Monday, February 13, 2012

Blogorium Review: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

 Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is the latest entry in what I like to call the "killbilly" genre: I guess you could say it started with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre but it's more like the I Spit On Your Grave / Deliverance / Wrong Turn kind of movie about some upstanding young college victims kids on vacation who, for no apparent reason, decide to go camping in the middle of nowhere (often in part of the Appalachian region) and are terrorized by killer hillbillies. It's a culture clash: the richer, douchier party guys and their girlfriends vs the interchangeable sometimes inbred but always bloodthirsty hill folk. Why? Because horror excels at perpetuating stereotypes and it does it well. The Wrong Turn movies might not be high art, but those mutant cannibals sure are scary. I don't think there's a person in this country that doesn't shudder a little bit at the phrase "squeal like a piggy!"

 So it's refreshing that Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is what high falutin' film professors call an "inversion" of the subgenre: the protagonists of the film are our title characters, two generally harmless guys looking to spend a weekend fixing up a "vacation home" that Tucker (Alan Tudyk) bought. Dale (Tyler Labine) is so harmless he has trouble fishing, but their weekend of kicking back and drinking beer is cut short thanks to some college students. Generally speaking, we'd follow the college students all the way as they slight the killbillies, then run into them again, and are slowly picked off until they decide to fight back.

 Technically speaking, that does still happen, but through a series of misunderstandings, Tucker and Dale appear to be a lot more threatening than they are. While out fishing, they save Allison (Katrina Bowden) who falls off a rock and hits her head while everybody is skinny dipping, but to her friends, it looks like they knocked her out and kidnapped her. Despite the very reasonable solutions posed by some members of the college kids, their suggestions are ignored by Chad (Jesse Moss), the psychopath that brought all of them out to the woods. He knows that twenty years ago the same campsite was the home of a killbilly massacre, so the combination of leaping to conclusions and being, well, more dangerous than anyone else in the film, makes Chad leap to the conclusion that Tucker and Dale are "Evil."

 You'd think it would be simple to straighten this out, and it would if the college students weren't both idiotic AND proactive in trying to rescue Allison. It turns out to be a lethal combination, as the unwitting Tucker and Dale keep witnessing the twenty-somethings accidentally kill themselves in horrible ways. Like the Wrong Turn films, if you can think of a way to die in the woods, you'll see it in this film: tree-impaling, spearing, death by woodchipper, burned alive, wood with nails to the skull - they're all there. I give credit to director Eli Craig and co-writer Morgan Jurgenson for keeping things fresh and funny. We've seen these beats before, but Tudyk and Labine are so likable that the horror is magnified when they unwittingly find themselves having to clean up the mounting body count around the dilapidated cabin.

 Speaking of the cabin, Tucker and Dale don't seem alarmed at all that the new "vacation" home previously belonged to someone who loved hanging animal bones from the ceiling and collected newspaper scraps about the massacre. Dale sees the board games and is happy: Tucker is proud to own such a large cabin, and it just needs a little elbow grease to make it more "homey." You can imagine what it looks like to the college kids, who don't so much fit into "types" as they are indistinguishable: aside from Chloe (Chelan Simmons), the "dumb blonde", I couldn't tell you much about Jason (Brandon McLaren), Naomi (Christie Laing), Chuck (Travis Nelson), Todd (Alex Arsenault), Mike (Joseph Sutherland), or Mitch (Adam Beauchesne).

 I think Mitch is the voice of reason impaled by a tree while running from Tucker (who made the mistake of running a chainsaw through a bee's nest), but I can't even necessarily connect a name with a face beyond that. Beyond Tucker, Dale, and Allison, Chad is the only character who really registers. There's the nameless Sheriff (Phillip Granger) who meets an accidentally horrible end while trying to understand why Tucker and Dale didn't kill these kids, and a pre-credits sequence that kind of hints at a sequel, but most of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is about finding amusing ways to present a "redneck" slasher film from another angle.

  It's a testament to Craig and Jurgenson that they stretch what should be a one-joke premise into a (nearly) ninety-minute film. They're helped by Tudyk and Labine, the latter of whom carries most of the movie. Tudyk's Tucker is a punching bag of sorts, who suffers nearly as much as some of the kids without the instant death that accompanies it. Bowden is also very good as Allison, who realizes quickly what's actually going on but can't seem to convey that to her friends. As a psychology major, her "therapy" session between the title characters and Chad fails miserably. Jesse Moss' Chad starts out as a generic "asshole" type, the kind of guy who usually bites it in a horrible way, but gradually evolves into something much more dangerous than the "Evil" he has to fight. When it's finally clear WHY Chad came to the woods (along with another twist late in the film), it's a minor miracle Tucker survived at all.

 So is Tucker and Dale vs. Evil a parody of "killbilly" movies? A deconstruction of the subgenre? Is it a clever gimmick? An inversion of the tropes of slasher films? Well, yes. I suppose it's all of those. The film works on those levels, but also on the most important criteria: it's funny. You don't need to be well versed in slasher films to enjoy Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, but it's not going to hurt you if you are. It's degrees of laughter, so look at it this way: as a comedy, it succeeds. As a slasher movie, it succeeds. As a "killbilly' movie, it's leaps and bounds better than the Wrong Turn films. You win any way you look at it.

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