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Send “Tucker & Dale” to Yale!

The story is an old one, going all the way back to Ancient Greece. A group of college kids on spring break take a weekend trip to an isolated spot in the mountains, bringing only marshmallows, a full case of beer and their hormones for sustenance. On the way to an abandoned cabin that belongs to someone’s Uncle Whatever, the college kids encounter a pair of mountain men, mute, feral and terrifying, whom they dismiss with a series of behind-the-back jokes about inbreeding and “Deliverance.” Later that evening, as the kids swim naked in a lake near the cabin, the mountain men descend on the party — and the deaths begin; horrible, gruesome deaths. The kids are unable to flee the camp because there’s something-or-other wrong with the SUV, and there’s no cellular signal. They make up their minds to “take the fight to these (expletive) rednecks, ‘cos now it’s payback time” … and soon enough, nearly everyone is dead, save one pretty blonde girl and maybe one of the mountain men, who plays dead long enough to lunge at the girl one more time after the police finally arrive. She kills him with a pointy stick, the marshmallow still on it. The end.

Last week at the Seattle International Film Festival, I saw that story played out once more in Eli Craig’s film “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.” All the elements are in place — the abandoned cabin, the college kids, the mountain men — but “Tucker & Dale” goes against some two thousand years of cinematic tradition by telling the story from the other side. That would be Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), two good-hearted but socially-awkward rustics who only want to get past those obnoxious college brats, go to their abandoned cabin (“our own vacation home”), do a bit of housework and home improvement, and spend the rest of their time fishing, drinking beer and playing board games. For the life of them, they can’t figure out why those college kids keep running onto their property and dispatching themselves on sharpened sticks and in woodchippers. They do what anyone would do: chalk it up to a mass suicide pact.

I don’t think I’ve laughed harder at any film of the past two years, with a body count or without, and I can’t recall the last time I’ve liked two characters quite as much as I like Tucker and Dale. Director Craig benefits tremendously from the casting of Labine, a actor whose face can project sweetness and menace nearly at the same time, and Tudyk, a wonderfully versatile comic actor whose natural gift for dialogue has managed to upstage such compelling leading men as the late Heath Ledger (in “A Knight’s Tale”) and Nathan Fillion (in “Firefly”). Together, they form such an easy pairing that it’s easy to imagine that the actors became friends years and years before the cameras rolled, and this film finds the characters only in the middle of a long and interesting association. You can picture Tucker and Dale getting by in any situation: fighting an alien invasion, escaping a sinking submarine, running for president and vice-president. I imagine that this latest thing with the college kids is only the most recent weird thing to happen to these guys.

(Warning: The trailer contains some blood and gore.)

“Tucker and Dale” comes by its laughs naturally, and without cheating. The physical gags are set up perfectly — even the kid who manages to huck himself into the woodchipper — and the character-driven humor is rich. I particularly like the way Tucker and Dale wander through the forest bellowing “Hey, college kids!” in an innocent manner that nonetheless terrifies the intended audience; the way that Dale’s photographic memory is mined for laughs; and the way that Tucker assuages any injury, from bee stings to amputated limbs, by pouring beer on them. The college kids, especially the would-be psychiatrist Allison (Katrina Bowden) and the macho, posturing Chad (Jesse Moss), also perform their designated roles in this timeless story admirably and to expectations; they stay when the should run, they make badly-calculated attacks, and they try to resolve the crisis through what they believe to be superior intellects. This may be the only horror film in history in which a psych major gets the principals to sit down, drink a cup of tea, and talk through their problems. Not chamomile tea, though; Chad is allergic.

Lots of horrific things happen in “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” but none of them are more terrifying than what’s happening to the film itself: In a question-and-answer session following the SIFF screening, Craig admitted that the film had yet to find a US distributor. Amazingly, “Tucker & Dale’s” international distribution is assured (that’s unusual for horror films of this sort), but no studio at Sundance watched this smart, uproarious comedy and saw the massive cult hit it’s destined to become. Though I hesitate to make the obvious association, this is America’s answer to “Shaun of the Dead” — a real genre-changer that pays respectful homage to its source material while simultaneously running it through the woodchipper. If the Weinstein Company, Screen Gems or Lionsgate don’t pick up this gem and get it into theaters by the end of summer, they fully deserve the crappy year they’re going to have. “Tucker & Dale’s” audience is out there, and it’s ready to canonize this film.

They may even be ready for the films that follow it. At the beginning of that Q&A session — after the rapturous applause and cheering finally subsided — I asked Craig and Labine if they had a sequel in mind.

“You have to send these guys back into the woods,” I pleaded. “They can fight Harold and Kumar, or something.”

The actor and director nodded vigorously; they were way ahead of me.

“And we’ve even got a title,” said Labine. “Tucker & Dale Go to Yale.”

Moviegoers, your duty is clear. Add “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil” to your Facebook and Twitter feeds, and let’s send these fine young men to college, where they can be further terrified by the youth of America. Dang crazy college kids.

Geoff Carter

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