Tucker & Dale vs. Evil: Breaks the Mold

By Brock Wilbur · October 3, 2011

The best horror films play with our preconceived notions of a genre whose structure is almost paint by the numbers. The same is true for comedy. That’s why the horror-comedy genre has such few excellent pickings: it requires a mastery of two completely different types of film to pull off successfully. Sometimes even a third. Arguably, the greatest addition the field this decade was Shaun of the Dead, which managed to also be a pitch perfect romantic comedy, just with lots of intestines. Or in smaller ways, the addition of mockumentary into Behind The Mask and Rec, or period piece into Fido, or dolphins and 3D into Dolphin Tale 3D, which most audiences didn’t realize until the final scene was a torture-porn flick.

And I'm absolutely serious about the slim pickings of great horror comedy. So many try and so few succeed. Especially first time writer/directors, since horror is one of the few genres where it's following and simplicity almost guarantees you'll turn a profit.

There's plenty of comedy films with a degree of violence, and plenty of horror films that contain jokes (ranging from funny characters to "intentional" shlock"), but it surely has a much lower success rate than romantic comedies that manage to hit the com as hard as the rom.

Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale vs. Evil does its violence grisly, its comedy clever, and incorporates the kind of on-screen bromance that puts Paul Rudd and Jason Segel to shame. If you’re looking for a horror corollary, it’s probably Deliverance or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If you’re looking for a comparable comedy, it’s probably Bridesmaids.

The film follows two unassuming hillbillies, Tucker (Firefly’s Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Reaper’s Tyler Labine), who are en route to their new vacation home in West Virginia. They’ve been saving up for years, and this fixer-upper will be a dream come true. Simultaneously, a van containing more teenager than could ever fit in said van, is headed out to the woods for a weekend of underage drinking and skinny dipping. The privileged and awful college students lose track of their friend Allison (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden) who Tucker saves from drowning. The kids think these maniacal hillbillies intend to murder them all, so they launch a campaign of violence and terror to save their friend.

The next day is spent with Tucker and Dale trying to go about life as usual while a barrage of attacking college students keep accidentally killing themselves, convincing a frightened Dale that they’re all involved in some kind of suicide pact. Allison sees the humanity and good in her saviors, but cannot communicate that information to her psychopathic friends, who spiral quickly from scared and confused into mass murdering psychopaths in their own rights. It’s a fascinating study in perspective and makes me think I need to re-watch all of the Friday the 13th films, as I may have been cheering for the absolute wrong team. (That was a joke, although Rambo: First Blood is still a movie that makes a killer its hero. Seriously. Those poor cops…)

Be not deterred by its title or subject matter: this is a script overflowing with heart, brought to life by crushingly honest and realistic portrayals from its leads. Tudyk and Labine could have played for laughs in stereotyping their hillbilly personae, but instead play them as complicated and tragic heroes, misunderstood by the world yet striving for what happiness they can build for themselves, bettering their humanity and inspiring each other with friendship and dedication to a dream. In the midst of their worst moments, Tucker and Dale will not hesitate to ignore the danger surrounding them to be a friend first and a fighter second. The results are not only comedy gold, but touching in a way that transcends the genre film, allowing you to forget the teenager in a wood chipper only moments earlier and worry that you might actually tear up.

This realism makes Tucker and Dale two of the smartest characters you'll ever see in a slasher film. While mistakes are made and confusion mixes with terror to create dangerous situations, their heads (almost) always remain in a clear and reasonable space. After having discussed that the police would never believe their story of suicidal teenagers, a cop shows up to surprise them, and Tucker and Dale take five minutes to walk him through the events exactly as they've unfolded, despite the fact they are both covered in remains of several teenagers. It is this same honesty that allows Dale to bond with Allison, since she's become tired of the snap judgements and idiotic behavior of her friends, long before the horrifying events of the weekend are set in motion.

Early in their romance, Allison recognizes the overwhelming intelligence of Dale, as he destroys her in Trivial Pursuit despite never having graduated the third grade. "There's a difference between intelligence and intellect," she says, laying out the thesis of the film. And what a glorious thesis it is. The idiotic over-reactions of the ten college students, who are consistently responsible for their own deaths, versus the woefully undereducated protagonists is a meta spectacle for the ages. At one point Allison informs Dale that she has a Bachelor's degree in Psychology, a concept he doesn't fully understand, but asks her, "What kind of job do you get with that?" I died laughing at her blank reaction, recognizing it clearly from the faces of those around me on graduation day as we got our rolled paper, declaring us awesome at film… stuff.

Her skill-set comes back in a third act sequence wherein she manages to calmly seat the leader of the college kids across from Dale to talk through their problems in pursuit of a solution, despite all the terror that has come before. While the psychotic student boils over with rage and revenge-fueled blood-lust, a similarly enraged Dale manages to calm down, see things through the students' eyes, and even apologize for the misunderstanding that has occurred. Obviously the film can't end here, but it's a glorious moment that I wish could be duplicated across other films. If only Henry Kissinger could have mediated the case of Freddy v. Jason, the population of Springwood would be much higher today.

It's a great first film from director/writer Eli Craig, and an excellent turn in the theatrical spotlight for Tudyk, Labine and even Bowden, who brings more than enough range to endear herself to the audience. It's a character piece first and a horror film second. While a little rough around the edges, you can easily overlook the flaws by focusing on the sincerity and intelligence at the heart of what Craig has made. Even if this kind of film wouldn't normally register on your radar, do yourself a favor and track it down, if only for Labine's delivery of the pitch perfect film noir good-bye: "I should have known, if a guy like me talked to a girl like you, somebody would end up dead."