February 25, 2015

Digging Up The Marrow (2014) And Tusk (2014) Spearhead The Emergence Of A New Fan Driven Sub-Genre

Digging Up The Marrow (2014) poster
Digging Up The Marrow (2014)
Currently Available on VOD and via Limited Theatrical Release
Director:  Adam Green
Writer:  Adam Green
Stars:  Ray Wise, Adam Green, Will Barrett, Rileah Vanderbilt, and Josh Ethier

A documentary exploring genre based monster art takes an odd turn when the filmmakers are contacted by a man who claims he can prove that monsters are indeed real.

Tusk (2014) poster
Tusk (2014)
Currently Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD
Director:  Kevin Smith
Writer:  Kevin Smith
Stars:  Michael Parks, Justin Long, Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment, and Johnny Depp (credited as Guy Lapointe)

When podcaster Wallace Bryton goes missing in the backwoods of Manitoba while interviewing a mysterious seafarer named Howard Howe, his best friend Teddy and girlfriend Allison team with an ex-cop to look for him.

     Digging Up The Marrow (2014) and Tusk (2014) are two recent genre flicks created by talented veteran filmmakers that both play like elaborate in-jokes.  Thanks largely to the democratization of movie release afforded by video-on-demand, it seems as though the notion of established filmmakers making movies targeted to a very specific niche demographic - like, say, their own already thriving fan bases and pretty much no-one else - is now a viable business model.  Sometimes those fans even pay for the productions up front via crowdfunding.  Accordingly, they need not have any significant mainstream crossover potential as long as the budgets stay low.  This relatively new business model is both a blessing and a curse.

Michael Parks and Justin Long in Tusk (2014)
Michael Parks takes a break from turning Justin Long into a walrus in director Kevin Smith's Tusk

       It's a blessing in that it creates an avenue for filmmakers to develop more personal and esoteric productions.  Writer/director Kevin Smith's Tusk was born of a discussion Smith and longtime associate Scott Mosier had on Smith's SModcast about an ad that offered a free living situation provided the lodger was willing to dress as a walrus.  Smith and Mosier riffed on this notion for nearly an hour, with the upshot being a hypothetical story based upon what the particulars of such an arrangement might be.  Smith then asked his fans on Twitter if they'd be interested in seeing this story made into a movie by tweeting either #WalrusYes or #WalrusNo.  Obviously, the #WalrusYes contingent carried the day.  Basically, Tusk is a private joke between Smith and his fans for which Smith was able to secure financial backing.

Ray Wise and Adam Green in Digging Up The Marrow (2014)
Ray Wise and actor/writer/director Adam Green search for monsters in Digging Up The Marrow

       Writer/director/actor Adam Green's Digging Up The Marrow relies upon a similar sort of fan service.  Digging Up The Marrow is loaded throughout with clips of popular genre icons - including Green himself as the movie's protagonist - appearing as themselves in the form of clips filmed for the production of Green's "documentary" about monsters.  Pretty much the only cast member not playing himself is genre stalwart Ray Wise (Twin Peaks, Jeepers Creepers II), who instead plays the role of an individual named William Dekker.  Dekker alleges to Green that monsters are real and that he knows where to find them, which of course proves an irresistible notion to Green.

     It seems likely that neither of these oddball premises would have been made ten years ago, mostly because investors - whether it be the filmmakers themselves or others - would have struggled to produce them and then get them into the hands of the intended audience.  It's a very different world now.  In particular, social media makes it far easier to target a particular demo with a harder sell.  That's got to be a good thing, right?  Now the filmmakers can shepherd their more challenging and unusual ideas to the screen and be reasonably sure they will still find an audience.

     This new dynamic is a curse though in that much of the empirical evidence thus far suggests it also fosters sloppy self-indulgence.  The fans are going to love the end product no matter what, and if the mainstream audiences don't get it, who cares?  It wasn't for them anyway.  Both Tusk and Digging Up The Marrow fall prey to this mindset to varying degrees.  For example, both movies present a unique and fascinating scenario and then fail to deliver a satisfying resolution.  One wonders if perhaps both narratives would have been more sturdily constructed and effective if Smith and Green had been aiming a little higher, instead of just making movies for their already loyal constituencies.  That lazy self-indulgence is evident in both movies, and it ultimately keeps either movie from living up to its full potential.

