Writer and director Kevin Smith has built his career on comedy. Success for the New Jersey filmmaker began with his 1994 cult classic, Clerks, allowing him to create an assortment of goofball films. From the delightful raunchiness of 1995’s Mallrats to the wacky existential tale that is 1999’s Dogma, eclipsing both with the misadventures of his iconic stoner duo in 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Smith has had a way of weaving engaging characters for us to follow. Over time, and with various characters and plot points crossing over, his films have created their own sort of cinematic universe. Claimed by his fans and named after his production company, the View Askewniverse encapsulates Smith’s own world, and he’s returning to it this week with his latest venture, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot.
But in the latter half of his career, Smith began taking some interesting left turns, particularly into the horror genre. While these ventures weren’t remarkably successful, especially by comparison to his beloved roots work, Smith at least managed to spin a ghoulish tale that was original. As wacky and irreverent as they appear to read on paper, they’re fueled by surprising levels of nightmarish tension. And given his talents as a filmmaker, coupled with these left-of-the-dial stories, it feels as if Smith could potentially make a hell of a career out of the genre. Of course, that opens the floor to a few questions: First off, what is it that makes Smith’s take on horror potentially intriguing? Second, how is he able to unnerve a viewer? And last, what would it mean for him to further pursue horror?
Let’s go back to the beginning. In 2011, Smith wrote and directed Red State, a quasi-political send-up revolving around a group of friends who think they are on their way to participate in group sex, but end up getting kidnapped and held prisoner at an ultra-conservative church. For a moment, Smith almost tricks the viewer with the group-sex premise, alluding to some fun shenanigans; but it doesn’t take long for the narrative to take a drastic turn into dread and violence.
Smith stated that part of the inspiration for Red State came from none other than Fred Phelps, the pastor of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, an institution known for their extreme views against the LGBTQ+ community. The film’s antagonist, Abin Cooper, played by Michael Parks, spews hatred and bigotry, embracing the cruel ideology of a figurehead such as Phelps. While the film eventually goes off on various dives into violence and bloodshed, Red State utilizes one of Smith’s most powerful artistic abilities: his writing.
Among Smith’s qualities as a filmmaker, his ability to make the viewer feel like they are present with his characters has always been intriguing. The seemingly natural aura in his settings, along with the causal flow of dialogue, ground his work in realism; yet, his approach to humor also allows for magical realism, further amplifying immersion for the viewer. You can have a nonsensical conversation between Jay and Silent Bob or even a debate between Mallrats’ Brody and T.S. about comic books, and you’re going to find yourself latched on to the flow of conversation.
When it comes to Red State, Smith uses his talent for writing dialogue to not only present the horrifying Abin Cooper, but to set the viewer in an uncomfortable space. As the viewer watches Cooper go off on his bigoted ideals, it feels as if they are present for a hateful sermon; rather than bring the viewer along for a wacky journey, Smith uses Red State to have them witness a character who reflects the darker parts of our reality.
Such a tonal shift in Smith’s work was quite the surprise; in his previous films, he had rarely dwelt on any sort of heavy subject matter. Reviews for the film were varied, with some critics citing issues with the overall narrative being a mess and others applauding Smith’s efforts to create a unique story. While containing elements of humor and his use of dialogue, there isn’t anything that ties it to his cinematic universe of goofy stoners and comic geeks.
Around the time of Red State’s release, Smith spoke about potentially retiring from filmmaking; later he clarified that he would continue to make films, but works that were uniquely in his voice. It is after Red State that Smith not only continues to follow down the path of horror, but creates his most iconic contemporary film to date.
Among his numerous creative activities, Smith has a podcast titled SModcast. The weekly show centers around discussions about a variety of subjects; it would be the show’s 259th episode where the seed for his next feature would be planted. Titled “The Walrus and The Carpenter”, Smith and his long-time friend and producing partner Scott Mosier joke about the idea of a person offering free lodging to someone, as long as the lodger agrees to dress up like a walrus. The conversation eventually grew into something more for Smith; he took to social media, presenting the idea to his viewers to see if it should be a film. The majority of his followers voted yes, and Smith shortly after began writing the script for what would be Tusk.
Protagonist Wallace (played by Justin Long) is a podcaster who shares goofy stories; after plans for an interview fall through, he comes across an ad for someone willing to share stories of adventure. Traveling to a secluded house, he meets Howard (also played by Michael Parks). From there, Howard shares a variety of interesting tidbits with Wallace, including tales of being a seaman and his close walrus friend. However, the quiet and polite Howard is not all he seems, for he drugs Wallace and amputates one of his legs. Howard eventually reveals to Wallace that he intends on putting him in a walrus suit as a means to recreate his long-lost walrus companion.
It’s fair to say that the premise for Tusk comes across at first as comical; walruses are typically not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of the horror genre, and the idea of putting someone in a “walrus suit” sounds goofy as hell. But even with minor moments of lighthearted humor, Tusk primarily offers grim takes on comedy, most of its laughs coming out of discomfort.
