Fear Flashback is a semi-regular review column of classic (and not-so-classic) horror movies and TV shows.
“I should have known if a guy like me talked to a girl like you, somebody would end up dead.”
Alan Tudyk can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. Well, Transformers, Dark of the Moon… nah, he killed in that as well. Anyway, when I first heard that Wash was doing a horror movie I knew I’d have to see it. When I heard Tyler Labine was going to be in it… I was confused. I like his work and have since I first saw him on The X-Files, but to have him in a horror movie was weird. What kind of horror movie was this gonna be?
And then I saw the trailer and all was made clear.
Comedy is always in the eye of the beholder – one man’s Young Frankenstein is another man’s Porkies, as the saying goes. (That’s how it goes, right?) It’s hard enough to pull off truly funny comedy when you’re playing it straight, but throw in another genre, like science fiction or horror, and it becomes a tightrope. You have to do right by both the comedy AND the genre you’re working in. Do that and you end up with gold like Back to the Future or Shaun of the Dead. Get it wrong and it’s The Adventures of Pluto Nash or Shriek if You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th.
Luckily, Eli Craig (Little Evil) manages to (mostly) keep the high wire act going for Tucker & Dale and it’s become one of my go-to horror comedies, something I can always have a good time watching. I’d decided on a horror comedy for this week – Evil Dead 2 – but someone pointed out to me that I’d just reviewed the original Evil Dead a couple of weeks ago and I might want to space ’em out. So I quickly looked around and while Fido, Fright Night and Tremors all were in the running I ended up watching Tucker & Dale because none of those movies has Alan Tudyk in them.
It’s currently on Netflix, which is where I saw it this time around. I feel like I should really pick up the blu-ray because the commentary (with the director and both Tudyk and Labine) seems like it would be a good time.
Tucker & Dale vs Evil is a horror comedy that uses the very narrow sub-genre of the hillbilly slasher flick as its template. Our titular heroes fulfill the hillbilly role and our first view of them – passing the car of our requisite teen victi… er, protagonists, all dead-eyed and slow-mo’d – make them seem like they could easily dismember a corpse or make someone squeal like a pig. It’s all about perception, though, and Tucker (Tudyk) and Dale (Labine) are really the most sweet-natured, nice guys you could imagine.
They do have some hygiene issues and an over-fondness for Pabst Blue-Ribbon, however. Dale also suffers from social anxiety and self-esteem issues, problems his friend Tucker does his best to help him overcome. Like when Dale sees Allison (Katrina Bowden) – one of the group of college kids they passed earlier – at the local gas station. Tucker urges Dale to go talk to her, but his approach is, of course, interpreted as threatening. (Next time, Dale, leave the scythe back at the truck.)
Really, all Tucker and Dale want is to enjoy a weekend at their new vacation cabin – a bit of a fixer upper, but with potential! Just needs some tender care, which is why they have all the chainsaws, axes and… still not sure why they need the scythe, actually. The woodchipper actually makes sense, though. The kids, for their part, just want to party and hook up and have an occasional creepy-ass story around the campfire. Your typical ‘teen victims in a slasher flick’ behavior.
You can see this two groups are on a collision course and eventually the kids skinny dipping runs smack into Tucker & Dale’s night fishing. (You’ll note that I never really learned the kids names – except for Allison. Honestly, I just never saw the point. Although I do remember Chad…) The two men startle Allison, who falls off a rock and knocks herself out. The other kids just see the two men hauling her unconscious form out of the water into their canoe. “We got your friend!” Dale calls out, trying to be helpful. Screaming and running ensues.
And that’s the genius of Tucker & Dale. It does such a good job of inverting the standard tropes of the slasher movie. Everything that Tucker and Dale do is innocuous – even innocent – but when the kids see them they can’t help but misinterpret everything. They assume Allison has been kidnapped by murderous hillbillies. Allison, after getting over her initial fright, gets to see the other side of the duo – primarily Dale – and realizes they’re really good guys. A little more blue collar than she’s used to, but decent, hard working folk like her own family (she grew up on a farm). The college kids, urged on by the murderously preppy Chad (Jesse Moss), can only see them as murderous monsters.
The kids misunderstanding and inept attempts to rescue Allison result in them dying in increasingly gory (and hilarious ways). Poor Tucker and Dale can’t figure out why the kids would do such horrible things as impale themselves in a shitter hole, er, crapper hole, uh, outhouse hole – or throw themselves headlong into the woodchipper. You can’t really blame the kids, though, even if they are paper-thin caricatures. If a filthy, gap-toothed man in overalls ran at me from behind an obvious murder cabin while swinging a chainsaw in the air and screaming? Yeah, I’d run like hell too – I’m not hanging around to ask if he’s mistakenly cut into a wasp nest.
In contrast to a movie like Return of the Living Dead, which achieves a lot of its humor through dialogue, most of Tucker & Dale’s best bits are almost entirely physical – watching Tucker struggling to pull the poor kid out of the woodchipper as blood soaks him completely could be depressing and stomach churning. Instead, Tudyk turns it into a gory three-stooges bit, ending with the hopeful “You okay?” The whole sequence with the kid running from Tucker (swinging his chainsaw at the hornets chasing him) contains no dialogue at all. Not to say there aren’t good lines – “Hideyho officer! We’ve had a doozy of a day.” remains one of my favorite things ever said in a film.
The best parts of the film are the in the first two-thirds – poor Tucker – and things bog down a bit with some Chad oriented stuff in the last third. It’s not that its bad, it just requires more setup and dialogue than the rest and it just doesn’t have the energy (or gore) that really elevates the earlier parts of the film. There are some nice moments – anything with Dale trying to get a hold of himself is gold – and there’s a decent climax in an abandoned saw mill, but much of the last 20 minutes feels a little too straightforward. A little too by the book.
The Bottom Line
The thing about Tucker & Dale that lifts it above films like, say, Zombeavers, is that it has some heart to it. You get invested in Tucker and Dale (and Allison) and actually care about what happens to them. Throw in some decent gore, plenty of jokes (if one doesn’t land, just wait a minute), and some great comedic performances and you’ve got a fun, weirdly warm-hearted slasher/hillbilly horror comedy.
Tyler Labine recently mentioned that they were working on something for a followup. Tucker & Dale vs Satan, maybe? Or vs Frankenstein? Doesn’t matter – I’m on board!