Lightly populated, quiet, creepy woods in the South– littered with fallen trees just waiting for someone to impale themselves on them– naturally read as lairs for ravening hillbillies just waiting to crush, burn, melt, torture, suffocate, slice, dice, eat, or otherwise violently send unsuspecting young people (and other incidental victims) to an early passing. In Eli Craig’s world, that scenario can only claim partial accuracy. The woods in which Tucker & Dale vs. Evil takes place certainly are eerie and spooky, and they absolutely house a pair of shady-looking rednecks. But the eponymous duo, two best buddies since childhood, get an unfair beat from the very beginning of the film. They’re not looking for people to maim and mutilate, just peace and quiet. Leave it to a faceless crowd of obnoxious college kids to ruin everything for them by dying all over their property.
Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are very far removed from the characters of Deliverance or The Devil’s Rejects. They’re good-hearted; death and mayhem are nowhere to be found in their life designs. All they want is to start renovation on Tucker’s new vacation home, a beaten down cabin in the woods– a real fixer-upper– go fishing, and enjoy some beers. But their R&R coincides with the arrival of a group of college students intent on camping in the same woods to participate in degrees of youthful debauchery. When Tucker and Dale rescue Allison (Katrina Bowden) from drowning as she and her friends skinny-dip, the rest of the kids assume she’s been kidnapped, and battle lines are drawn between them and the unwitting, well-meaning good-ol’-boys.
Of course, the kicker here is that Tucker and Dale don’t do any killing whatsoever. No, their role here is to act bewildered as the bland, generic cast of twenty-somethings all end up offing themselves in their unnecessary (and half-cocked) efforts to rescue Allison. The resulting hour and a half marks the sort of motion picture Darwin would swoon over.
Chalk up the existence of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil as a product of horror comedy’s resurgence as a popular sub-genre since 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. Craig’s film in no way touches Wright’s beloved rom-zom-com, but then, it doesn’t really have to; it simply has to work on its own terms, which it certainly does and with crimson-tinged gusto. Tucker & Dale isn’t terribly gory, tending to play safe with grue instead of seizing opportunities to go for the gold and showcase some choice dismemberment. In actuality, that’s okay. There are only so many ways people can accidentally kill themselves (without the direct aid of the Grim Reaper) and produce truly memorable and stomach-churning splatter. Besides, the timing and the circumstances of each kids’ demise click perfectly…which here is ultimately more important than turning out new standards in the horror death scene lexicon.
And that’s well worth a heap of praise, since we tend to cheer on the means by which characters die when we watch horror films of Tucker & Dale‘s persuasion anyhow. Maybe it’s not even a question of taking a side; invariably, we all want to see the cast of potential body bad inhabitants meet their respective ends, even if we don’t want to see the killer walk away by the time the credits roll. Craig, then, is taking away the guilt of wishing death upon a group of college students. Why should we feel bad when they’re bringing about their own ends? And when they’re so hideously, immediately unlikable?
The dangers of a film like Tucker & Dale, however, lie in the pretense of gimmickry. I think there’s a line between turning a sub-genre on its ear and skating by based on a clever but empty basic conceit; put simply, one wrong step and Craig’s picture could easily have morphed into a disingenuous attempt at genre subversion. But he makes no such stumbles, and deftly turns Tucker & Dale into a well-realized send-up of killer redneck flicks. Tucker & Dale has a soul. Its conceit and its humor feel organic; as much as the film is all about telling one long, bloody joke, it never feels forced. Craig’s telling a real story here with his two leads, instead of asking, “hey, wouldn’t it be funny if some guy accidentally fell into a wood chipper?”. It’s violent slapstick with a ton of heart.
That heart is found in the principals, especially Tyler Labine’s Dale– a man so gentle he wouldn’t even hurt a fish. Labine’s a perfect fit for a man who’s outwardly intimidating but inwardly sweet and considerate and kind; once you get passed Dale’s size and his ferocious beard, he’s about the nicest person you’ll ever meet. Craig has set up something of a Laurel & Hardy dichotomy here, but nevertheless it’s Labine who’s the star while the better-known Tudyk, playing Tucker as the closest thing to a straight man the film can claim, is mostly meant to just react to his co-star. Individually, they’re both great. Together, they’re even better, and a duo that we’d all be lucky to see collaborate again someday. Excepting Bowden, who plays the plucky final girl equivalent here with geeky verve, and Jesse Moss, playing the film’s true villain with manic glee, the rest of the cast is invisible, and that’s fine. They’re all just there to serve as bystanders in the ensuing carnage.
Ultimately a genre parody like Tucker & Dale vs. Evil probably speaks loudest to horror fans, but a distinct lack of referentialism gives the film crossover appeal. Anyone with even a cursory interest in or knowledge of killer redneck films will be entertained; instead of nodding to past films which follow the tropes of such pictures straightforwardly, Craig’s just making a reversed version of them while making fun of broadly-embraced rural legends. The results are pretty special. I’m tentative to call it a new genre classic; that’s too much pressure to put on a film that shouldn’t be crushed by the weight of unfair expectations. But given time, I think it could easily be a horror comedy staple– and meanwhile, it’s an excellent, hilarious, bloody romp well worth the price of admission.