It’s not every day that you get to use the words “hilarious”, “gory”, “clever”, “hillbilly” , “sweet” and “mass suicide” in the same sentence, but the fun and surprisingly endearing new splatter comedy Tucker & Dale vs Evil rightfully earns them all. While its subversion of the well-worn “hillbilly horror” genre may be a one-note gag, I’ll be damned if that note isn’t played as well is it could be. Hell – if Yo-Yo Ma got onstage and only played one note, he’d still be Yo-Yo Ma, right?
Tucker & Dale starts out as hundreds of other horror movies have, with a carful of rowdy teens from The Big City, The Big College, etc. driving down some dusty backwoods road toward a weekend of drinking, skinny-dipping, and certain death. After an awkward encounter with a few good old boys who are stocking up on pointy-looking household items at a gas station, the gang of pretty co-eds continue to their destination, convinced that they are in dangerous territory but determined to get thoroughly wasted anyway.
Here’s where the spin on formula starts to take shape. Turns out, the gas station ‘billies are really sweet guys. Tucker (Alan Tudyk from Firefly, Death at a Funeral and Suburgatory) is an easygoing fella who just spent his life savings on a “summer home” in the mountains (which is clearly a shack previously inhabited by serial killers).
His buddy, Dale (Tyler Labine from Invasion and Reaper), is a total teddybear who’s terrified of girls and incredibly shy. So when Tucker encourages Dale to walk up to one of the pretty college ladies outside the fillin’ station and say hello, Dale is real nervous. So nervous, in fact, that he doesn’t realize that his pained grin and hysterical laugh seem a bit at odds with the enormous scythe that he has forgotten that he is holding.
Tucker and Dale are simply stocking up on all sorts of ominous-looking hardware in order to fix up their cabin, but in the eyes of the college kids they’re just a couple of mumbling backwoods inbreds wielding deadly weapons. And it’s the comfort of this well-worn genre convention – the city folk traveling to the country and being terrorized by the locals – that gives Tucker & Dale a movie’s worth of comedic material.
Since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and other hillbilly horrors of its kind started dicing up tourists back in the ’70s (or even since Psycho, if you squint and look sideways), the trope of the creepy small-town killer knocking off progressive urbanites has popped up in hundreds of horror movies. And that’s why Tucker & Dale‘s single major gag – asking, “what if the hillbillies were actually really nice but the kids were afraid of them anyway?” – can be such sustained fun for fans of the genre.
When the kids come to think that Tucker and Dale have killed or kidnapped their friend Allison (Katrina Bowden from 30 Rock, unexpectedly likable in the subverted Final Girl role), they naturally overreact because like most Gen X’ers, they’ve seen Wrong Turn one too many times. And when they go on a slapdash offensive against two unsuspecting guys in a cabin with an assortment of powertools lying around, it leads to a clever and unexpected comedic bloodbath.
I don’t want to go into too much detail, because half of the fun of T&D is the ways in which the two camps misunderstand one another’s intentions and get into each other’s ways. But throughout, the gentle friendship between Tucker, Dale and Allison is a treat. Tucker and Dale’s genuine affection for one another and utter lack of gay panic is wonderfully refreshing to see – it’s way more Shaun of the Dead than Deliverance.
Tudyk and Labine – both dependable comic actors – are wonderful as the beleaguered buddies who just want a quiet weekend in their cabin, and the supporting cast of disposable teens do a good job of striking the balance between clueless and panicked. About a dozen genre cliches are amusingly spoofed (rednecks making their victims dig their own graves; the classic “dinner table” scene from TCM) and there’s some fun gore and a few inventive deaths, but none of it pushes the movie out of comedy territory and into pure horror.
In all, a niche horror comedy that, thanks to a clever script and solid direction from first-timer Eli Craig (Sally Field‘s son, go figure!), manages to elicit a much bigger payoff that you’d expect. Tucker and Dale is a good ol’ time. Check it out.
RATING (OUT OF 5):
Tucker & Dale vs Evil is Rated R for gore, language, harm to college students, and gratuitous hillbilly sweetness. It opens in theaters on Sept. 30th and is also available VOD.
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