Thursday, October 16, 2014

Film Friday: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2011)

I despise the hillbilly slasher genre. Seriously, it’s always the same thing: some college kids stumble upon an inbred, deformed hillbilly who starts killing them for no apparent reason. These films traffic in mindless violence and clichés, and they are duller than dirt. In fact, they are so bad they can’t even be parodied because they are themselves parodies. Well, actually, it turns out they can be parodied. That’s what Tucker and Dale vs. Evil does, and I was really surprised by this film.


When I first heard of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, I had no idea what it was about. This is one of those films with little marketing muscle and no box office reach; if you want to see this one, you need to go find it, so finding out what it is about is not easy. Even the description at Netflix wasn’t particularly helpful. But I liked the title and I decided to give it a chance.

The story opens by introducing some generic a-hole college kids. We then meet Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), hillbillies from West Virginia. As this film appeared to be setting up a hillbilly slasher film, I almost turned it off at that point. Fortunately, I didn’t.
Within a minute or so, things change and it becomes obvious that Tucker and Dale are not quite what you expect. Yes, they are “country,” but they are also strangely urbane in many ways. In particular, they are clever. They converse at the level of college graduates. They express complex psychological and logical ideas. Their hillbilly background seems to have given them an inferiority complex, which they discuss openly. And they are headed to a “vacation home” they just bought in the backwoods to do some fishing and relaxing. These are not normal hillbillies.

As they stock up on provisions, like a six pound jar of pickled eggs, the group of college students pulls up at the same gas station and tries to buy beer. This leads to a series of accidental confrontations which freak out the college kids, making them think that Tucker and Dale are hillbilly rapist/killers. When Dale then approaches the group to speak to one of the girls, things go wrong because he’s holding a scythe and makes the mistake of following horrible advice about laughing at whatever they say. The college kids freak out and flee the scene.

A few minutes later, we discover that the vacation home is a fixer-upper which needs a lot more work than they originally expected. It also seems to have been owned by a mass murderer as the place is decorated in bones and there are newspaper clippings of killings on the wall. Tucker and Dale don’t seem to understand the significance of this, however, and they go fishing.
While they are fishing, they come across the college students again and they scare one of the girls who is trying to climb into the lake from a rock. She falls into the water and hits her head. They save her, but her friends, seeing this from a distance, believe Tucker and Dale have knocked her out and are kidnapping her. When they yell, “We got yer friend,” that seems to confirm the college students’ worst fears. They vow to get her back! This begins an amazing series of accidents in which most of the college kids end up dead in ways that hillbilly killers have used in other films, but which are purely accidental here.

I’ll leave the rest to you to discover.

Why This Film Worked

Parodies may seem easy because there are so many of them, but few of them are very good. This is because parody is actually quite difficult. The goal of a quality parody is to find some truth within the thing being parodied that the audience normally overlooks and then exploit that truth to poke fun at the original property. Some films are fairly good at this, like the first few Scary Movie films, which mocked various iconic horror scenes while telling their own story. Ultimately, those films weren’t particularly logical or realistic, but they were funny because they put their finger on flaws we overlooked in the iconic films they were parodying. Other parodies have been less successful. Take, for example, Meet the Spartans or any film from that set of filmmakers. These are putrid parodies because they simply repeat a story and throw in whatever gag they can think of into each scene whether they are connected to the scene in any way or not. Hence, most of the jokes were random, low-hanging fruit that just weren’t funny or relevant.

I had little hope for Tucker and Dale vs. Evil on the parody front. For one thing, the hillbilly slasher films are so poorly done as a group that they already operate as parody. Indeed, there’s very little left to laugh at in those films because you’ve already rolled your eyes at everything that can be parodied as you watched the originals. Moreover, it’s just not clear how you could make a hillbilly rapist funny or likeable enough to get you to invest in the character as an object of humor.
But Tucker and Dale vs. Evil did something fascinating. Rather than try a traditional parody, they flipped the story on its head and, in the process, created a heck of a parody that mocked all the usual silliness you find in hillbilly slasher films while simultaneously creating a film that was clever and funny in a totally unexpected way.

