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Sunday, 8 January 2012

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)

Director: Eli Craig
Stars: Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden and Jesse Moss

For about five minutes, Tucker and Dale vs Evil is the clichéd and stereotyped nonsense I had a sneaking feeling it was going to be, from the little I knew about it beforehand. Tucker and Dale are creepy rednecks passed on an Appalachian country road by a bunch of college kids. You won't be surprised to find that the girls are gorgeous, the guys are assholes and they're all about beer, sex, dope and bad fireside ghost stories. Ally is the lead hot blonde chick. Chad is the lead asshole. You've seen this a hundred times before, down to every little detail. It's only the names that ever change, right? Well, what changes here is that the rednecks are the heroes. It's outside Last Chance Gas that Dale is shown to be a sympathetic lead. It's when he builds his confidence up to approach the girls and smile and laugh with a scythe in his hand that it gets funny. By the time they're pulled over by a deputy with Dale's head in Tucker's lap, it becomes priceless.

And it stays that way for most of the picture. I laughed my way through this on the big screen and I enjoyed it just as much at home second time around. Partly it's because it's your standard slasher movie turned entirely on its head. Partly it's the way proceedings, including all the gory death scenes you expect, are set up through an inventive set of misunderstandings. Partly it's just because the roles are refreshingly reversed. The rednecks, usually the characters to fear or fight in pictures like this, are the sympathetic heroes. The college kids, far from being either the sympathetic victims or the focus of the story, are mere idiots who deserve everything they get, especially when they pay attention to Chad, the ostensible leader of the pack whose dream must be to get voted onto the island in Lord of the Flies. Those of us who realise that the real serial killers are forgettable normal people see how utterly everyday he is, right down to his inhaler.
This whole concept works wonderfully, brought gloriously to life by Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, who are magnetic and engaging in the title roles. I've been a fan of Tudyk for a while now, most obviously from Whedonverse shows like Firefly and Dollhouse but also as far back as A Knight's Tale. I only know Labine from the TV show Reaper, which I gave up on quickly even though he and Ray Wise were superb in that show. Had the humour in it been more like the humour here, I'd probably have loved it. I'm somehow surprised to find that that was far from the first thing Labine has done but he'd apparently been acting on screen for sixteen years before that. He's much older than he looks. He certainly shows his experience here, making a great double act with Tudyk. Their timing is impeccable, whether they're merely lying in the dirt or running with chainsaws, and especially in the tender moments when they're even more hilarious than ever.

They dominate proceedings here, to the degree that almost everyone else in the picture fades into the background as much as the trees. Only Allison is truly noticeable, in the stylish form of Katrina Bowden, currently going strong on TV's 30 Rock. You could call her the love interest, but only if you read the film as the routine slasher it isn't. She manages to endow her role with much more than just her looks, which are certainly pleasing to the eye. She's also the film's MacGuffin, as her apparent kidnap by Tucker and Dale, who merely saved her from drowning, is what drives the story forward for all the other characters. She could have done exactly the same thing with a fraction of the screen time and as much as I enjoyed looking at her every time she appeared on screen, I wonder if the film might have gained an edgier tone if she didn't do it as often, even as far as only appearing at the beginning and the end.
That leaves Jesse Moss, another surprisingly experienced young actor, to guide us into the more traditional side of the story as Chad, the psycho college kid. Maybe three quarters of the way in, we find that a few hints dropped early on aren't merely flavour because they coalesce into a plot that's recognisable as a traditional slasher story. Unfortunately this just isn't as much fun as the main approach the film takes. Thus far we've loved the twisted logic of the story, the slasher flick turned on its head. We realise that it makes just as much sense, if not more sense, than most of the cheesy slasher movies we've seen and it pushes us into wondering if we should view them in the future with the different perspective of this film in mind. What if what we see isn't reality but really perceived reality, seen through the eyes of supposed victims? Jason Voorhees was always a little sympathetic. How much perspective shift would we need for Freddy Krueger to join him?

So after changing our perspectives so agreeably, it feels disappointing when the writers, Morgan Jurgenson and Eli Craig, seem to back it up a little and try to change them back again, at least somewhat. It does give them the opportunity to wrap up the story but it felt to me like the easy way out and everything achieved up until that point deserved a better finalé. The large stack of conveniences needed to set up and finish off this side of the story comes far too quickly, mostly in a single overblown scene that's reminiscent of a Scooby Doo ending and it feels unworthy. I'm not sure what a good finalé would have been, given that the necessary build up to a deeper, more crafted finish would surely eat into the character and humour of the main thrust of the film, which is its greatest success, but I can't help but feel that it isn't what we're given. Fortunately it isn't difficult to shrug off after perhaps 80 minutes of the funniest gore movie since Brain Dead.

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