Let’s face it, hillbillies and their ilk have been getting the short end of the pitchfork in movies since the strains of banjo music faded in 1972’s Deliverance. And whether due to radiation (The Hills Have Eyes) or just good old determined inbreeding (Wrong Turn and so, so many films you’re better off not knowing about), the yokel-prone in film have really enjoyed slaughtering innocent families on vacation, travelers deficient in basic map usage skills, and, best of all, sexually active college students just looking for a good time.
But fear not, members of Hillbillies for Inclusion, Consideration & Kindness in Screenplays (HICKS)—writer/director Eli Craig has your hairy, unloofahed back. In his new film, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Craig presents an equally plausible take on the state of the strained hillbilly-“normal” people relations that have so fascinated horror filmmakers for 40+ years. Craig is best known for, well, nothing much to this point (though he is the son of actress Sally Field), but that all changes with Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.
Craig’s first full-length film—he’s also a co-writer—answers the simple question: What if those hillbillies are just socially awkward fellows sprucing up a vacation home and the young college kids in question are just prone to repeatedly jumping to incorrect, often fatal, conclusions? Think Final Destination meets the Darwin Awards. (These kids are perfectly capable of offing themselves—Death can take it easy.)
It’s a great idea, and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is one of those films where the appeal of its central premise—and the ability of its trailer to convey that premise—will account for 80% of its box office take. (About that same percentage of the movie’s jokes are included in the trailer.)
But as is often the case with clever ideas and well-wrought trailers, Tucker & Dale comes up short in execution. It’s not the actors’ fault. In the title roles, Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine do their best to divert as much hillbilly from cliché to character as allowed. (Tudyk’s Firefly fan base will probably account for that remaining 20% in box office receipts.) And though the performances of the actors who play the college kids are mostly one-note, that may well be on purpose—most of them are just there to emote a bit before dying stupidly, anyway.
No, Tucker & Dale suffers from a script-inflicted identity crisis. The film finds itself torn between closely related, yet ultimately distinct genre subcategories. Is it an inspired farce with heart (Shaun of the Dead), a pratfall-full, joke-wringing spoof (Scary Movie), or even an adrenaline-pumping comic gore fest (Dead-Alive)? The answer varies from scene to scene, and sometimes even from line to line. That might not seem important, but in reality it’s like throwing a dozen college students into a wood chipper—all the pieces may look the same, but good luck putting them back where they belong (Spoiler: It can take days!). To put it less fancifully, it’s hard to bring viewers along for the ride when they don’t know what bus to board.
The promotional material for Tucker & Dale throws around the claim “doing for killer rednecks what Shaun of the Dead did for zombies.” That’s an inexact, if touchingly optimistic, bit of hype. Any comparison to Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s comic, genre-tweaking 2004 masterpiece really just serves further to highlight Tucker & Dale’s shortcomings. Still, for the right audience and the right price—matinee or streaming, anyone?—Tucker & Dale vs. Evil could prove an enjoyable first step toward a day when HICKS are not needed.