Often recognised for his catalogue of self-referential, comic-book-inspired films,1 director Kevin Smith is seldom acknowledged for his influence upon the body horror subgenre. Instead, this honour is oft attributed to auteurs such as filmmaker David Cronenberg (The Fly, 1986), and literary author Clive Barker (Hellraiser, 1987); with the former being highly regarded as “the master of body horror”.2 Yet Smith’s influence upon the subgenre should not be understated, especially when considering his independent body-horror/comedy film Tusk (2014). Much as director Wes Craven reinvented/revitalised the slasher subgenre through Scream (1996),3 Smith too employs Tusk as a means of contextualising the subgenre, albeit through a fundamentally ridiculous concept that becomes horrifyingly real.4

Unlike Kevin Smith’s previous works, mostly set in his native New Jersey, Tusk is set against the backdrop of the isolated Canadian wilderness, the arctic tundra providing a strikingly familiar setting reminiscent of John Carpenter’s body horror classic The Thing (1982).5 Disregarding the recognisable figures that have recurred throughout much of Smith’s catalogue,6 Tusk instead depicts the story of protagonist Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), “a man who is kidnapped by a serial killer and surgically turned into a walrus”.7 Overlooking the apparent absurdity of the film’s primary narrative, Tusk goes to great efforts to emotionally “overwhelm” viewers, a common characteristic of body horror.8 It achieves this through the inclusion of recognisable genre symbols or ‘semantics’.9 The grotesque images of Wallace’s degenerating body are immediately recognisable from films such as David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986),10 and graphic scenes of surgical mutilation evocative of Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (2009).11  Tusk endeavours to distort the traditional flow of the body horror film with strikingly comedic themes, recognisable to viewers familiar with Smith’s earlier work,12 such as the irreverent humour found in the filmmakers fantasy-comedy Dogma (1999).13 Ultimately it is through “Smith’s fondness for finding the ludicrous in everything”14 that Tusk quickly devolves into a litany of contradictory ideas in his attempt to recontextualise the absurdist reality of the body horror genre.

To fully comprehend how Kevin Smith’s Tusk has affected the body horror subgenre, it is crucial to understand how the final film has been shaped by audience expectations. Whether manufactured “according to a standard generic template” or constructed as a method to reject “an existing generic paradigm”, genre films largely rely upon a spectator’s ability to either accept or reject the elements associated with genre.15 Historically, in an attempt to control audience expectations, filmmakers have often utilised pre-established materials as a foundation to create contemporary cinema, such as the way director Stuart Gordon adapted H.P. Lovecraft’s famous Herbert West–Reanimator (1922)16 into the body horror film Re-Animator (1985).17 This results in “syntactic expectation(s), that have been set up by semantic signal(s)”,18 or more simply, recurring symbols that have been combined to create a specific and anticipated meaning. In a unique departure from this tradition, Smith’s Tusk instead emerged from a joke between colleagues on the long-running SModcast podcast.19 What initially began as a drawn-out discussion (Episode #259, 2013) rapidly escalated into a heated social media campaign. It was here that spectators were asked to vote either #WalrusYes or #WalrusNo on Twitter in response to the concept.20 The following day Smith was confronted by “a sea of Walrus Yes”21 votes supporting his outlandish idea. Motivated by the success of the campaign, he then dedicated the next twelve months to the development and production of Tusk, an iconic body horror text created by a customarily comedic director. 

Blurring the line between body horror and comedy, Tusk provides spectators with a film that both accepts and rejects conventional body horror tropes through the infusion of Smith’s distinct comedic style. By injecting a sense of self-consciousness, Tusk destabilises the genre by “offering other interpretive configurations and generic associations”.22 By juxtaposing characters such as the sadistic Howard Howe (Michael Parks) and the comically unaware Bryton, Smith repeatedly demonstrates a desire to deviate from traditional body horror conventions. This sense of self-consciousness becomes particularly evident during the private shared moments between the two. One such instance occurs when Howe reminisces with Bryton about his past aboard an expedition vessel on the southern coast of Siberia, and the shipwreck that led to the demise of his fellow expedition crew. In moments such as this Smith explores the more traditional elements of the body horror subgenre, eliciting recognisable generic themes such as isolation and existential dread. However, this sense of trepidation quickly diminishes following Howe’s confession that he was rescued by a solitary Walrus that he affectionately named Mr. Tusk. The abrupt and unexpected narrative twist promptly evokes a sense of awareness within spectators, as the absurdity of the film’s primary narrative becomes apparent. Coupled with Bryton’s unapologetic act of stimulating a walrus baculum bone mere moments earlier, any sense of horror is quickly replaced by surrealist comedy. As such, Tusk provides audiences with the ability to find pleasure in a text that defies traditional genre norms.

Balancing the inherent dread of the body horror subgenre with the absurdity of a man being transformed into a walrus, Kevin Smith’s Tusk treads a fine line between horrific reality and comedic parody.23 Filled with stereotypical characters (such as the enigmatic Howard Howe), a predictable narrative, and an artificial sensation throughout,24 Tusk initially appears to be a poorly manufactured emulation of more refined texts. Much like the grotesque images witnessed in David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979)25 and the animalistic transformations featured within Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1932),26 Tusk similarly boasts deranged depictions of graphic violence and gruesome imagery.27 From the moment Bryton discovers a mysterious notice from Howe in the isolated Canadian bar, the film employs a knowing pastiche of predictable generic tropes to establish generic expectations within spectators. The isolated setting, sudden shift in plans, and the eventual venture into unfamiliar territory are all intensified by Bryton’s oblivious comment that there is “nothing weird about Canada”. However, unlike traditional body horror cinema, the film’s bizarre premise of a man forcibly transformed into a walrus serves as a self-reflexive commentary on the subgenre’s inherent absurdity. By infusing pastiche with a hint of parody28 Tusk accentuates the embellishments of the body horror subgenre, emerging as a striking departure from the formulaic body horror films that have preceded it.29 This awareness invites spectators to reconsider the possibilities of the body horror subgenre. When analysing Tusk alongside the generic evolution pattern proposed by Thomas Schatz, it becomes clear that at the time of release, the body horror subgenre remained firmly between the stages of refinement, where “formal and stylistic details embellish form”, and baroque, where “form and its embellishments are accented to the point… [they] become the substance”.30 While Schatz’s evolutionary model of genre is contested and may not be applicable to every genre, Tusk exemplifies a body horror film between modes, reflecting a willingness to experiment with the genre’s tropes while also paying homage to the cinematic texts that have preceded it.31

Director Kevin Smith is seldom acknowledged for his influence upon the body horror subgenre, often overlooked in favour of more traditional filmmakers such as “the master of body horror” David Cronenberg.32 Yet, to ignore Smith’s undeniably unique approach proves to be a great disservice to the many years of generic evolution that the subgenre has experienced. Ultimately, it is through Smith’s independent body-horror/comedy film Tusk that the director utilises a fundamentally ridiculous concept as a means to interrogate the traditional symbols of the subgenre. Smith takes what initially seems to be the premise of a bad parody and transforms it into something horrifyingly real.33

Tusk (2014, USA, 101 Minutes)

Prod Co: Demarest Films, XYZ Films, SModcast Pictures Prod: William D. Johnson, Sam Englebardt, David Greathouse, Shannon McIntosh Dir: Kevin Smith Scr: Kevin Smith Phot: James Laxton Ed: Kevin Smith Prod Des: John D. Kretschmer Mus: Christopher Drake

Cast: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Johnny Depp


  1. Anastasia Salter, and Mel Stanfill, A Portrait of the Auteur as Fanboy: The Construction of Authorship in Transmedia Franchises (USA: Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2020), p. 61-85.
  2. R. Gilbey, “The Master of Body Horror,” New Statesman, Issue 5684 (September 2022): p. 55-56.
  3. Scream, directed by Wes Craven (Dimension Films, 1996). PH. Broeske, “Reinventing a Genre,” Writer’s Digest, Issue 11 (November 1997): p. 55.
  4. Adam Bevel, “Review: Horror film Tusk a One-of-a-Kind Experience,” University Wire, 15 December 2015.
  5. The Thing, directed by John Carpenter (Universal Pictures, 1982).
  6. Salter and Stanfill.
  7. Bevel.
  8. B. Máté, “The Sensuality of Presence in ‘Body Horrors’: Rethinking Body Genres in Documentary and Experimental Film,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Issue 7 (2021): p. 1572.
  9. Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film” in Film Genre Reader IV, Barry Keith Grant, ed. (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2012), p. 27-41.
  10. The Fly, directed by David Cronenberg (20th Century Fox, 1986). Xavier Aldana Reyes, Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (UK: Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014), p. 60.
  11. Reyes, p. 153. The Human Centipede, directed by Tom Six (Bounty Films, 2009).
  12. J. Verniere, “Kevin Smith tortures moviegoers with Tusk”, TCA Regional News, 19 September 2014.
  13. Dogma, directed by Kevin Smith (Lionsgate Films, 1999).
  14. Grace Godvin, “Kevin Smith Takes a Stab at Horror Satire with Tusk,” University Wire, 28 September 2014.
  15. Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: British Film Institute, 1999), p. 37 & 38
  16. Herbert West, Herbert West–Reanimator (USA: Home Brew, 1922).
  17. Re-Animator, directed by Stuart Gordon (Empire International Pictures, 1985).
  18. Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film” in Film Genre Reader IV, Barry Keith Grant, ed. (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2012), p. 39.
  19. G. Macnab, “Kevin Smith – Tusk,” Screen Daily,” (July 2014).
  20. Alex Guyton, “Kevin Smith’s Tusk Gets Weird,” University Wire, 23 September 2014.
  21. Walrus Yes: The Making of Tusk, directed by Jason Mewes (YouTube, 2019).
  22. Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: British Film Institute, 1999), p. 127 & 143
  23. Godvin.
  24. Godvin.
  25. The Brood, directed by David Cronenberg (New World Pictures, 1979).
  26. Island of Lost Souls, directed by Erle C. Kenton (Paramount Pictures Inc., 1932).
  27. J. Verniere, “Kevin Smith tortures moviegoers with Tusk”, TCA Regional News, 19 September 2014.
  28. Richard Dyer, Pastiche (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2007), p. 92-136.
  29. Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. Random House (Now York: Random House, 1981), p. 34-41
  30. Schatz, p. 38.
  31. Godvin.
  32. Gilbey, p. 55-56.
  33. Bevel.

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