So I kicked off my month of filling in the 2011 movies I missed with a film I heard a lot of good things about, Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. There are few things as purely enjoyable as a solid horror/comedy (see my love of Ghostbusters and Shaun of the Dead) and few things as disappointing as those movies that don’t do it well (pick whichever Scary Movie you want as your example). But this movie starred Alan Tudyk (Firefly) and Tyler Labine (Reaper), two wonderfully entertaining performers who can do both comedy and action really well, so surely this little film would be worth it, right?
Oh, so, so right.
Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Eli Craig, is a brilliant send-up of horror movies that uses the conventions of the genre the way the greatest horror movies always do, with a dash of social commentary. In the film a group of college students on a mountain camping trip run into a pair of hillbillies, Tucker (Tudyk) and Dale (Labine). Although Tucker and Dale are kind-hearted, harmless good ol’ boys, the college kids are creeped out by them and retreat to the woods, where Chad (Jesse Moss) regales them with the tale of a massacre that happened in those woods 20 years ago. Tucker and Dale head out fishing and startle the swimming college kids, accidentally causing Allison (Katrina Bowden) to slip and knock herself out. The boys save her, but her friends flee in terror, thinking they’re kidnappers. The college crew plans a rescue attempt, but one misunderstanding after another causes the blood to flow.
This movie is just fantastic. It works as a comedy, to begin with, with loveable protagonists, clever dialogue and whip-smart situational comedy. There’s a lot of physical comedy as well, although that trends more towards the gory, for those of you who are sensitive about that sort of thing. But it’s perfectly legitimate in the context of the film. (There’s a reason that horror movie aficionados use the term “gag” to refer the a clever death set piece, after all.) The performances are really good as well — Tudyk and Labine are both proven actors, and their skills take characters that could have been dull and lifeless in lesser hands and make them into protagonists you root for with every fiber of your being. Katrina Bowden’s Allison goes on an interesting journey in the course of the film as well. Her fear about the guys goes away quickly, but we get to watch as she grows to understand and like them as well. The transformation is really believable in her hands, and helps give an additional level of heart to movie that could have been purely slapstick. Mild spoilers follow, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you may want to stop here.
As I said, though, there’s a degree of social commentary present here that makes it different from soulless horror/humor mashups. At first, you think you’re going to see a parody of the “cabin in the woods” brand of horror. Instead, though, you get a complete reversal of that trope, with Tucker and Dale becoming the heroes against an onslaught of (admittedly inept) psycho killers who are trying to destroy them for no reason. The college kids attack time and again, getting into situations way over their heads and paying dearly as a result.
The result is what gives us the two layers of comedy here. The teenagers react the way you expect teenagers in horror movies to react: blind terror, followed by the resolve to “get those bastards” for what they’ve done to them. In horror movies, there are usually a couple of survivors after such an onslaught, but in real like that’s a good way to get yourself killed.
The second layer is all about perception and preconceived notions. Tucker and Dale try to get Allison back to her friends the moment they pull her out of the water, but they instead run away. After that, each mishap, each event that leads to one of their deaths, could easily be avoided if any one of them stopped and realized that the only danger is in their own minds. Tucker and Dale are gentle, harmless men (until the awesome climax, but even then, neither of them even approaches the level of violence displayed by the kids who fear them). Our heroes prove themselves better than their tormentors time and again, wanting only to protect Allison and reunite her with her friends, while her friends allow their own prejudices to turn them into the least-effective group of killers in movie history.
Movies that purport to take on racism, sexism, or other -isms are common, and often heavy-handed. Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil is a rare knock against elitism, and an even rarer film that gets the point across without preaching or making you constantly aware of the message, instead just telling you a hell of a story and letting the point occur to you in its own time. It’s a great movie, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if, once all is said and done, it’s earned a spot on my “favorites of the year” list.