The premise of “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” is so simple, so elegant, it’s practically a thing of beauty. You know those horror movies where a bunch of college kids go camping in the woods and are attacked by psychotic hillbillies? This is one of those stories — told from the point of view of the hillbillies. Who are perfectly normal and never meant to hurt anybody. The director, first-timer Eli Craig, summed it up this way: “What if Leatherface was really just a good guy with an unwieldy chainsaw?”
Craig’s execution of the idea (from a screenplay he wrote with Morgan Jurgenson) isn’t quite as masterful as the idea itself, but “Tucker and Dale” is still just about as rip-roarin’ a horror comedy as we’ve seen in a while. It pushes all the required buttons — sharp wit, bloody demises, genre satire, mild social commentary — and pushes them with gusto.
Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), just two good ol’ boys from West Virginia, are headed to the woods to do some fishing and to fix up the dilapidated cabin they’ve just bought as their “vacation home.” They’re harmless and sweet, if a little slow on the uptake, and well aware of how backwoods-y and dumb they must seem to out-of-towners.
That includes the carload of college kids on its way to the same general area of the Appalachians. Made entirely of popped-collar frat boys and skanky hot chicks, the group stops at a general store for supplies, which is where Dale develops a crush on Allison (Katrina Bowden), the nicest and least skanky of the bunch. Tucker urges him to go say hi to her, and Dale, all nervous and flustered to be talkin’ to such a purty girl, winds up just laughing like a moron. Alas, he’s holding a scythe, too. The sight of a large-ish man in overalls wielding a sharp object and giggling maniacally has the effect on Allison and her friends that you would expect.
That’s essentially how the first half of the film operates, with Tucker and Dale doing innocent and ordinary things that are misconstrued by the college kids, resulting in misunderstandings and, soon enough, bloodshed. Allison hurts herself in the woods; Tucker and Dale happen to be nearby and tend to her; her friends see this and think she’s being abducted by deranged rednecks and must be rescued; hilarity ensues. Think “Three’s Company,” if at some point Mr. Roper had run at Jack with a knife and accidentally fallen headlong into a wood chipper.
Meanwhile, as she recuperates from her injury, Allison finds Dale to be a gentle caregiver, and not as ignorant or backwards as she initially thought. First impressions can be deceiving! (Well, except for the college kids. Most of them really are douchebags.) Dale partially blames himself for all the misunderstandings, telling Allison, “I should have known if a guy like me talked to a girl like you, somebody would wind up dead.”
The second half of the film is less comedy-oriented, and it becomes mired somewhat in the requirements of the plot. Tucker and Dale’s cabin used to belong to a serial killer, a massacre happened on this spot 20 years ago, yada yada — probably a more elaborate storyline than the film needed. But everything is helped by Labine and Tudyk’s breezy, funny performances, which dabble in caricature without becoming insincere. “Tucker and Dale” is a blissful, bloody surprise, and hopefully a sign of great things to come from filmmaker Eli Craig.
B+ (1 hr., 29 min.; )