, trying to distance herself and her daughter from Amelia and Samuel. And so the isolation expands. Soon she will be alone forever with the son she loves, whose own fear and anxiety manifest in behavior that is like nails in her skull. Essie Davis is at times astounding in the way her frantic exhaustion seems capable of driving the viewer to a nervous breakdown, out of sheer sympathetic terror.
The Babadook is frightening enough when it's just this stuff, and taken as a whole the film, which is Australian, might be described as "kitchen sink horror," a variation on the English kitchen sink dramas in which the antagonist was the day-to-day struggle to not be overwhelmed by life. One of the reasons the film has resonated so strongly is because the horror is rooted in life as many live it, not in other movies that many have seen. And when the actual supernatural elements are introduced, they are so old-fashioned as to seem almost new. Every night, Amelia reads Samuel a bedtime story. Usually she picks, but one night she gives him free rein and he comes to bed holding a large red book she doesn't recognize called Mister Babadook. The book presents strange gray drawings of a top-hatted creature called "the Babadook" demanding entrance to a young boy's house, and rhymes like "A rumbling sound then 3 sharp knocks: ba-BA-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK!That's when you'll know that he's around. You'll see him if you look." It seems like a typical, slightly spooky children's pop-up book, until it becomes more threatening, and soon Samuel is screaming. Subsequent attempts by Amelia to hide and even destroy the book prove fruitless, and soon she's receiving phone calls from a voice like a creaking door which only says "Baba...dook...Dook...DOOOK!" The question becomes, who is in more danger, Amelia or Samuel? And in danger of what, exactly?
The creature, the Babadook itself, is clothed in black, with a cape and top hat, possibly gloves, but if so covering long pointed fingers, and a chalk-white face that houses an enormous, razor-toothed mouth. This we catch only in glimpses, but those glimpses are clear enough. The imagery is strikingly eerie, but also classical -- the look and the name itself, "the Babadook," combine to create a completely new boogeyman that is at the same time as old as ghost stories. "The Babadook" is a masterpiece of neologism, worthy of enshrinement for later use, to terrify children generations from now who've never even heard of the film (judging by a headline I stumbled across the other day, apparently writer-director Jennifer Kent has given an interview in which she talks about the name, but I'd rather not know anything about it). More terrifying still is its context within this specific film. To answer an earlier question that may have seemed rhetorical, Amelia and Samuel are in equal danger -- Amelia is in danger of being possessed by the Babadook ("Let me in!"), and Samuel of being murdered by his mother. About two-thirds of the way into the film, Amelia is shown blankly watching TV. The Babadook has her now, she's stopped going to work, Samuel isn't going to school, and Samuel's mad conviction that the Babadook is real has become sanity, while Amelia's reasonable denial has transformed into a psychosis that is bordering on homicidal. It's a border the audience may be convinced she's about to spill across. On the TV is a news report about a mother who has killed her child. Instantly, what the viewer is reminded of is probably not the film's plot up to this point, but instead real stories of infanticide: the mother who drove her children into a lake. The mother who drowned one child after another until there weren't any more. The mother who smothered her child in its crib. Kent doesn't require you to make a leap here, as in this scene Amelia sees herself, smiling, in the window of the house of the murders in the news report. It's a horror idea -- a ghost story idea, really, evoking as it does famous photographs that purport to have captured real ghosts on film, each picture bringing with it its own contextualizing ghost story -- that is both classically effective and in relation to this movie genuinely unsettling in a way that reverberates outside of it.
I've heard The Babadook interpreted as ambiguous in its approach to the supernatural: is the Babadook real, or is it all in Amelia's mind? The film invites this, so much of it coming from or filtering through Amelia. Furthermore, I'm well aware that this is now the interpretation of choice among viewers who can find any way to apply it to any movie that has a patch on which it can be applied (and also films that don't), but to begin with, if we want deal with on-screen evidence, I'm forced to ask, if this is all in Amelia's head, where did the book come from? Samuel found it, not her. And if you want to brush that away, why do Amelia and Samuel have an equal and independent awareness of the Babadook? Either way, I think the mistake that too many people now make with the horror genre -- and I'm thinking here of both the audience and in some cases the artists, though not, in my view, in the case of Jennifer Kent and The Babadook -- is that when faced with a supernatural element sitting side-by-side with a real-world atrocity, only one can be considered worthwhile, or "real." It's beyond me why someone watching a horror film would require that within the film itself, the subtext must defeat the supernatural element -- perhaps people are becoming distrustful of metaphor. At any rate, "Stop doing that" is my advice, not least because it reduces the power of films like The Babadook. Kent has created a folkloric monster to represent the choking or drowning or stabbing of children by their parents (specifically mothers, it should be noted, and this I think is intentional on Kent's part; stories about fathers killing their children often take on a different texture, not least because the fathers often kill their entire families, including spouses and sometimes, if they're nearby, parents). Kent's influence is myth, and if her film lasts beyond the current excited reaction to it, it could become part of that myth. Or rather, again, folklore, the kitchen sink mythology.
