Thursday, March 31, 2011

Scenes from Horror Hound, Day 2: A Comedy of Terrors

I'm winding up my impressions of Horror Hound Weekend today with a look at Tucker & Dale vs Evil (2010, directed by Eli Craig), a film that is mysteriously without North American distribution a year after making its debut at Sundance in 2010. This is a riff on the rural massacre movie, in which unwitting college students (or other photogenic young people) wander into the woods to be eviscerated by rural degenerates. This archetype is pretty old, dating back to the Sawney Bean legend, but it was given full life in the Southern Gothic literature or Flannery O'Connor and James Dickey, who give regionalism a hint of derangement and resentment.

This film is self-aware, so its troupe of college students are well aware of the archetype. In fact, it feeds their hysteria once they wander into the boondocks. The college students, however, are not our point of view characters. We see things through the eyes of the hillbillies, who are not, in fact, hillbillies, but a couple of buddies who have purchased a vacation home in the woods and are intent on fixing it up. This might have been even funnier if they had been a gay couple, but this film doesn't go there for reasons that make sense to the screenplay. I'll come back to that.

The plot finds the students convinced that Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), our heroes, have abducted one of their friends and are doing horrible things to her at their cabin. In a series of splatstick accidents involving a chainsaw, a wood chipper, and a loose post, the kids are killed off one by one. And it looks like Tucker and Dale are responsible. From their point of view, they can't understand why these kids are offing themselves. "Must be some kind of suicide cult," they surmise. The girl they've rescued after she hits her head skinny dipping sees Tucker and Dale for who they are and cottons to Dale, who is unfailingly sweet and surprisingly smart from her vantage point. They strike up a friendship that blossoms into a romance. The last part of the movie turns into the kind of rural massacre movie that Harold Lloyd might have made, with Dale finding his inner hero as the ringleader of the college students reveals himself to be some kind of psycho unto himself.

Obviously, this is a one joke movie, and for the first two acts, it's a magnificent joke. This has real actors in the lead--Alan Tudyk needs to be in more movies, by the way--who have done a bang-up job of creating believably sweet characters. That's key to the movie, because the audience really needs to see Tucker and Dale that way from the outset for the film to work. Fortunately, an early scene where Dale tries to talk to Allison, the girl who later winds up in their cabin, strikes exactly the right note of pathetic and misunderstanding. The death scenes are properly ghastly, particularly the wood chipper scene and its aftermath, but the timing of the comic beats is perfect. Tudyk and Labine have a terrific back and forth rapport--they reportedly improvised a great deal of their dialogue--and it gets droller and droller as the movie goes on.

The last third isn't as good. The movie peaks too early. It starts to pay way too much attention to both its plot and its backstory as it focuses on Chad, the snotty preppy ringleader of the college kids. He has issues. He turns into a proper slasher-film maniac by the end of the movie, all the while projecting his issues onto Tucker and Dale. It's almost as if this turn of the plot is de rigeur because it's promised by the title of the film. It's kind of disappointing, though, because the film is at its best when Tucker and Dale are bickering, and by this time the movie has taken Tucker out of the equation and we're left with Dale by himself. The last half hour isn't nearly as funny, either, but that's hard to quantify. Your mileage may vary. Fortunately, it remains sweet-natured.

I mention that this film hearkens back to Harold Lloyd, and that's not an idle comparison, because the climax of the film, set in a sawmill with Allison tied to a log and heading for a buzz saw, is like a throwback to silent thrill comedies. For that matter, the kind of comedy here, predicated on mistaken impressions and outrageous slapstick violence, was a staple of those films too.

Ending aside, Tucker & Dale vs Evil manages a tricky high wire act. Horror and comedy are hard enough to do well on their own, but to do them well side by side is an unreasonable expectation for any film. This one pulls it off, though not without difficulty. The version shown at Horror Hound was a work print, minus several key special effects and with some sound work still to do, but the movie itself is in place. And it's a good one.

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