Eli Craig's Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil begins with a scene of handheld, "found footage" horror, before jumping to a group of idiot college kids camping in hillbilly country. Once they hit the woods, there are shout-outs to The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Fargo, not to mention a story of a similar group picked off in these very woods 20 years previous by killers who are still... out... there. You don't have to be a horror movie aficionado on the lookout for those homages and quotations to enjoy Tucker & Dale, but it sure does help.
The title characters are a pair of goofy, likable good ol' boys. Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are headed out to the ramshackle cabin they've just purchased as a "vacation home" when they cross paths with an inordinately large group of college campers--there are so many, we (correctly) presume, so that there's more to die later on. The most likable is Allison (Katrina Bowden, from 30 Rock), who Dale immediately crushes on; the least likable is Chad (Jesse Moss), whose frat-boy douchiness appears to house a particularly dark streak. When Allison takes a nasty fall into a lake, Tucker and Dale come to her rescue in their fishing boat, but the rest of the group believes the "dirty hillbillies" have kidnapped her, and that they must come to her rescue.
Thus comes the picture's central premise: that in their attempts to be heroic, these moron kids keep fumbling into their own slapstick deaths, with poor Tucker and Dale, who are not the brightest bulbs to begin with (Tucker, on the bones hanging from their new home: "Whoever use to live here must've been a archaeologist or somethin'!" Dale, seeing the clippings of killing sprees on the wall: "A news junkie too!"), left as innocent bystanders to the bloodshed. And make no mistake, there is an abundance of it; Craig pours on the gore by the bucketful, following a logical downward spiral as the bodies keep piling up, one after the other.
If the script (by Craig and Morgan Jurgenson) had punch lines to match the cleverness of the construction, the picture might genuinely merit comparison to an Evil Dead. Alas, though the film is fun, we keep waiting for it to be as funny as it could be. It constantly circles its targets while never quite hitting them; too many of the comic bits fall flat, and many require sitcom-style misunderstood eavesdropping. The occasional non-sequitur lands ("He's heavy for half a guy..."), but the screenplay could've definitely benefited from a bit of punch-up.
However, Labine (so good recently in A Good Old Fashioned Orgy) and the brilliant Tudyk (Firefly, Death at a Funeral) are so effortlessly funny and charismatic that they manage to sell even the weaker bits (one of the film's biggest laughs is Tudyk's incredulous "You okay?"). They keep us interested (as does Bowden's frequently bare midriff), and mostly entertained. Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is ultimately a film that warrants cheerful affection, in spite of its indisputable unevenness.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.