However, then the film comes to its end. With all of the above in mind, it should logically follow that The Babadook will end in one of two ways: either Amelia will murder Samuel, or Samuel will defeat the Babadook, with or without Amelia's help, thereby saving Amelia (or not). Instead, Kent found a third ending, one I'm still kicking around. It's not "happy," of that I'm pretty sure. The Babadook is defeated in that neither Amelia nor Samuel are dead, but as the book Mister Babadook prophesied, "You Can't Get Rid of the Babadook!" and indeed, the creature resides, in the end, in their basement. They know it's there, and Amelia feeds it worms. In the garden, black roses grown, indicating that the Babadook has poisoned the soil. It's hard not to believe that this is evidence of Kent having pulled shyly away from her theme of filicide, and it's harder still to not feel it as the ending unspools. But what's going on, really? I'm reminded in a way of The Ring (or Ringu, whichever you saw first), at the end of which the mother becomes a willing, if begrudging, link in the chain of urban legend and death. The ending of The Babadook can be read similarly, with Amelia becoming the willing keeper of the Babadook as a means of protecting herself and her son. Unlike in The Ring, however, Amelia and Samuel seem happy, even eager, with the arrangement, not merely resigned to it as a trade for their perhaps temporary safety, as you might expect. But maybe Samuel is simply happy that his mother is alive, the one thing he's always claimed to want. As for Amelia, the relief she must feel at the end has to be enormous, because she has regained control, of her son and her life. It's unspoken in the film, but can she not bully her son with threats? Why should a thing like the Babadook exist if not so parents can say to their children "Stop that, or the Babadook will get you!" And by "the Babadook," I of course mean me.
So what does any of this have to do with Kevin Smith's Tusk? Apart from the fact that I watched The Babadook and Tusk on consecutive nights, I'm becoming unsure how to answer that question. I've long regarded Smith with, at the very least, skepticism, and this is back in the beginning: I remember being a young man who liked Clerks while secretly not liking it that much, and it's been pretty much all downhill from there. I became tired of being forced by his films to ask not just how many cum jokes can one film have, but how many cum jokes must any one life endure? And as I got older and began to understand more about filmmaking and its possibilities and potential, the aggressiveness of his visual indifference began to feel like a sour insult. None of this would have mattered as much if he hadn't been so heralded in the beginning, from roughly Clerks through Dogma, with his second feature, Mallrats, being thought of as the one allowable hiccup. Then, as Smith became more and more of an outspoken public figure, his insistence on saying things like "Me and a bunch of cats are going to the theater to peep some flicks" (I'm paraphrasing) combined with things like his bullshit takedown of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, a film of extraordinary ambition and risk coming just two years before Smith himself released the execrable Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, a film that is the visual equivalent of having two potheads scream jokes about hey, how do Wookies jerk off??? Maybe Yoda helps or maybe Boba Fet helps or maybe Salacious Crumb helps!!! More like Salacious Cum!!! into your ears; these things combined, as I say, to make Smith a figure to be ignored. I did like Jersey Girl. I'm not kidding, that's the one I liked.
