“Tucker & Dale vs. Evil” may not actually be the goriest film of 2011, but it probably comes close. The movie features flayed faces, impaled bodies, bursts of gooey arterial spray and a scene in which two bloody rednecks wrest a torso-less half-corpse out of a woodchipper.
It’s also one of the nicest films of the year.
Part grisly, low-budget horror spoof, part loopy, role-reversing comedy, the movie offers a sort of genre-film thought experiment: You know all those beady-eyed, chain-saw-wielding hillbillies who seem to be constantly menacing bands of teenagers in woodsy horror movies?
What if they weren’t really backwoods sadists, but goofy, misunderstood hillbillies just as horrified by gruesome violence as the teens rapidly dying all around them? And what if the teenagers brought the true evil with them - and only the goodhearted hicks could stop it. Call it “The Hills Have … Surprise!”
The hicks in question would be Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) - two beer-drinking rural residents right out of a demented Jeff Foxworthy sketch: You might be a redneck if … you’ve ever been involved in a backwoods massacre with a bunch of partying college kids.
When we first see the pair, it’s from the perspective of yet another band of conspicuously attractive college kids headed out for yet another weekend of wilderness debauchery. Dale looms eerily, like a rabid bear readying an attack. Tucker hangs back, watching, squinting, eyeing his prey with what looks like violent certainty.
Of course, it’s nothing of the sort. When we finally see things from Tucker and Dale’s point of view, it turns out the two are just happy-go-lucky fishing buddies out for a weekend at Tucker’s newly purchased vacation cabin.
The problem is that the puppy-dog sensitive Dale gets nervous around better-educated college kids, especially pretty girls. And every time he gets near any of the girls, he ends up doing something awkward, which ends up coming across as creepy - especially when he and Tucker end up hauling Allison (Katrina Bowden in a thankless nice-girl role), the prettiest of the college girls, off to their cabin.
From there, the movie offers a hillbilly-friendly revisionist take on the hick-horror encounter - think “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” as told by Leatherface, if Leatherface were a guileless hick rather than a genuine slasher-movie maniac.
By necessity, the teenagers are a generic bunch of interchangeable frat and sorority types. The focus is squarely on Tucker and Dale. Mr. Tudyk, an underrated character actor who often hides his impressive range, reveals Tucker in broad comic strokes - he’s mostly there to encourage Dale’s development, and he stays out of the way accordingly. As Dale, the burly, hirsute Mr. Labine exudes a pure, genial, almost animalistic innocence, like he’s never had a mean-spirited thought in his life, and perhaps wouldn’t even know what one was.
Part of what makes “Tucker & Dale” so appealing is that it upends the horror genre not by deconstructing its conventions but by rethinking its characters - and by thinking better of them. It’s satire built on empathy, and far more humane than the slicker “Scream” films, which, even at their cleverest, offered little more than stylized cinematic cynicism.
The problem is that “Tucker & Dale” doesn’t do enough with the unconventional characters it has created. Tucker and Dale aren’t very interesting, just somewhat unexpected. They’re sweet, charming, nice - but, like the movie, not much else.
CREDITS: Directed by Eli Craig. Screenplay by Mr. Craig and Morgan Jurgenson
RATING: R for college-kid gore
RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS