Are you tired of negative hillbilly stereotypes in horror films? I didn’t know I was. As a southern-born gent and lifelong film geek, whether I’ve wanted to or not, I’ve continued to possess a keen awareness of how the people of my region are represented in film. But as somebody who is not a horror fan in the same vein as others that write for this site, I never really thought about the evil southern hillbilly stereotype despite the fact that it’s been pretty much everywhere in American horror since the days of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs. But thanks to the hilarious genre-bender that is Eli Craig’s Tucker and Dale vs. Evil serving as a corrective to this tired – and offensive, god dammit – stereotype, cliché, trope, whatever you want to call it, my eyes have been opened to the automatic assumptions we possess when being introduced to hillbillys in horror movies.
I’m digressing a bit, making Tucker and Dale sound a bit more revelatory than it actually is. It’s not a progressive eye-opener challenging our socially-mandated judgments, and it doesn’t aim to be. That’s totally fine. Instead, Tucker and Dale plays with genre assumptions, and it does so pretty damn cleverly. Remember Deliverance? What if that movie was told from the honky’s perspective? Furthermore, what if they were actually nice guys, and any impression that they were evil were caused by an improbable series of coincidental misunderstandings? (I know it’s hard to misunderstand what happens to Ned Beatty, but stay with me here.) Well, that’s pretty much what Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is.
It’s not as much a horror comedy in of itself as it is a comedic product of exposure to horror movies. It’s a rare type of spoof – one that spends its time lampooning one of the genre’s more overlooked (?) conventions rather than a whole series of them. Containing all the gore one would want from this genre, it’s a loving embrace of horror, and, at the same time, a hilarious send-up of it. In the age of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg, Tucker and Dale is more than we can ask for.
Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are two close-knit, drunk-driving hillbillys out for a fishing trip at the dilapidated shack that they want to become their dream summer home. They encounter a group of college kids – a collection of Greek boys and girls who vary in their intended insufferability – and through a series of misunderstandings (and, living in a land of movie-logic, their automatic assumption that, being hillbillys, Tucker and Dale are inherently evil), the college kids think Tucker and Dale have kidnapped the most attractive girl in the group (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden). What ensues is, predictably, a very funny series of even more misunderstandings that further cement the college kids’ assumptions. It may sound simple and easy, but when seeing it play out one can’t deny that there’s some thoughtful genre-play at work.
What sells it in execution are the performances by Tudyk and Labine, who not only possess great chemistry as a comic team and believability as life-long friends, but have unique comic talent both individually and together. For me, Labine’s Dale is the film’s shining star, beautifully acting out the film’s initial joke involving a scythe that sets up the joke run throughout the rest of the film, doing so with wonderful comic ease and endearing earnestness. But ultimately, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is a one-joke film. It’s one very good joke that’s thoroughly well articulated, built in several different ways over and again, but it wears thin by the film’s third act when a final conflict (and an unnecessary backstory which undercuts the otherwise effective parody) is forced upon it and the film falls into the generic trappings that it set out to lampoon. Tucker and Dale may lose some of its magic before its running time is through, but the magic up to that point is so damn strong and funny that it’s essential viewing for anybody that appreciates good horror and clever parody.