A comedy of errors disguised as campy schlock, “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil” lovingly sends up its genre roots, but first-time director Eli Craig runs his idea about a bunch of friendly hillbillies mistaken for serial killers into the ground. Still, for anyone frustrated with countless formulaic exercises that drain modern horror of fresh ideas, “Tucker & Dale” is a downright cathartic indictment that encourages comparison to the “Scary Movie” franchise. It’s mostly a smart spoof that looks awfully dumb for a reason.
Craig’s story takes place in the classically spooky Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, where backcountry pals Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) head to a remote cabin in the vast forest for a friendly hangout session. That dream is short-lived, thanks to an invasive group of terrified college kids camping in the area who immediately assume Tucker and Dale are stalking them. The movie begins from the perspective of that cookie-cutter group, then repeatedly volleys back and forth between their absurdly wrong-headed conclusions and Tucker and Dale’s clueless reactions. Dale attempts to make small talk with the cutesy Allison (Katrina Bowden) and winds up rescuing her from drowning, which then leads her friends to assume she’s been kidnapped. Chaos ensues.
With the dueling points of view, the groups of characters recall different movie categories: Tucker and Dale live in a tired buddy comedy about know-nothing rednecks, while the frantic campers stumble around a slasher film. The petite, bearded Dale functions as Costello to Tucker’s Abbott, but also as the bridge between the two warring movies at the center of the narrative. “I’ve got this strange brain,” he says, and so does “Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil.”
The preppy campers act as though they’re trapped in a “Friday the 13th,” facing the menace of backwoods killers and forced to think fast in order to stay alive. Their numbers rapidly dwindle as they accidentally kill themselves in a series of gruesome accidents, two of which involve impalement during misguided attempts at self-defense. It’s a form of gruesome comedy that lands somewhere between the Rube Goldberg antics of “Final Destination” and the mounting frenzy of “Cabin Fever,” but with more excessively satiric aims than either.
Despite its breezy entertainment value, Tucker & Dale” establishes a handful of ideas and repeats them ad infinitum. The levelheaded Tucker and idiot savant Dale are endearing enough to sustain a consistent level of amusement, but it’s a superficial experience. Outside of the antiheroes, the shrewdest creation is Chad (Jesse Moss), the devilish leader of the college crew whose creepy monologues about the need to survive ousts him as the true psycho early on. As a walking cliché, every step he takes extends the gag a little further and turns him into a living punchline. Eventually, “Tucker & Dale” becomes the stupid movie it aims to mock, but the journey there holds plenty of appeal.
“Tucker & Dale” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010 — the same year horror fatigue crept into the box office, when the revisionist “Paranormal Activity 2” beat out the latest “Saw” sequel. Since then, the genre has moved in healthier directions. The fast-paced comic survival tale “You’re Next,” currently playing to appreciative crowds on the festival circuit ahead of Lionsgate’s planned release for the movie next Halloween, adheres to the genre’s rules while making them feel new again. That great horror may find its way back to the mainstream means that the target of “Tucker & Dale” no longer exists, but it’s an endearing period piece.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Magnet, Magnolia’s genre arm, has already released the movie on VOD and will open in limited theatrical release this Friday. Its theatrical prospects are small since it has no major stars or other significant hooks for a large audience, but it should be able to find an appreciative audience on demand.