Finally, a movie that celebrates the rarest of cinematic creatures: gentle hillbillies. Eli Craig, making his feature-length directorial debut here, hits the horror-comedy ball out of the park by turning the slasher genre on its head in Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. A clever script (co-written by Craig and Morgan Jurgenson) coupled with hilarious performances from its leads and enough shots of perfectly timed gore to leave you laughing and wincing at the same time...what's not to like?
Inverting our expectations is the name of the game and the film wastes no time in getting down to business. Nine college kids on a road trip come across a couple of hillbillies at a run down gas station in a half a horse town. The kids think the strangers are giving them the stink-eye and are sufficiently creeped out. When one approaches them with a massive scythe and a weird grin, they stammer their way out of a confrontation and hightail it out of there. They're not stupid you know. They've seen enough horror movies to know what was going to happen next.
Therein lies the rub. You see, the kids were sorely mistaken about the hillbillies. Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are perfectly harmless. In fact, they're actually really nice guys. Sure they're a bit rough around the edges but they're also sweet and charming and fun to be around once you get to know them. At least that's what Dale was hoping one of the girls in the group, Allison (Katrina Bowden), would see in him when he approached her with an innocent smile. Since that bit of flirtation ended so badly, it's nice that he's going to get a second chance. As it turns out, both groups are headed to the same lake in the woods. The kids are just looking for a good time while Tucker and Dale are hoping to fix up the little shack they just bought for themselves as a vacation home.
One night, when the guys are out fishing they end up having to rescue Allison when she falls into the lake. Of course, the rest of her friends assume the worst and believe that Tucker and Dale are kidnapping her. From this point on the film cuts loose as the kids try to retrieve her with disastrous consequences. You see, they're headstrong, clumsy and just a little dumb (okay, really dumb). Pretty soon, Tucker and Dale are on high alert as crazy teenagers start attacking them. The fact that they usually end up killing themselves in the process (why would you run at a guy standing in front of a wood chipper?) is knee-slappingly funny in a morbid slapsticky way. This is also how we end up with a slasher flick where the victims are far more blood-thirsty and dangerous than the supposed slashers.
I don't want to say much more about the kills (I already went too far by mentioning the wood chipper) but Craig deserves a ton of credit for presenting them in a credible fashion while never allowing them to steal the show. There are no Final Destination-styled elaborate setups on display here. Almost every death is rooted in extreme stupidity and seems quite avoidable. Of course, this just makes them even funnier. I guess it helps that this is a horror-comedy where the emphasis is very much on the comedy. It also helps that Craig has Tudyk and Labine to rest his film upon. Both actors are in fine form here as lifelong friends who can't understand why their vacation has taken such an unfortunate turn. They exude likeability and down-to-earth charm. Tudyk plays up Tucker's dominant role in the duo so that Labine's sheepish modesty can be put to perfect use as the self-effacing Dale.
I was a little concerned about the number of kids that Tucker and Dale were going to be pitted against. I didn't think individual personalities would really come through and that was especially true of most of the group. As their numbers were whittled down, I grew to appreciate the subtle work that Chelan Simmons was doing with the stereotypical role of the dumb blonde. It was just shy of parody without completely crossing over the line. Jesse Moss was even more impressive as the high-strung leader of the group with a genuine hatred for hillbillies. Watching his character transform into the teeth-gnashing Evil promised by the film's title was organic yet disconcerting.
I was laughing and groaning (in a good way) too much to really notice any missteps made by the film. I guess I could crib about the climax that goes on a bit too long, trading in some humor for a more straightforward approach but that would be unfair to Labine who finally gets his moment in the spotlight as a full-fledged action hero. This film represents a truly strong debut by Eli Craig. He balances all of its elements rather nicely and emerges with a real crowd-pleaser in the process. I am confident that horror fans will dig what is being offered up here. I would even venture to say that comedy fans who don't normally dip into the horror genre will enjoy this as long as they can stomach a bit of gore. Honestly, the film is too good to be passed up just because its laughs come in a blood-soaked package.
The movie was presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. Other than a tiny bit of shimmer in a few spots, I found the image to be fairly stable and sharp. The earthy color palette was accurately represented without turning the entire film into a dull brown affair. There are a few flashbacks to an earlier massacre that are shown with a treatment that harkens back to classical slashers. These scenes had a weathered yellow tint to them that helped preserve the effect while maintaining clarity.
The English audio was presented in a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound mix with optional Spanish subtitles. The audio mix was quite effective at conveying the score composed by Mike Shields. It also came through with gusto during some of the more gut-wrenching scenes with their squishy sound effects. I didn't notice any obvious defects or glitches in the mix.
I feel like the selection of extras is a bit misleading since they promise a bit more than they actually deliver. We start things off with a Making Of (12:23) featurette that gives us interviews with the director and central cast. They discuss the story and how they feature in it while special emphasis is placed on the sparkling chemistry between our two leads. The co-writer (Jurgenson) and one of the producers (Rosanne Milliken) are also on hand to provide their feedback on the filming process. As informative as this piece is, we are also given HDNet: A Look at Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (4:33) that repeats much of what we just saw. It features the same interview sound bites but in an abbreviated fashion. This could have easily been omitted in favor of something else (deleted scenes?).
The next extra is based on a fun idea but fails to deliver anything truly novel. Tucker & Dale ARE Evil: The College Kids' Point of View (16:47) is exactly what it sounds like. The entire film is edited down to give us an impression of how our lovable leads came across to the terrified kids. Although there are a few creative choices with the sound design to make Tucker and Dale seem more villainous, this extra doesn't bring anything new to the table since the film does such a good job of communicating both sides of the story to the audience. This is followed by Outtakes (7:52) that are largely focused on Labine and Tudyk and their sophomoric hijinks between shots. This is pretty funny stuff that fans of either actor will appreciate.
After a Theatrical Trailer for the feature and additional ones Also From Magnolia Home Entertainment, we are rewarded with the most entertaining extra: a Commentary with Eli Craig, Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk. As far as commentary tracks go, this one ranks up there in terms of how relaxed the participants are and how much fun it is to listen to. When they aren't busy being funny in front of the camera, Labine and Tudyk are just as hilarious as they goof off and rib each other. Craig is no slouch either since he regularly jumps into the fray and matches the guys blow for blow. The trio isn't shy about sharing embarrassing anecdotes culled from the filming process. If you are curious about nepotism in film or how this movie is related to Without a Paddle, this commentary will sort you out. If you're just wondering whether the one-eyed dog was ever flatulent on set, well, that's here too. Altogether, this is a fun track that is well worth your time.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil reinvigorates the horror-comedy genre by getting the basics right: a solid and inventive script, charismatic performers and a healthy dose of the red stuff. Watch this film to see what Eli Craig's assured directorial debut looks like. Watch it to see Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk create characters that deserve to have a franchise built around them. Watch it so you can belly-laugh at a guy jumping into a wood chipper. I don't care what reason you use, but please watch it. Highly Recommended.