     Unfortunately, I'm admittedly not the best person to be examining this dynamic since I'm already a fan of both filmmakers.  I'm part of the audience for which both movies were intended.  Even so, I can't help feeling a little bit gypped when I can see objectively that both would probably have been better if only a little more discipline had been exercised.  What's there is often very, very good, but both movies had the potential to be great and squandered it.

     Still, though, I have to rank both Tusk and Digging Up The Marrow as two of the best genre movies I've seen in a while, and I'd recommend both.  In particular, each movie features a stellar performance from a veteran character actor that demands to be seen.  Ray Wise effortlessly commands the screen with his intense and often darkly humorous performance as Dekker in Digging Up The Marrow, and Michael Parks (Red State, From Dusk Til Dawn) is a mesmerizing revelation as the quietly psychotic Howard Howe in Tusk.  Both actors clearly relish the opportunity to play the lead, and both movies are worth a watch if only to see these veterans deliver what surely must be a couple of the best performances of their respective careers.

     The walrus transformation in Tusk and the superior monster designs by artist Alex Pardee for Digging Up The Marrow are worthy of note, as well.  In fact, I guarantee those Pardee monsters will have you diving for the remote more than once to rewind and get a second look.  It's intentional that I chose not to ruin the fun by including pics of them here.

     Tusk and Digging Up The Marrow are must see movies for fans of their respective creators.  They're both solid recommendations for genre fans in general, too.  I just wonder if these cinematic in-jokes might have had the potential to reach much larger audiences had Green and Smith been more disciplined in their execution.  A third act that delivers on the promise of the first two should be mandatory, and settling for "good enough" just because the fans will show up regardless is just lazy.  Would more discipline have hampered the unfettered creativity at the core of each project?  Probably not.  It just would have made a couple of good movies great.  You were so close, guys, but as Maxwell Smart would have said...

Maxwell Smart missed it by that much
"Missed It By That Much!"


  1. Cool article! I like the idea of famous film directors with wacky ideas crowd funding their own movies. I wish this existed as far back as 30 years ago. Perhaps, we would have more films by David Lynch, John Waters and Terry Gilliam if it did.
    I wonder who will be the first director who will make the film that people will regard as: The one that got it right. I personally, can't wait for Rob Zombie's "31".
    If I were filthy rich, I would throw money at all my favorite film makers, so I could see new work by them more quickly.

  2. The overall democratization of movie production and distribution is undoubtedly a good thing, though I'm still not sure how I feel about established directors turning to crowdfunding. I guess I feel like an established filmmaker should be able to find a producer to fund his or her efforts. Rob Zombie asking me for money makes me want to look in the other direction and just pretend I didn't notice, like if I was accosted by a bum on the street looking for drug money. I enjoy his work - and in fact often find myself being the designated Zombie apologist in the room - but I think he's enough of a "brand" that he shouldn't have to turn to the fans for financing. Regardless, I read today that Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs has signed on for 31, which kicked up my interest a notch.

    I'm sure that if money was no object I'd probably be throwing money at my favorites, too. Just hitchin' my wagon to a star so I could be part of the "movie biz". I'd still rather see one less Transformers movie so two hundred million up-and-coming filmmakers could each produce a debut feature with a million dollar budget and leave my popcorn money in my own pocket, though.

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. Digging Up The Marrow sounds good. I'm a Twin Peaks enthusiast, so I love Ray Wise.

    1. I'm looking forward to the planned reboot of Twin Peaks, though according to IMDB it appears that Ray Wise's participation will be minimal. He owns it in Digging Up The Marrow, though.

  4. Digging Up the Marrow was such a cool flick. I was shocked at the amount of backlash that it received from "critics" who said that it didn't work because Adam Green played himself and Ray Wise was playing a character. I had no problems getting into the slightly off kilter "real world" that Green created.
    Ah well, different strokes 'n' all.....

    1. Any "straights" that watch this movie likely wouldn't know who's "real" and who isn't, and the genre fans are all willing to accept Green's "real world" at face value. Wise's performance is what raises it above the level of fanboy navel gazing. Or...you can just pretend it actually is Ray Wise, and maybe Mr. Wise has a few more issues than we were all aware of - including, but not limited to, multiple personality disorder.

  5. I agree 100%. You know how it is in "Critic-Land" everyone has to tear everything else apart because it doesn't fit into their narrow minded notion of what it should have been. I like the notion of pretending that it's just Ray Wise with multiple personalities! Lol.


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