Indeed, this film gives you all the scenes you’ve come to expect: the hillbilly sodomy, the wood chipper killing, the chainsaw attack, the dead cop who failed to call for backup, the digging-your-own grave scene, etc.... but each of those scenes is twisted around in ways that are clever, strangely believable, and hilarious. Adding to this are the reactions of the hillbillies, which are polar opposites of what we’ve come to expect. Indeed, rather than being cold-blooded, inbred killing machines like a moonshine fueled T-900, Tucker and Dale are soft-hearted, sensitive, and terrified at what is happening. Dale doesn’t even like fishing because he doesn’t want to hurt a fish.
To give an example of what I’m talking about, consider the wood chipper incident. I can’t count the number of times some hillbilly tossed his victims into a wood chipper in other films. It happens here too, but not at all the way you expect. Here, Tucker is working with the wood chipper when the college students finally decide to “fight back.” To that end, one of the college kids charges Tucker, whose back is turned. Tucker bends over at the perfect time to pick up the next log for the chipper and the college student trips and flies right over his back into the chipper. Hilarity ensues as Tucker turns to discover the body and freaks out, and as the college kids entirely misinterpret what has happened as further proof that the hillbillies are intent on killing them.

Not only does this entire scene work perfectly in the sense of making total sense as to how it plays out and how each side reacts, but it’s also such an intensely clever and unexpected twist on a common scene from hillbilly slasher films that you can’t help but burst out laughing throughout the scene. Making this even funnier though is the priceless reaction of Tucker, who freaks out.

In fact, what really makes this film work are the hilarious reactions of Tucker and Dale throughout as they find themselves in a truly surreal situation with which they are ill-equipped to cope. Tudyk, who is one of the best voice actors ever (e.g. King Candy from Wreck-It-Ralph) and has played wonderfully enjoyable characters in shows like Firefly and films like Dodgeball, plays another gem of a character here. He’s the smart one of the two and he does indeed manage to grasp 99% of what is happening. Unfortunately, that last 1% is the killer as the conclusions he draws in each situation are simply dead wrong. This makes you laugh at everything he does.
Labine is new to me, but he plays Dale as a teddy bear with a crush on the college girl they save. He’s truly genuine and sensitive and it makes him incredibly likable. And the little romance that brews between him and the super sexy Allison (Katrina Bowden) is downright sweet.

And honestly, watching the creative ways the college students kill each other off by accident as Tucker and Dale try to stop them, only to be seen as having caused the deaths, is just consistently hilarious throughout.

This is one of those films that I expected to hate. I assumed it would be stupid and pointless and offer little more than a disguised slasher film. But it wasn’t. Instead, I found a film that is clever, engaging and hilarious. This is a film with characters you will like. This is a film that relentlessly mocks the hillbilly slasher films, but does so in such a good-natured, innocent way that you can’t help but enjoy the film.

I absolutely recommend this one.



shawn said...

It's a decent flick, my big problem is that I saw the trailer for it first, and it gave away most of the really funny stuff, essentially spoiling the surprise. So stay away from the movie trailer before watching the film.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, That's too bad. It definitely helps not to know what will happen next with this one because the surprise is part of what makes this film fun.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Excellent review, Andrew!
I too had little expectations when I watched this, so it was refreshingly well done, funny and had endearing characters.

I met quite a few hillbillies when I was in the Navy and only one or two were even close to the stereotypical portrayals of hillbillies hollywood usually uses, so it was nice to see this film in that aspect as well.

It's clear that the director, writers and producer knew all the parody pitfalls and smartly avoided them while still managing to throw in some surprises.
as you say, this is not an easy thing to do so kudos to the entire film crew for taking a chance and doing something different and entertaining.
The miscommunication between the students and hillbillies was particularly funny to me.

Fortunately, I hadn't seen the trailer before the film.

Anonymous said...

I hate to be that guy...