Well, more recently Smith has been drifting away from his brand of sentimental sex comedies and towards horror, a genre his films and public statements had never indicated he'd had any kind of preoccupation with, at least not that I'd ever noticed. Instead of being dubious, I became curious. Within reason, but still curious. And in truth, the first film to grow out of this, Red State isn't really a horror film, and I believe it's regarded as one only because that's what people called it. There's no reason to go over that film here -- suffice it to say I thought it was dogshit, it's certainly no Jersey Girl, etc. But then Smith announced a second horror film, and here's where the first problem with Tusk pops up. Smith seems to believe that how he got the idea for the film is the most interesting thing in the world, and that's why for the last year and a half I can't seem to escape the bit of film history that is the episode of Smith's podcast on which he and long-time producer Scott Mosier hatched the plot, based on what they then believed was a real personal ad looking for someone to dress up as a walrus for the presumably sexual gratification of the ad-placer. This ad turned out to be a hoax, or a joke anyway, but Smith had publicly had an idea for his movie, and he was going through with it. I'm willing to regard this as all well and good, but it's beyond my understanding why this is so interesting. Sometimes people have ideas while sitting in chairs. A lot of people have ideas based on something strange they read in the newspapers. I'd say each is about as common as the other, and as common as lots of other idea-gathering methods, and all are equally as interesting, which is to say: not very. Speaking of the chair thing, that's how David Lynch says he gets his ideas: by sitting in a chair and thinking. I actually do find that interesting -- the act of having a story idea as a kind of job -- but not so interesting that I hope Lynch talks about it in every interview he ever gives. And beside it, reading a newspaper doesn't match up.
But none of this deadened my curiosity. Because yes, I was curious, honestly curious -- I wasn't optimistic, but my interest didn't come from a desire to ironically trash a new catastrophe. The basic concept of a walrus costume-based horror film can't help but make me screw up my mouth and make "Hm" noises, and the fact that this was Smith only heightened everything, but again, not due to some insatiable need for irony. This was a filmmaker with whom I was familiar, familiar enough to disdain -- hence curiosity rather than excitement -- and here he was trying something that was, for him, brand new, or sounded like it would be. But would it be? One thing about Red State is that Smith ostensibly stepped up his game visually, moving the camera and so on, but any visual style that film had was borrowed from whatever was trendy at the time, and since the violence in that film is all of the gunfight variety, what was borrowed was a kind of action movie graininess. The point being, it wasn't his, and I knew where he'd found it. But from where would he borrow the style for his walrus movie?
And now the movie has been made and released, and here we are, and I think I've cleared my throat quite enough. Instead of working directly from the personal ad angle, Smith's idea was both more elaborate and just as basic. An extraordinarily successful podcaster ("Last year I made $100,000 on ad revenues alone!") named Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) takes a trip to Winnipeg to meet a kid who accidentally cut off his own leg with a samurai sword, the whole thing caught on a video that went viral. Wallace wants to interview the kid and report back to his co-host Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment), who refuses to travel. This quirk of Teddy's personality led to the conception and title of the podcast, which is called "The Not-See Party." Because look, he won't travel, so Wallace has to go out and find these odd characters and places and then...and then tell Teddy. About them. Because Teddy, with his unwillingness to travel and everything, didn't go, so he didn't seem them. He did NOT SEE them. It's a fun, and more importantly organic, play on words that leads to lots of not only confusion, but hijinks as well. So Wallace goes to Winnipeg, only to discover that the kid killed himself. Now what? He doesn't want the trip to be a waste but isn't sure what to do about it, until in the men's room of a bar he finds on a bulletin board a hand-written ad, or request, or invitation by a man named Howard Howe (Michael Parks), which says, in brief, that he's had a long life filled with adventures, is now confined to a wheelchair, and he believes it would be mutually beneficial for the reader of the ad to visit and have dinner and listen to his stories. It all sounds strange enough to entice Wallace, who goes to Howe's mansion out in the middle of nowhere to interview him. He finds the old man fascinating (he met Hemingway in Normandy just before D-Day!) and charming, and he's happy to listen to the man talk and talk. But the tea Wallace was served was drugged and soon he's passed out. When he wakes up, he's in a wheelchair and one of his legs has been amputated.
