REVIEW: Clever Horror Premise Fails Tucker & Dale vs Evil Halfway Through
While it's not quite enough to fuel a whole feature, the premise of Tucker & Dale vs Evil is a slice of meta-genre brilliance: What if the creepy, forbidding locals who always glare so unwelcomingly at slasher movie protagonists on their way to their haunted mansions and creepy cabins in the woods were actually just misunderstood? What if they were only trying to make conversation, and it's the college students/horny teenagers/yuppie vacationers who rush to judge and act hostile and end up dying in the wilderness? In a particularly nice touch, the hillbilly heroes of this horror-comedy (which leans far heavier toward the latter half of that equation) are actually headed to a weekend getaway themselves. Tucker (Alan Tudyk) has saved up enough to buy a "fixer-upper," a dilapidated cabin that evidence indicates might have once belonged to a psycho killer -- but hey, it's on a lake.
Tucker's brought his best friend Dale (Tyler Labine) along to check out the place and do a little fishing, but while stopping at the gas station they cross paths with a group of college students on spring break, among them the pretty Allison (_30 Rock_'s Katrina Bowden) and the macho Chad (Jesse Moss). The kids have stopped to stock up on beer, and find Tucker and Dale and the whole location "sooo creepy" (for possibly good reason -- what kind of convenience store carries six-pound jars of pickled eggs like the one Dale buys?). They turn out to be staying on the shores of the same lake as Tucker's new cabin, and a late-night encounter in the water leads to a string of amusingly unlucky mishaps that have the college kids convinced the pair of rednecks are out to get them.
Tucker & Dale vs Evil, which marks director/cowriter Eli Craig's feature debut, is at its cleverest in setting up these moments of misunderstanding that leave Tucker and Dale looking like iconic horror-movie psychopaths while having no idea how they're coming across -- who knew that the phrase "We've got your friend!" was so context-dependent? I don't want to give too much away, because how these bits unfold is a large part of their fun, but in that early sequence getting gas, Dale gazes admiringly at Allison until Tucker suggests he go over and talk to her. "Whatever you say, just smile and laugh -- it shows confidence," he advises, which is how the nervous Dale ends up approaching the kids while holding a scythe and maniacally cackling, "You guys... going camping?!"
The casting of seemingly perpetual comic relief sidekicks Labine, (the jackass friend in shows like Reaper and Mad Love) and Tudyk (memorable in goofball roles like Dodgeball's Steve the Pirate and Firefly's Wash) as the trucker-hat sporting, overall wearing, PBR-drinking pair (who'd fit in just as well at a hipster dive bar) does add another Harold and Kumar-esque layer to the film -- they're familiar faces, but not ones we've come to expect to see in lead roles. But as the POV shifts continues, we're shown it's the bumpkins who are actually kind, concerned and into board games, and the college kids who are aggressive, frat house jerks ("You're either Omega Beta or a freak!").
Tucker & Dale vs Evil starts to run out of steam about halfway through -- the film noticeably stretches to fill the second half with attempted sit-down détentes between our heroes and the surviving campers (who are a seriously fragile, accident-prone bunch) and overexplanations about the divide between hillbilly and college student as if they were two separate breeds of human. Backstory involving one character's history with the cabin also feels like filler there to pad things out to 80 minutes. If you're seeing this as the midnight movie it's destined to best be experienced as, you could safely drift off after the 45-minute mark, as we get into more standard showdown territory, albeit with the usual sympathies switched. Even the most self-aware experiment in tweaking genre conventions tends to fall back on them in the end, though Tucker & Dale vs Evil makes good on its initial concept to be worth a look, especially when surrounded by a slasher-flick-loving crowd.