If hillbilly horror comedy was an established genre, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil would be its Citizen Kane. Making his feature debut, director/co-writer Eli Craig tries to replicate the success ofShaun of the Dead. The result is a mixed bag: Craig includes familiar horror tropes and gross-out humor, yet his cast never possesses the chemistry that helped make Shaun of the Dead a classic. Moreover, Craig repeats the same joke the for the film’s duration, so once we reach the climax, some staleness is inevitable. I found myself mostly enjoying the movie, anyway, since the titular evil is from an unlikely source.
Rednecks Dale (Tyler Labine) and Tucker (Alan Tudyk) are on their way to a fishing trip. A van full of college kids, including Chad (Jesse Moss) and the lovely Allison (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden), are also taking a vacation. The two groups cross paths in a gas station: Dale attempts to chat with Allison, and only terrifies her. Tucker and Dale come to Allison’s rescue when she hurts herself, but Chad (incorrectly) believes the rednecks are psychos who are holding her hostage. The kids try to “rescue” Allison why she recovers, each one suffering a more gruesome accidental death than the last. The local sheriff (Philip Granger) sense something strange is happening, but he’s too late to intervene. Despite Allison’s attempt to mediate, it’s all-out war between the hillbillies and the college kids.
Craig and co-writer Morgan Jurgenson get most of their humor from stereotype and their subsequent subversion. Tucker and Dale look like rejects from Deliverance, but they’re good-natured guys who are victims of circumstance. Once the college kids are convinced Tucker and Dale are monsters, each mangled corpse furthers their confirmation bias. This joke – that Tucker and Dale are hapless while the college kids deserve Darwin awards – is repeated through the movie’s middle section. There are some late attempts at gallows humor, including what happens with half a body, yet the ongoing horror/comedy context eliminates surprise. Even in a horror movie, a mangled corpse overstays its welcome when we’ve already dealt with how it got that way.
Once Craig drains all the humor from this unlikely situation, we are left with characters that barely develop a rapport. Tudyk and Labine have comedic chops – this is apparent from their one-liners – but their scenes together lack energy. The subplot of Tucker’s attempt to bolster Dale’s confidence is a distraction from the copious bloodletting, and Dale’s interludes with Allison are similarly hollow. As with most middling horror, the movie only feels alive when another character dies.
Misgivings aside, I mostly found myself enjoying the shaggy charms of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. In its first act, the two factions face gentle mockery and I found myself curious who would become capitol E-evil. To my surprise, Craig kept me guessing until the mid-point, where the real monster reveals itself and the movie gets bloodier. When the inevitable rusty chainsaw makes an appearance, Craig eschews plot in favor of familiar gore. The best horror-comedies, including weird ones like Re-Animator, transcend their genre to develop feverish cult appeal.Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is for diehard horror nuts only. Its faltering attempt at comedy will disappoint those who expect consistent laughs.