Now. So. Here it is. The gist of what Howe tells Wallace is that, in his adventurous youth, Howe believes he was saved from certain death at sea following a shipwreck by a walrus, but in order to survive long enough to be rescued and returned to civilization he had to kill and eat that same walrus, this after not only being saved by the animal but also developing with it what Howe believes was the most meaningful friendship of his life (we get a fair amount of Howe's background, the most credible part of which also happened to Batman). Howe wants to restore that meaning to his life by surgically transforming Wallace into a walrus (or Wall-rus I guess, because the names reflect each other, you see). He has a walrus suit -- made of skin and fat and the like -- that he can stitch Wallace into. So Howe cuts off Wallace's other leg and we're more or less off to the races. However, before Wallace was completely incapacitated he was able to briefly get his hands on his cell phone and he left terrified and terrifying messages for both his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and Teddy (Ally and Teddy are having an affair), so the two of them, Ally and Teddy, hit the road for Manitoba, where Howe's house can be found.
What you can see with Tusk, or what I saw in Tusk and damn it I'm not afraid to say it, is Kevin Smith trying to grow as a filmmaker. Given his history, it's difficult to express this in a way that doesn't sound, or isn't outright, condescending, but for example at one point there's an overhead shot and I thought "Whoa, buckle up fellahs." And if I may shift from condescending to patronizing, it's possible to sometimes be touched by the effort because it's inept. When Bryton is in the bar where he eventually finds Howe's ad, he's on the phone with Teddy and he mentions that the bar is called simply "H." While he's saying this, Smith cuts to a shot of a wall in the bar filled with Canadiana -- hockey sticks, fishing gear, etc. -- and the camera pans very slowly along it until it stops on a large neon "H." This might have been justified if the bar held any special significance down the line, but it doesn't; it turns up once more but in a sort of montage while Teddy and Ally look for Wallace. That pan is there just because Smith hadn't done that before and he wanted to flex a muscle. It's ridiculous, but is it worse than planting his camera in front of two guys talking about sticking their dicks in the same burrito? I submit that it is not.
In Tusk, Smith also tries messing around with structure. The film is built around flashbacks of Wallace with Teddy and Ally that serve to reveal that Wallace is kind of a dick -- Ally strongly objects to the exploitative nature of the podcast -- who cheats on his girlfriend and who went from being a kind-hearted stand-up comic who constantly bombed to a nationally famous podcaster who built his success on the backs of a parade of outcasts and oddballs. So Tusk is about how absolute power corrupts absolutely, is basically what's going on. Anyway, this structure is meant to flesh out Wallace as something more than just a victim -- it's that character development that they got now -- but on a practical level (and whether or not Smith planned this I couldn't say, but I suspect he did) it also serves to bulk out the running time to feature length. Because Wallace is a walrus by about minute 45, and that's with the flashbacks. Smith achieves the same effect with his dialogue, which even he has long considered his main talent. For what it's worth I'd say that's fair enough, although his taste for "literary" monologues has become an almost terrifying crutch; his talents do not tend in that direction. Tusk is peppered with literary references that I suspect Smith knew nothing about until the day of shooting -- when Howe quotes "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Wallace immediately says "'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner!'" It's not enough to know it; it's also necessary that you know he knows it. But what does he know? When Howe describes the walrus who saved him as being "as tall as Scylla and Charybdis," does Smith realize that in the case of the Charybdis comparison that's not unlike saying of someone "He was as tall as a whirlpool"? And what Michael Parks, who is very good here and who was far and away the highlight of Red State (digression: I once bemoaned on Social Media that Parks is too good an actor to be in Kevin Smith films, and I was rebuked by someone who pointed out that Smith is the only filmmaker who's actually giving Parks good roles, to which I could only respond "Touché") is given to say has all the surface qualities of being linguistically ostentatious, by which I mean his sentences contain several words each, there's no real style to any of it -- it's all just an act of prolongation. If Howe wants to compliment Wallace for catching a reference, he'll say "Well remembered." That's about as far as any of this goes.
