The figure of the Southerner/Hillbilly has a distinguished place within the genre of American horror cinema. Invariably depicted as inbred rapists (Deliverance), cannibals (Wrong Turn), serial killers (House of 1000 Corpses) or a combination of evils (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), it’s fair to say their reputation has, over the years, been suitably maligned. In that context alone, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil could well be seen as a form of long overdue positive PR.
The plot of the film revolves around two good-natured hillbilly friends, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), on vacation in the Appalachian Mountains. Despite the reclusive setting, their ‘man-time’ wilderness retreat is interrupted when preppy college kids on a getaway of their own set up camp nearby. Tensions escalate however, when the pair intervenes to save one of the students, Katrina Bowden (30 Rock), from drowning and return her to their dilapidated cabin nearby. Interpreting the deed as a sinister act, the remaining college kids set about ‘rescuing’ their friend by any means necessary.
Inverting the traditions of the rural horror film, writer/director Eli Craig’s debut feature offers a clever rewriting of genre and stereotypes. Avoiding the sadism typical of its predecessors, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil depicts its comic violence as a consequence of urban middle-class ignorance. The irony is that despite their altruistic intentions, Tucker and Dale’s actions are repeatedly misconstrued as threatening, a confusion that only leads to more deaths.
One such moment in which Tucker, chainsaw in hand, is seen running wildly away from a swarm of bees after accidentally cutting into a nest, (in a gesture recalling Leatherface from Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre) has dire consequences. Perceiving his behaviour as an imminent attack, one of the college kids takes flight only to end up impaled on a tree branch. And so it continues for the other teenagers, leading Tucker and Dale to conclude that the students must be attempting a bizarre form of mass suicide. Misperception, it seems, literally cuts both ways.
Besides the inventive premise, a key reason for the success of the film is the pairing of Tudyk (Serenity) and Labine (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) in the title roles. Recalling the chemistry of Simon Pegg/Nick Frost from Shaun of the Dead, the performances by the two lead actors make Tucker and Dale’s on-screen partnership suitably endearing.
The only questionable aspect of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is the film’s conclusion. Despite having successfully deconstructed the traditional hick stereotype, at the very end the filmmaker introduces another character that reconsolidates the image of the rural inhabitant as a violent Neanderthal. While this brief moment isn’t enough to spoil what is an otherwise enjoyable romp, it does suggest that the conventional perception of the hillbilly isn’t likely to change anytime soon.