Sometimes, a movie has so much heart and soul that you're willing to overlook its flaws. Other times, those flaws are an intentional device to make you realize how messed up a certain kind of movie is. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is a silly and heartfelt meta-horror commenting on the backwoods/hillbilly horror sub-genre.
All lifelong friends Tucker and Dale want to do is spend their first weekend alone in their brand new summer home. They stock up on beer at the local gas station and bump into a large and rowdy group of college coeds going for a camping trip in the woods. The college students immediately assume the two hillbillies are going to harm them and cast themselves as the victims in a horror movie of their own creation. When Tucker and Dale save one of the students from drowning in the lake, they accidentally set off a chain reaction of horror that neither one of them understands.
Writer/director Eli Craig and co-writer Morgan Jurgenson take a huge risk in the conceit of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. They invest in the pop culture idiom surrounding backwoods slashers and use it as the language and currency of most of the characters. The college students are as ill-defined as any 1980s body count horror. The difference is intention. Craig and Jurgenson paint them so thin so that they can comment on the form and content of this sub-genre.
Why is it that people who live in rural areas have so long been fodder for horror? They're always painted the same way. They're ill-mannered slobs in flannel and denim trying to get their kicks by chasing, raping, and killing outsiders. Why is it so acceptable to create this hillbilly horror when so many other offensive tropes have been shoved off the screen? Are they the last acceptable "other" for a horror audience?
One movie alone cannot answer those questions. What Tucker & Dale vs Evil excels at it is flipping the tropes in every scene. A chainsaw-wielding maniac is actually a man escaping an accidental encounter with a wasp nest. A big hulking mountain man stammering at an attractive young woman is just a shy young man trying to introduce himself. The creepy cabin at the top of the mountain isn't a torture chamber; it's a DIY project that hasn't even started yet. By constantly betraying expectations (and mocking the college students for their pop culture-driven asssumptions), Tucker & Dale vs Evil transcends the self-referential horror trend and becomes an entertaining critique of a sub-genre.
The cast is entirely hit or miss, which also seems to be an intentional device. The only full-bodied characters belong to the heroes we are meant to sympathize with. Alan Tudyk is hilarious as Tucker, dispensing misguided advice about life and women to his younger friend Dale. Katrina Bowden gets some of the funniest moments as the rescued psych major trying to reconnect with her friends.
The true star of the film is Tyler Labine as Dale. He brings out such a strong sense of humanity in the shy giant that you'd sympathize with him even if he was a psycho murderer hunting down college students. His ability to perform such a Jekyll and Hyde double persona--threatening uncommunicative hulking manbeast versus intelligent and caring teddy bear--so naturally is what makes the film work so well.
Tucker & Dale vs Evil is not the scariest horror film ever made. It's not the funniest horror comedy, either. It's not even the most serious horror film despite its effective genre critique. What it provides is a funny and sincere look into the creation of tropes and how pop culture stereotypes can define the world for a new generation.
Thoughts? I wish I had seen this before Cabin in the Woods. I might have been able to better articulate my complaints in the context of a zippy horror comedy that never lingers on a moment and doesn't overstay its welcome. How bout you? Sound off below.