Whoever it was that first uttered that deathless show biz adage “Dying is easy; comedy is hard,” might well have appreciated the narrative and tonal pickle (or pickled egg) that director Eli Craig and writer Morgan Jurgenson have served up for themselves in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, which debuts in theaters nationwide today after a brief preview stint on HDNet. The movie is a genial genre subversion looking to do for backwoods redneck thrillers like Wrong Turn, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes what Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost did for zombie films (Shaun of the Dead) and buddy cop thrillers (Hot Fuzz). (It seems to be unconcerned, however, with the most nightmarish of them all, Deliverance.) But as Wright et al. or a veteran parodist like Mel Brooks might have told them, rich tribute to a beloved, familiar cinematic type is more easily proposed than achieved, no matter how clever is the premise, no matter how beloved is the source. The premise of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is clever—a pair of Appalachian good ol’ boys (Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine) are mistaken for backwoods psychopaths by a group of hard-partying college kids who refuse to believe the titular rednecks aren’t trying to slaughter them. Misunderstandings ensue and escalate when T & B rescue one of the young beauties (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden) and their good deed is mistaken for a kidnapping, but the filmmakers never transcend the cleverness of their narrative switcheroo or expand the broadness of their initial inspiration into anything more precise than simple genre funnin’, anything more cutting than a cheerful display of whirling buzz saws, whizzing chain saws and buckets of blood.
The movie starts off well, capturing for better and worse the crass party-hardy sensibility of the typical group of clueless college kids that usually gather for the slaughter in this kind of picture. Headed by the obnoxious Chad (Jesse Moss), whose major is obviously Macho Overcompensation, and his girlfriend Allison (Bowden), who is probably a bit smarter than the rest of her pool of peeps but still terrified by the sight of Tucker and Dale at a gas station mini-mart lined up for PBR and pickled eggs. By this point we already know these two chuckleheads are amiable and harmless-- they’re embarking on a vacation into the woods to spruce up Tucker’s recently purchased vacation home, which turns out to be located uncomfortably near the college kids' weekend campsite (and looks like it was decorated by Leatherface). The movie’s comic highlight comes early, when Dale, crushing from afar on Allison’s apparently sweet demeanor, works up the nerve to talk to her at the gas station while clutching one of his work tools, an impossibly large scythe which does nothing to dispel the group’s fears that both fellas’ intentions might be homicidal. Tucker has advised Dale to laugh and smile while talking to Alison—“It shows confidence.” So Dale shuffles up to Allison, framed by that scythe like a redneck angel of death, and with his best jovial (sinister) chuckle inquires, “You guys… going camping?!”
It’s not exactly downhill from there, but neither does it escalate much other than the ridiculous gore and hysteria of the cast. Both Tudyk and Labine, terrific character actors, have a great time as comic leads, and their performances are often surprisingly nimble; they never settle for the easy, obvious stereotypes when an unexpected beat or sideward glance might result in a richer laugh. (One can imagine Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok weeping with gratitude.) But they’re also good enough to make you wish the script itself were smarter, more alive to the possibilities within the set-up—the scenes where Dale tries to convince Allison of his honorable intentions, or the movie’s big confrontation/summit meeting which climaxes in gore and explosions, go on too long with too little reward beyond the obvious. The villains, of course, end up being this rather stock group of kids who turn out to be—surprise-- stupid, obnoxious and hateful (as they believe Tucker and Dale to be), who refuse to believe T&D could be anything but menacing monsters, and who through their own hysterical fear end up causing their own deaths, which the survivors of course blame on our beer-swilling heroes. Unfortunately, the gore isn’t much funnier than the absurdity of those self-inflicted kills, all of which lack the wit of an average Final Destination episode—the exception being one kid’s head-first dive into a wood chipper, which inspires Dale to an utterance of disbelief too funny to spoil here.
Eventually, the initial cleverness of the movie’s conceit settles into fulfilling the very genre tropes it seems to have been intended to parody—there’s nothing in the big showdown that ends Tucker and Dale that you haven’t seen before. Craig and Jurgenson toy with the wide-screen frame, but they haven’t yet learned how to create visual jokes with it the way Edgar Wright does, and the movie never finds a subject to lift it beyond parody, the way Shaun of the Dead became a hilariously spiked examination of a soulless British society in lockstep to routine and working desperately to deny the grim (and ever grimmer) realities of life and death. (Shaun was scary too, eventually eclipsing its obvious model, George A. Romero’s first three Dead movies, atop the zombie heap as shivering, shrieking social satire.) By comparison, the director and writer manage only to extend their subversion of this subgenre of terror films, which has a tendency to rub the audience’s nose in ever-increasing perversity and gruesome fate, by fashioning it to be, of all things, a movie with surprising faith in the ability of good intentions to overcome all. (The final shot is pointedly absent the ghastly screams that often punctuate and ensure the perpetuation of thrillers of this sort.) This geniality is in itself kind of refreshing, but it’s a geniality that generates only occasional smiles, not big laughs, and it can’t wash away the movie’s slightly undercooked feeling, one that suggests that the creators of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil settled for a great idea without figuring out how to flesh it out into a movie with real meat on its bones.