“Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” is as much about genre as it isn’t. In this hillbilly horror show, director Eli Craig pays respect to knowledgeable midnight moviegoers while also grinding their expectations into a bloody pulp.
Comic actors Alan Tudyk (who we all remember as the naked guy on acid in the original “Death at a Funeral,” among other roles) and Tyler Labine (recently seen in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) play the titular derelict duo, respectively. The two best buds decide to head up to their fixer-upper cabin in West Virginia — unfortunately for them, at the same time as a pack of wild college kids vacays in the woods.
The leader-of-the-pack is Allison, played by Katrina Bowden who is also known as Cerie, the ditzy doll on NBC’s “30 Rock.” (Bowden is 23, so instant points to Eli Craig for casting someone who is actually somewhat college-aged.) And, if we have all been educated properly by “The Evil Dead” (1981) and “Cabin Fever” (2002) as we should have, we know why college kids go to the woods in horror movies: because they are horny and because they want to get fucked up. But that’s not quite the case here.
Writer/director Craig and co-writer Morgan Jurgenson waste no time in getting to the blood and carnage — and the laughs. The group gets separated after Allison, buoyantly shedding her clothes, falls into a lake. Tucker and Dale save the day and carry her back to their country bumpkin cottage.
The rest of the group, now led by the maniacal Chad (Jesse Moss), searches for Allison and starts mistaking each one of Tuck and Dale’s gestures as a violent attack out of a slasher movie (which this sort of is), when really they are just trying to be two gentle souls out of a feel-good comedy (which this really is). A faulty chainsaw fools one of the college kids think Tuck is trying to kill him. But really, he’s just tryin’ to cut some wood.
As I suspected, Eli Craig says the idea for this film came from watching backwoods ’70s horror movies like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” “Deliverance” and even that ’00s pile-o-crap “Wrong Turn,” also set in the portentous woods of West Virginia. “Having spent a lot of time in the outdoors, I always thought people’s fear of the woods was unfounded,” he says. “The people to be afraid of were the fratboys at a college campus.” Craig went to Boulder, where he acquired a “serious anti-fratboy disposition.”
His hatred of hazing aside, Craig says that one of the main problems of horror today is the unbelievable reactions of characters, how when we scream something like “don’t go in there!” we’re doing it because what we’re seeing is not real or even imaginable. No pretty little damsel traipses delicately down to the cellar in her underwear when there are starved raptors down there, right? Well, Craig agrees. He admires horror films like “The Shining” that “couch a realism within a supernatural world where people react in ways that feel very real amid these supernatural circumstances,” he says. It was creatively satisfying for him to recreate this effect “comically.”
Though “Tucker and Dale” is certainly a throwback to old school horror, back in the heyday when style didn’t always trump substance and gore was good, it is also interested in making you care about its characters — something that “The Evil Dead” definitely didn’t do. When it works, partners-in-crime Tucker and Dale are nothing but misunderstood but well-meaning lubbers. There’s even a love story in this movie’s red-blooded, ironic heart: the unlikely pairing of Allison and Dale.
“All of them have their little archetypes,” Craig says. “Chad, to me, was like a fratboy, collar-popped version of Burt Reynolds in ‘Deliverance.’” And be warned: There is definitely a squeal-like-a-pig reference in here. That one never seems to get old.
I ask Craig about the future of horror film and other such marginalized genres. “We cannot see ‘Scary Movie 5.’ I think we need to support the underground horror films,” he says. “I think there is so much room to play in this genre. Shakespeare put horror and comedy together all the time.” Craig’s not saying that he’s Shakespeare, but he does share his eagerness to asymmetrically, and atypically, genre-mash. Why is it that scares and laughs go so well together? Perhaps we need something to take the edge off.
“Tucker and Dale,” with all its slasher-movie intertexts, isn’t exceptionally gory, though it is hilarious to see blonde bimbos slathered in minced fratboy stew. While the soft-side of the movie is, like its hard-edged humor, sometimes hokey and eye-rolly, what really works is its meta-madness and its refusal of any and every horror trope I could possibly name (though the smartest kid does die first). Plus, it’s refreshing to see hillbillies portrayed in a flattering light for a change rather than as perverse purveyors of low culture and undignified behavior. Well, there is some of that here, too.
All the actors give decent, if intentionally unbelievable performances given their rigid archetypes (the hick, the sorority blonde, the forest ranger who’s going to die after five minutes of screen time). But it’s Tudyk and Labine who take up the previously untouched gauntlet of hillbilly reconstruction as they aim for plain ole laughs. This is Eli Craig’s first and only feature, and it should portend good times ahead.
Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.