Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.
I’ve discussed the problem with horror comedies before. The biggest problem with them is that they tend to push the comedy over the horror. What this means is that they generally aren’t scary, often opting for gore instead of actual horror. And, they aren’t that funny most of the time, which means they fail in every aspect. There are good movies in this subgenre. There are even good movies that push the comedy and go for real horror instead of cheap gore. Such a movie is Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Well, that’s true at least in terms of comedy.
Many a horror movie uses the trope of uneducated, essentially feral hillbillies attacking our more civilized heroes. That’s the basic plot of Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes and a couple of dozen other films. The difference is that in this case, our two heroes are the hillbillies themselves. Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are uneducated backwoods crackers, but they aren’t dumb. They’re just awkward when presented with attractive young college students. Especially Dale, who doesn’t do well with women.
The entire joke behind Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is that Tucker and Dale are actually decent guys, but everything they do makes them look like psychotics. This is the genius of the film, because in their mind, everything they do is completely innocent. It’s true for the audience as well, because we know their motivations and what’s going on in their heads. So, while it looks to anyone else like they are two inbred hicks living in a murder cabin in the middle of the woods, the truth is that it’s their summer home and they’re just there to go fishing.
A lot of what happens does so because Dale finds himself attracted to Allison (Katrina Bowden), a part of the inevitable group of college students who would be the protagonists in a typical horror movie. Through a series of misadventures, Allison ends up in the boys’ creepy vacation home after a minor accident. Allison discovers that Tucker and Dale are (as the audience has known) nice guys and not backwoods killers. But her friends don’t know this, and every time they attempt to rescue her, they end up dead by their own devices.
It’s impressive that Tucker and Dale vs. Evil manages to keep up the insanity plausibly through its first two acts. Where it starts to lose its forward momentum is when popped-collar college boy Chad (Jesse Moss) is shoe-horned in as having a connection to all of the carnage that is happening. Moss’s Chad works as someone who is perhaps a little too excited to be in a fight to the death with some backwoods yokels, but when this becomes something that he is genetically predisposed to, things go off the rails.
That said, I don’t really care that much. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil isn’t really about the plot, but about the ridiculousness of the situation and the various ways that people are accidentally killed in ways that make our two heroes look complicit. It’s about getting us to root for the two guys who are so evidently guilty in the eyes of everyone who sees them and so clearly innocent to those of us who know the whole story. It’s a horror movie that seems to be inspired by at least the ideas of Franz Kafka, and for that, I love it.
And ultimately, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil gives us a formula for how to do a horror comedy well. I’m pretty sure there are no filmmakers reading this blog, but just in case there are and they are planning on making a horror comedy, here’s what works:
*) Give us characters that are likable. One of the biggest problems in many horror comedies is that the main characters we are supposed to be rooting for are obnoxious assholes because that makes them “funny.” It doesn’t. It makes them unlikeable, and it means we’re not really invested in their survival. Shaun of the Dead works in no small part because we like Shaun and Ed. Slither works because we want to root for Bill Pardy.
*) Make it funny. Yeah, that’s not easy, but shoot for something above the lowest common denominator crap. Watching dumb people do dumb things isn’t funny. Watching smart people do things that turn out to be dumb is. Tucker and Dale works in the main because our two heroes are the “dumb” ones, but they regularly act in smart ways while the college kids end up doing things that are dumb.
Seems crazy, but that’s it. Two steps, and you’ve gone a long way toward making something that works. Give us things that are funny and characters that we don’t want to punch. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, for all of the spinning out of control that happens in the third act, does exactly that, and it works because of it.
Why to watch Tucker and Dale vs. Evil: It’s the funniest thing you’ve seen in a long time.
Why not to watch: It loses its way a bit in the third act.