Smith once again uses his writing to create a horror out of Parks; the way Howard belittles and antagonizes Wallace is cruel and even heartbreaking. While Tusk isn’t a flawless film, it’s possibly Smith’s most fleshed out when it comes to characters. Even if one finds the characters of Clerks or Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back amusing, there usually isn’t much depth to them; when it comes to Tusk, however, Smith’s characters are more rounded. The narrative still contains touches of goofiness, but Tusk is also Smith’s most human film.
Other than Howard and ex-police inspector Guy LaPointe (Johnny Depp), none of the other characters are as over the top. When first introduced to Wallace, we learn pretty quickly that he is a dick and that there’s not much to like about him. Over time we learn more about how he can be cold to others, including how he cheats on his loving girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez). Said girlfriend is also secretly hooking up with Wallace’s friend (Haley Joel Osment); while this relationship makes her feel cared for, she also feels ashamed. Looking at this relationship triangle alone, Smith sets up an intimate dynamic with his characters for the viewer to latch onto alongside the film’s horror-driven elements.
As Wallace continues to endure more torture, the viewer begins to feel for him; for as much as Wallace has been a dick to others, Howard’s treatment is a different level of cruel and sadistic. At times mocking Wallace, Parks creates his own dynamic where he stands like a giant in comparison to him. As we see Wallace attempt to remain sane, one can’t help but feel terrible for him.
But these feelings amplify when it comes to the actual walrus transformation. Speaking to the film’s use of body horror — while the depictions of Wallace’s surgery are gross, the actual sight of the walrus suit is enough to turn one’s stomach. With the suit being made out of stitched human flesh, the tusks made from Wallace’s own bones, there are these repulsive uncanny valley vibes when we see Wallace as the walrus.
The history of body horror involves a range of unique work. We’ve seen the likes of David Cronenberg and sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska weave in fascinating commentary alongside horrifying imagery; then there are works like Human Centipede, which succeed in grossing us out, but do little to provide depth in regards to emotion. Tusk is more of the former, providing depth that goes deeper than the flesh. Because of the grounded context Smith has provided with Wallace, there’s more to care about; it also helps that Parks’ acting is superb, once again exuding a horrifying persona.
Two years later, Smith would release Yoga Hosers, a horror comedy starring his daughter, Harley Quinn Smith, alongside Lily-Rose Depp as the protagonists; both originally appeared in Tusk as convenience store clerks, their characters further expanded upon in this film. In Yoga Hosers, Smith reverts back to his comedic tactics of the past, the horror only coming through aesthetically in the form of satanists and Nazis. In terms of feeling and atmosphere, the film is a large departure from the horror found in Red State and Tusk, making for more of a raunchy comedy than anything else.
That same year, a horror anthology titled Holidays was released, with Smith having written and directed the short “Halloween”. The short involves a revenge narrative where sex workers entrap and torture their abusive boss. With some torture, implied mutilation, and a scene of blood splatter, “Halloween” is to the point in its violent delivery. It’s also worth mentioning Smith’s now-cancelled Anti-Claus picture. The film’s story was said to feature Krampus, a demon from Central European folklore who is to be an evil version of Santa Claus. The film ended up being cancelled with the release of Michael Dougherty’s Krampus (given that’s Smith’s film had a similar story).
Nowadays, writers and directors taking on such tonal shifts in their work is something we are becoming more accustomed to; initially, however, Smith’s jump into horror was as much of a surprise as the likes of Jordan Peele and Chris Rock when it comes to Get Out and the Saw spin-off, (respectively). But with his Jay and Silent Bob Reboot making its premiere, and with Clerks III being confirmed, is Smith done with horror? From the looks of it, apparently not.
Smith has stated that Yoga Hosers is the second film in what he calls his “True North Trilogy” (the first installment being Tusk). Smith shared that he has secured funding for the trilogy’s third entry, Moose Jaws; he describes the film as Jaws, but with a moose. Along with Moose Jaws, Smith is also preparing for another horror-comedy titled Killroy Was Here; the film is based around an American meme that became popular during World War II, primarily in the form of graffiti. While parts of the script originated from Smith’s Anti-Claus idea, he has shared that the film will be an anthology, as well as a “monster movie in the sense of a classic morality tale.”
Kevin Smith has shown his ability as a filmmaker to venture into new and exciting areas of creativity. In his approach to horror, he has been able to present unnerving and tense atmospheres, all while utilizing his talents for writing dialogue and character direction. Considering his work with Red State and Tusk, it would be fascinating to see Smith further dive into horror; not only could he continue to embrace his passion for character-driven stories, but with all his interests, there’s so much room for him to experiment.
Smith has a talent for making the viewer feel like they are present among his characters; he has a way of weaving the viewer into his worlds. As a writer, he has displayed his capabilities in creating characters that we care for and we are horrified to see struggle. With Moose Jaws and Killroy Was Here, Smith has the potential to deliver original stories comprised of nervous laughter, disturbing imagery, and ominous tension. He has proven capable at creating his own unique brand of nightmares, and we can only wonder where he might turn next if he chose to continue to embrace his interest in horror.
It’d probably be more interesting than another Silent Bob adventure, anyway.