... but this film had been on my to-watch list for a long time and after reading your review, I may have to take it off the list! I absolutely HATE stories based on "comic misunderstandings," where everything can be solved with a conversation.

And the idea of killing off characters purely by accident doesn't appeal to me at all. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. (Cue the Stripes line: "Lighten up, Francis!") :-)

Having said that, I also enjoy Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine was on a clever CW show for a few years called Reaper. Katrina Bowden played Tina Fey's sexy assistant on 30 Rock.

tryanmax said...

Scott, don’t write it off yet. I'm with you on hating "comic misunderstanding" as it's usually done, which is lazily. Tucker and Dale does it right. This isn’t someone arbitrarily refusing to listen to someone they normally would because, wouldn’t that be funny? Instead, a cultural divide combines with awkwardness and bad advice that totally bungles their one chance at a real conversation. Tucker and Dale inadvertently and repeatedly confirm the preppies' worst preconceived notions about hillbillies which escalate into a dark comedy of errors. (That sounds like the back of a DVD case.) What I’m trying to say is, it's much more organic than 99% of what passes for comic misunderstanding. Yes, it plays heavily off of stereotypes, but plays them differently than we expect. The accidental deaths are clever in their own right because they take the idea that "no way was this an accident" and show you otherwise.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I normally hate that idea too, but it really works here. This isn't one of those stories with a fake misunderstanding that any reasonable person should be solved by a quick question to the other side. The misunderstanding here is much more significant than that and, based on the interpretation they've got of events, no reasonable person would try to sit down with the other side.

As an aside, when they do finally have "the conversation," there's a twist that makes it even harder to settle this.

As for the accidental deaths, they are strangely believable and very funny. This doesn't feel like deus ex machina, it feels like it really could happen in these instances.

I wouldn't normally recommend a film about hillbilly slashers, a film about misunderstandings that can be settled if everyone just acts reasonably, and where there is a lot of deus ex machina.... but I recommend this film because it doesn't feel like any of those things.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben! I've known quite a few hillbillies in my time too. They are generally less violent than portrayed by Hollywood, but more criminal in nature. Most of the ones I've met live on welfare for a living and steal to buy drugs.

I enjoyed this film primarily because you really do come to like Tucker and Dale. They are both good guys who are just trying to do their thing when all of this weirdness starts happening around them. I found their interactions to be hilarious. The characters are endearing. The setups are solid. And the payoffs are really funny. This was a smart film -- much smarter than almost anything I've seen in the comedy ranks of late.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Well said! I agree completely.

The thing I hate most about the comic misunderstanding film is that it is lazy writing. It is premised on the main character being so obnoxious that we're supposed to accept that they reach an insane conclusion and refuse to even ask someone they have regular contact with if that is accurate. Why are we supposed to believe that? Well, because he's so obnoxious! ha ha.

I hate that.

In any event, that's not the case here.

This misunderstanding begins with a cultural misunderstanding which grows out of control because the college students see extraordinary appearing events, like the hillbillies fishing the girl out of the water and then yelling, "We got yer friend!" or being "chased" by a Tucker with the chainsaw.

Those aren't the kind of normal situations where you would say, "Gee, I should check and see what they meant," especially once the bodies start piling up. Or take the wood chipper, where it appears to them that Tucker is feeding the body into the chipper as he is really trying to pull it out. Again, that's the sort of observation you act on... not have a sitdown over.

In terms of the accidents, what I really appreciated is how unexpected, but believable they are. This isn't someone "accidentally" lying down in front of a running saw. These accidents are believable. They are typically foreshadowed too to make them even more credible. And they are just funny because they do parody the things you normally see in these films.

I also appreciate how "real" the characters reactions are. Tucker and Dale, for example, are confused and they piece together the only idea that makes sense from their perspective -- a suicide pact. At the same time, they aren't dumb enough to think they can convince the cops that that is what happened. So you never feel like the film is cheating just to get them to do something. And things like the mention of Stockholm Syndrome are exactly what a college student would reach for to explain away evidence that doesn't fit what they think is happening.

