The secret to making a good horror-comedy is the same as the secret to making any good film: we have to care about the characters and be interested in the story around them. But this becomes harder when you are attempting to spoof a genre whose appeal lies all too often in the amount of gore foisted upon the characters rather than the characters themselves. So many slasher spoofs are as guilty in this regard as the films that they are sending up, filling the screen with faceless nobodies who will be dead long before empathy kicks in.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil may be taking aim at the slashers of old, but it does it with much greater skill than the Final Destination series or I Know What You Did Last Summer. Eli Craig's debut effort takes a single, interesting idea and plays it through for 90 minutes, inverting horror clichés as it goes and producing several barrel laughs along the way. While not as enjoyable or as ground-breaking as something like Shaun of the Dead, it nonetheless cuts the mustard as a proper horror-comedy.
Being a spoof, the film nods to horror clichés and conventions very readily and without apology. The setting of a cabin in the woods, and the implication of several obnoxious, pulchritudinous teenagers, is a direct nod to the Evil Dead series and more recently Cabin Fever. The killing-off of said teenagers one by one in increasingly gruesome ways nods towards Hallowe'en and more specifically Friday the 13th, a comparison reinforced by the skinny-dipping sequence.
The clash between townsfolk and hillbillies is as old as the hills surrounding them, with Deliverance being the biggest touchstone during the scene in the gas station. And the final showdown in the sawmill has hints of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Tucker's entrance to do battle with Chad, which in itself is a passing reference to Motel Hell. The deaths of the teenagers also nod towards past horror-inflected works. The scene where a guy is speared by a tree branch while running from angry bees is a possible send-up of Macaulay Culkin's death in My Girl, while the wood-chipper sequence takes the ending of Fargo and wittily reverses the roles.
This last example indicates the first big feather in Tucker & Dale's cap. It is completely conscious of how absurd the slasher genre has become in the way it disposes of its characters, to the point where the absurdity undermines what there is in the way of narrative integrity. It follows the mould of slasher movies by introducing obvious props which could be used for slewing, only to put them to totally innocent use and then playing the resulting accidents for laughs. There is something just plain funny about a guy tripping over a rock, spearing himself on a stick and slowly sliding down on top of a man as he lies on his back in a deep ditch.
The central gag of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is that the characters we would normally think of as the villains are in fact completely harmless. The two hillbillies, Tucker and Dale, bear no ill will to Chad and the others at all: they just want to enjoy their new holiday home and spend some time bonding over a fishing trip. It is the skewed worldview of Chad and prejudices of the group which leads to their sticky ends (no pun intended). The film is essentially a farce, in which one misunderstanding leads to multiple misunderstandings and no-one gets out in one piece (again, no pun intended).
While the film isn't seeking to make any kind of deep point about social prejudice, it deserves plaudits for backing up its jokes with some genuinely enjoyable and rounded characters. The biggest plus-point about Tucker & Dale is its real sense of heart, with Eli Craig doing everything the hard way to build up the relationships between Tucker, Dale and Allison. He resists going for the obvious character developments in the relationships that matter, so that while everything else is being sent up or restaged ironically we still feel like we are watching real people.
Much of this appeal lies in the casting of the central pair. Tyler Labine gives Dale a lovable, teddy-bear quality, using his burly physique entirely to the character's advantage. We find ourselves really rooting for the character in his desire to talk to girls with confidence, and retain our empathy even when laughing at his simple mistakes (e.g. introducing himself to the teenage campers by walking up to them with a scythe in his hand). He also gets one of the best lines in the film: after a near-miss with a booby-trap, with a wooden stake just missing his privates, he mutters: "I never thought I'd say this, but I'm glad I'm not hung like a bear.".
Labine is ably complimented by Alan Tudyk, who may be familiar to movie-goers for his supporting roles in A Knight's Tale and Dodgeball. Tudyk is great at conveying repressed anger, and he has plenty of that in this role, putting up with Dale's every misdemeanour. His best scenes involve him running around with a chainsaw having just sawn through a beehive, trying to pull a body out of the wood-chipper, and best of all trying to explain to the local sheriff how it is that teenagers have, in his own words, "started killing themselves all over my property!".
What we end up with is a film which is simultaneously a full-on blood-and-guts horror movie, a bromance without any of Judd Apatow's sickening chauvinism, and a romantic comedy with genuine heart. It's hard enough to make a film which is both scary and funny, and Craig is very careful not to allow things to get too goofy. This is not, to quote Sam Raimi, a Three Stooges film with blood and guts standing in for custard pies, as The Evil Dead was. The film is closer to An American Werewolf in London in its set-up of comic characters who are then encroached upon by horror.
Like all films with such a simple premise, there comes a point where Tucker & Dale begins to run out of steam. Calling it a one-joke movie is doing it a great disservice, but once the characters sit down and start talking about their problems over tea, the film slowly grinds to a halt. The therapy scene is relevant to the plot, developing Allison's career aspirations as well as satirising similar scenes in more mainstream films. But like the ferry scene in The Dark Knight, there is an unavoidable loss of momentum even as we agree with what is being shown.
The other big problem is with the identity of the film outside of its appeal to die-hard horror fans. It's not the case that every horror film should be geared towards the mainstream, and there is nothing wrong with making a film that fans will appreciate. But once get past the send-ups, the film has to have something to give it a life of its own, to preserve its value in case its jokes age poorly. Tucker & Dale is a partial success due to the strong characterisations, but it lacks the distinctive visual look that Edgar Wright brought to Shaun of the Dead. Craig has the ability to be as good as Wright if he works hard, but at this stage he's not quite the finished article.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is an impressive and immensely enjoyable debut from Eli Craig, who has the potential to be a really good horror filmmaker. He makes the best of a good script, relatively unknown actors and a low budget to create something which is inventive, captivating, and which treads the line between funny and scary very well. Only time will tell how it holds up to the likes of Shaun of the Dead or The Cabin in the Woods, but for now it's a welcome addition to the horror-comedy canon.