In one of the first scenes of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, timid, salt of the earth Dale (Tyler Labine) is coaxed by his outgoing and well-meaning friend Tucker (Alan Tudyk) to approach Allison, a pretty blonde standing among her preppy college clique at a backwoods rest stop. Looking every bit the stereotypical hillbilly, the disheveled, overalls-clad Dale neglects to leave his scythe with the other tools in Tucker’s truck as he approaches the kids in a fit of nervous, maniacal giggles, blade in hand. His advance sends the popped-collar crew running, visions of a Leatherface-like angel of death undoubtedly careening through their heads.
It’s a dually hilarious and revelatory moment – for the remainder of the film, the audience is privy to truths that consistently elude its players. For die-hard horror fans, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil boasts enough gore, tension and jump scares to satiate your bloodlust, but its tone proves palatable for those less inclined to steel their stomachs to such subject matter. (A warning, though, to impalement-phobes: This movie will either break you or cure you.)
The unfolding comedy of errors begins after Tucker and Dale settle in to Tucker’s new fixer-upper cabin, close to the campsite of the vacationing college preppies. The earlier events causing something of a rift, the kids presume the duo to be crazed killers. Amid an evening skinny-dipping adventure, Allison (Katrina Bowden) is surprised by Tucker and Dale (innocently fishing nearby), hits her head and is subsequently rescued by the guys and abandoned by her terrified friends. A perceived hostage stand-off unfolds, with deadly results. After a particularly grisly scene, Tucker laments to Dale, “It doesn’t matter what happened – it only matters what looks like what happened.” The statement serves as something of a mantra, as the plot wields the concept of snap judgments and surface appearances with sadistic glee. And it does so without venturing into hokey Afterschool Special territory.
On the surface, comparisons to the similarly genre-bending comedy Shaun of the Dead certainly seem appropriate, but first-time director Eli Craig does something novel with his narrative: He creates two groups using traditional archetypes, plays the reactions to their respective perils completely straight, and juxtaposes them for the audience’s comedic pleasure. Although the misunderstandings and kills are terrific, what’s most notable is how engaging all the characters are. The physical comedy is fun, for sure — Tudyk, specifically, hits it out of the park with a chainsaw scene homage to Texas Chainsaw Massacre — but the reactive dialogue is the movie’s greatest strength, as are the creatively shot action sequences (there’s some incredibly fun Evil Dead-like weapon POV at play).
Tudyk and Labine hung out together prior to shooting, sparking a real-life friendship, and that chemistry clearly spills over onscreen. When we interviewed Craig, Labine and Tudyk at Comic-Con International, the director admitted he’d envisioned Labine for the role of Dale, but Tucker was a last-minute casting decision. Tudyk proves a perfect get: He approaches level-headed Tucker with the charisma and deadpan delivery fans of Serenity and Firefly have come to adore. Labine nails the lovable simpleton role, and his character’s arc is the crux of the film; he bears the responsibility effortlessly.
Even the group of college kids, generally relegated to a team of sub-par actors, is an intriguing bunch. Jesse Moss as ringleader Chad seems cut from the cloth of a Bret Easton Ellis creation, and Bowden manages adorable charm as hostage/love interest/audience surrogate Allison. Even Chelan Simmons’ Chloe and Brandon Jay McLaren’s Jason emote comedic timing into supporting roles that easily could’ve crossed the line into annoyingly distracting territory.
Every element of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil just works – in riotously entertaining form. Alhough Dale’s exclamation that, “None of this would’ve happened if we hadn’t have gone fishin’!” is certainly correct, you’ll find yourself thankful that they did.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is available via Magnolia On Demand starting today, and in theaters beginning Sept. 30.
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