Directed by Eli Craig
Suffice it to say that “seeing how the other half lives” has been a horror movie convention almost as long as horror movies have existed; from Todd Browning to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, audiences have repeatedly been asked to rethink their expectations of oddballs and weirdos, in most cases “or else.” (Hell, hillbillies basically wouldn’t have an on-screen presence at all if city slickers didn’t venture into their literal neck of the woods.) But Tucker & Dale vs. Evil takes this classic culture clash idea even further: by asking the audience to sympathize with the bumpkins rather than the trust-fund teenagers, director Eli Craig’s feature debut celebrates genre conventions while turning the traditional view of horror-movie heroes and villains upside down.
Alan Tudyk (Serenity) and Tyler Labine (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) play Tucker and Dale, two scruffy country boys who head up into the woods to renovate Tucker’s vacation home, a dilapidated cabin that, quite frankly, could easily double as a hideout for some serial killer. The duo runs into a group of vacationing kids at a convenience store, and despite their best efforts to make friends, the kids are scared off by Dale’s nervous demeanor and his unfortunate choice of a sickle as a fashion accessory. But after a cute co-ed named Allison (Katrina Bowden) knocks herself out falling into the lake where Tucker and Dale are fishing, the duo nobly rescue her; unfortunately, Allison’s companions think that they’re kidnapping her, and decide mount a rescue plan that rapidly escalates into a series of grisly murders that may or may not be the fault of these would-be homicidal hillbillies.
Although there’s plenty of gore and even a few genuine scares, it would be an overstatement to call Tucker & Dale vs. Evil a true horror movie; much like last year’s equally effective genre mash-up, Zombieland, its emphasis is on situational humor, not horror. The good thing about this is that we’re treated to many of the most familiar conventions of our favorite fright flicks, but from a different perspective; although it remains to be seen whether watching Dale stumble through an awkward introduction makes you more sympathetic to the toothless purveyors of creepy roadside trinkets in older movies, it certainly gives that familiar scene a new charge when it’s played for laughs.
That Labine injects Dale with a puppy’s sense of clumsy eagerness certainly helps engender sympathy with the audience, but both he and Tudyk make much more of their characters not only than we expect, but than seems to exist in Craig and Morgan Jurgenson’s articulate, self-aware script. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine who immediately relates to popped-collar frat-boy douchbags, but Tudyk and Labine give Tucker and Dale sensitivity and a sincerity that instantly makes them heroes. Meanwhile, the rest of the “victims” operate essentially on the same wavelength as ones in more straightforward horror films â€“ they panic, overreact and otherwise put themselves in peril â€“ making it easy for the audience to enjoy their untimely demise.
Rather than a screenwriting shortcoming, however, this seems like a necessary component of their performances, and the actors dutifully endanger themselves for our derision and entertainment. At the same time, Bowden both indulges her character’s susceptibility to amnesia-inducing head trauma and her thoughtful regard of Dale’s hospitality, making her not just his fantasy figure but a real person whose survival actually means something.
While it doesn’t quite deliver on the level of a horror-comedy hybrid like Evil Dead II, admittedly the subgenre’s gold standard, Craig’s film works beautifully because it doesn’t make you work to accept the accidents that befall Tucker and Dale’s victims, but it still allows you to enjoy the outcome. Too often fright flicks â€“ especially the ones that take themselves seriously – overthink the death scenes and the whole thing quickly descends into either unintentional comedy or unredeemable disbelief. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, but it also knows to have fleshed-out characters, which is why we care when some of them live and some die â€“ not to mention, it’s also the reason horror fans will never look at hillbillies the same way again.