But I repeat, Parks is good here. So is Justin Long, and here's where things get tricky. A few years back, Sam Raimi made a horror film called Drag Me to Hell. It's a movie I don't love, but the ending is very strong, and one element of the ending that was very unexpected, especially coming as it did after what is essentially meant to be a funny horror goof-off kind of thing, was the emotional weight that was suddenly lent to it by Justin Long's performance. His job in the scene is to react to something that is both insane and impossible but also would be, for his character, deeply painful. Raimi doesn't focus on Long because it's not really his scene, but he has the harder job of the two major actors involved and with one expression Raimi's film suddenly gets this jolt of humanity that not only shouldn't work but maybe shouldn't even be there, but somehow Long makes it work, and the film would be much poorer without it. The man may not have a spotless filmography, but there's something about him in these kinds of films, and he brings it to Tusk, and Smith knows how to use it. Long plays the terror, the excruciating bewilderment, the physical agony, and finally the hopelessness of a broken mind that a premise like this needs if it's ever going to get off the ground. Am I overstating this? Probably -- this isn't Brando in On the Waterfront or anything close to it. But I think it's far too easy to take a performance like Long's for granted and to say afterwards "Oh he was fine, it wasn't his fault." The job he was given to do here is absurd, but he does it. He also spends more of the movie than you might think as the walrus creature, and all he has to work with there are his eyes and his scream. He spends a lot of the film screaming.
And, okay, look. If you want to define it in these terms, then broadly speaking Tusk is a failure, it's a bad movie, large chunks of it are clumsy and stupid. But I don't happen to think it's unreasonable to have felt an emotional tug that one not only doesn't often feel from horror films but which one is almost never asked to feel by horror films, when I see Long's character change from a cocky asshole who is, weirdly, nevertheless obviously good-natured to someone who is unable to process the terror of an unbelievable situation and fate. I admit it, I thought of real victims of actual serial killers (which is what Howe is eventually designated) who, on the day of their deaths, probably were enjoying a typical moment of every-day life before suddenly existing in a brief, if they were lucky, agony of an unimaginable nightmare. You can tell me to fuck off, this is a stupid Kevin Smith movie, but that's what Long was asked to play, and that's what he plays.
So how am I supposed to regard that in juxtaposition to Johnny Depp, who turns up about an hour in as Guy Lapointe, a Quebecois ex-cop contacted by Ally and Teddy who has been hunting Howe for years. Smith's writing for Lapointe is basically intended to be the funny good-guy equivalent of Howe's monologues, and his dialogue is about as memorable, but that's not even the worst of it. I suppose the idea was to write a bumbling but ingenious detective character, maybe like Columbo, who can say, but, for one thing, the most ingenious thing Lapointe does is to rub a pencil over a blank pad of paper to pick up the indentations of what had been written on the since-removed sheet above it (does Smith really believe that trick is only as old as The Big Lebowski?), but the character and Depp's performance are bone-stupid. Depp, I imagine, had a lot of say in what Lapointe would finally be, but I don't think Smith had any unspoken objections to having his ostensibly serious horror film (I've heard Tusk described as an unambiguous horror comedy with the emphasis on "comedy"; it's not) completely taken over by a character and performance that recalls nothing so much as Eugene Levy at his most untethered. And even if Depp's Lapointe was as funny as that sounds, it would still have been a colossally terrible idea, and he's nowhere near as funny as that sounds.
And yet, and yet. Another thing I've heard about Tusk is that it's proof that Kevin Smith doesn't care, a criticism I find bizarre. Whatever you think of it, Tusk seems like evidence that Smith is maybe just beginning to care, or maybe care again. You can actually see him trying, and as big a mess as this ridiculous film is, I don't believe you can end up with Tusk by being lazy. You can end up with Tusk by not really knowing what you're doing, but not by being indifferent. But why should you listen to me? The last scene, which is almost amazing in part for its lack of context and the absence of any logic, but also for its emotional overreach, that scene worked for me! It's stupid and inept, but the emotion worked, to some degree because Wallace was doomed before the film was even half over. We could see that, and that's part of how Smith plays with structure as well. There's also a song used in the closing credits called "O Waly! Waly!" which is a traditional folk song, performed in this case by Gerard Way. And it's a very pretty song that made me think "Poor Wallace Bryton." Yeah well, fuck you too. Maybe it's a matter of me "falling for it." But if I fell for it, then I fell for it, and so the effect was the effect. And I'll tell you what, as indefensible as much of Tusk is, I would rather watch a film like this that badly sought for a way to make itself work than the gritless "grit" of Jim Mickle or the sleepy beige pandering of Adam Wingard. If The Babadook proves that talented filmmakers are working within the genre, Tusk makes me optimistic that the disingenuous film school shits who are currently holding it hostage aren't the only other alternative. The options aren't merely one The Babadook and then several dozen You're Next clones (or the films it's already a clone of). There's also the occasional Tusk, which is nothing like either of them.