How far can you take a single joke? At first glance not far, but Tucker & Dale vs. Evil constitutes a surprising exception. It’s based on a single concept – those scary hillbillies in the woods are really just a couple of lovable goofs – that probably couldn’t stand up to a five-minute Saturday Night Live sketch. Then lo and behold, director/co-writer Eli Craig spins it out into a marvelously funny horror-comedy that achieves far more than its slight premise suggests.
We definitely find ourselves in torture porn territory, as a gaggle of obnoxious college kids heads out to the Appalachians for some good old-fashioned camping. Unfortunately, they’re spotted on the way in by Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) whose creepy demeanor and unsettling farming implements speak ill for the future of our plucky young heroes. But wait! Seems these two just want to do some fishing in their new backwoods vacation home and seem crazy just because Dale is too shy to talk to girls. Unfortunately, the damage is done and when one of the college girls bangs her head in the local swimming hole, Tucker and Dale get blamed.
What follows is an extended comedy of errors as the kids think the duo are out to get them and – through their own panic – accidentally off themselves in ways that make it look for all the world like the duo are out to get them. For instance, Tucker accidentally hits a beehive while working with his chainsaw, then charges right at one poor idiot who spears himself on a nearby tree branch when he flees. As the body count rises, so does mutual paranoia until the two sides are convinced they need to off each other just to survive.
It works in the first act because Craig imbues each gag with a great deal of creativity. We pick up on the rhythm early enough – spotting the moments when the next “victim” is going to buy it – but Tucker & Dale subverts our expectations each and every time. At first the title characters remain blissfully ignorant of the inadvertent carnage, but when the blood finally spatters in their face, they express far more horror at it than their supposed victims. (With one or two exceptions, the college kids are all self-absorbed douches, and one of them may even be a full-fledged sociopath.) When the initial formula starts to wear thin, Craig shakes it up with just enough tweaks to replenish our goodwill.
The subversion of stereotypes stays sharp thanks in no small part to sympathetic turns from Tudyk and Labine (who you might recognize as the good-hearted lab technician from Rise of the Planet of the Apes). They plant us firmly in their characters’ corners from the beginning, and while most of the humor hinges on their hapless pratfalls, we never dismiss them as the butt of easy jokes. Their innate likeability moves the film past its few weak points and prevents the Meta from devouring it whole. Craig misses the boat a little with some heavy-handed messages about judging books by their covers, but in every other respect, he hits the right tone every time. We’re left with a subversive genre exercise that once again reminds us how much fun scary movies are supposed to be.
And it does carry its share of scares; indeed if you looked at the film in brief snippets you’d think it was full-fledged torture porn. Tucker & Dale remains a comedy from start to finish, but gorehounds will easily spot kindred spirits behind the camera. Context informs everything and the terrific send-up of horror clichés benefits from cleaving so close to the (ahem) bone. Its closest cousin is probably Shaun of the Dead, though shades of the Evil Dead series crop up as well. That’s fine company to keep, and I’m happy to report that Tucker & Dale vs. Evil ultimately earns it.