This is a truly well written film.

Kit said...

"Oh hidy ho officer, we've had a doozy of a day. There we were minding our own business, just doing chores around the house, when kids started killing themselves all over my property." —Tucker

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That is one of the funniest lines in this movie, especially because he says that there is no way anyone would believe him if he said this and then he ends up saying it to the cop. Also, the concept is so hilarious because this is so obviously impossible and yet that is exactly what is happening... sort of.

5minutes said...

I am most decidedly not a horror fan, but friends pushed this one on me and boy am I glad. This takes on every horror trope that's popped up since 1978 and plays with it gleefully. I adored it enough to recommend it to the wife, who's even less of a horror fan, and she absolutely adored it.

We considered doing Tucker and Dale as costumes this year, but it's still a little too obscure.

AndrewPrice said...

5Minutes, That's a great way to put it. This film is gleeful. Everything they do is just meant to be fun and that comes across and makes this a very pleasant, happy, funny film despite the "darkness" of the overall story.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a fan of horror at all and don't watch any of the slasher or torture porn movies.

The only reason I sat down to watch this was because I loved Alan Tudyk in Firefly and I heard it was a comedy. Alan didn't let me down and it was a great comedy and as mentioned the reactions of all involved were believable in relation to the story.

I've never met any Hillbillies and only know of them from movie/media stereotypes, so it was good to see those stereotypes thrown on their head in such an original way.

Great movie, I would recommend it to any and every adult to enjoy.


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I too have become a fan of Alan Tudyk, and he does not disappoint here. I haven't seen this in over a week and there are still moments that make me laugh periodically... "All these kids started killing themselves all over my property." LOL!

KRS said...

Andrew - this review is certainly on the mark. I had high hopes when I read the title (I've always thought crafting a solid title is like writing poetry: looks simple but it ain't) and it didn't disappoint. Tudyk is solid in anything he does - he's almost a chameleon, practically fading inside the character he plays.

That said, this is not a movie for the faint of heart because the gore is significant. More than I normally care for really, but it doesn't bother me so much in this case because the movie is such an excellent parody that the blood&guts are essential elements of the jokes.

However, I think one reason why this works is that it is so outrageous. We're all laughing at the genre of bad slasher flicks, so, while the gory deaths are plausible in a sort of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1964) vein, they're really hilariously preposterous, so it doesn't feel the same as in a slasher/torture porn flick.

I'm not sure that last bit gets my point across, but, hey, funny movie.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, Your last point absolutely gets the point across. There is a lot of gore, but it's so over the top and so, as you put it, hilariously preposterous in how it happens that you spend all your time laughing at it rather than feeling grossed out.

PikeBishop said...

Had a free weekend of Starz and Encore and finally caught it last night. Everything the review said is true, the grisly deaths and accidents come off as laugh out loud funny, something rare to pull over (Peter Jackson's "Dead Alive" was probably the first to pull this trick off). Even my relatively squeamish wife was laughing out loud. If that was say an episode of The Walking Dead, she would have been hiding her face. I thought everything about the reverseal parody was spot on, especially the characterizations. (Notice in most of the slasher films the college students are A** Holes, but you cheer for them as less evil than the psycho killers). My one complaint is the the last fifteen minutes. After the destruction of the house, it's like the writer had nowhere to go, but to a clichéd situation in a very clichéd place, that doesn't quite effectively fit the reverse parody concept (IMHO) and the pacing sort of flags. It's like they had no idea of how to end it. Other than that. Top notch film that falls just a bit short. Thanks for turning me on to it.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, You're welcome! I agree completely about the last 15 minutes. The last 15 minutes fall apart into cliche and lose the feel of the movie. But up until that point, the film really is clever and fun.

I'm glad your wife found it funny too. It's always hard to tell how much gore people will like or if they will see it as funny. In this case, I was laughing so hard I barely noticed that it was gory. I'm glad to hear that you and your wife had a similar experience. :D

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