One of the frustrating aspects of watching a lot of horror films, is that it very quickly becomes apparent that the genre tends to rely heavily on cliches and stock characters. Not all films, but the grind-out, cheap, fast and exploitative films that are the bread-and-butter of the genre. Partly that’s just plain old laziness; the audiences aren’t paying enough attention anyway, the last thing you want to do is make things harder for them by challenging them with new characters or unfamiliar situations. Partly it’s genre purist adherence to “the rules,” and that sort of tunnel-vision is a pet peeve of mine for another time. So when a film not only breaks down the cliches that dominate the genre, but actually makes the subversion of those cliches its central premise, it’s worth noting.
Tucker and Dale vs Evil opens with a stock group of obnoxious frat boys and their girl-friends in a truck, on their way to a camping trip in the woods, smoking pot and bemoaning the lack of beer, when they narrowly avoid a collision with a beat-up pick-up truck driven by a pair of “creepy” hillbillies. But, rather than follow the kids, we cut to the pick-up and discover that the “creepy” guys are…just two guys, Tucker and Dale, on their way to the fishing cabin that Tucker just sunk all of his savings into buying. Dale is stricken with one of the college girls, Allison, but belligerent Alpha Male wannabe Chad continually puts off his friends with talk about “freaks” and “hillbillies” and other insults coded with contempt for the less fiscally secure than he and his friends. Later that night, Tucker and Dale are night-fishing when Allison and the rest of the kids decide to go skinny-dipping. Allison is startled by Tucker and Dale and falls in the lake, hitting her head and knocking herself out. Dale dives in to save her, which the kids mistake for a kidnapping. In the morning, Dale makes Allison breakfast while her friends prepare to “rescue” her. Due to accidents with farm equipment, three of the kids end up killing themselves, convincing Tucker and Dale that the college students are camping out as some sort of suicide pact and are trying to force Allison to join in. Stand-offs between the groups continue to whittle down the number of college students, though Chad does manage to capture and torture Tucker in order to, well…supposedly to rescue Allison but really because he wants to. Allison eventually manages to talk Chad and Dale into discussing the situation, in an attempt to peaceably resolve the conflict, only for Chad to reveal that his mother was the sole survivor of a “hillbilly” attack on college students twenty years ago. Chad manages to blow up the cabin, kidnapping Allison and killing the rest of his friends, and Dale sets off to rescue her. In the process, Allison and Dale discovers that Chad’s real father was the “hillbilly” killer of twenty years ago, making him part hillbilly, and the pair are able to outwit him, leaving him seemingly for dead, and free to pursue their budding romance.
There’s a lot to like about the film, and it works well as a comedy, but again most of the horror works more as parody of the genre rather than as something scary in its own right. What’s frustrating about the film, though, is that it sets up a nice inversion to the normal “kids in the wood”/serial killer-slasher cliches, but never risks actually following through on them. Yes, Tucker and Dale are nominally the heroes and preppie Chad is the villain, but both Tucker and Dale are required to be oblivious to the fact that their antics do, out of context, come off as creepy. Meanwhile, the revelation that Chad is “half hillbilly”, and the use of that as explanation for why he sets out on a murderous rampage, buys into the same stupid, classist assumptions of every other “killer redneck” film out there. And that’s what’s really aggravating. The film flirts with the idea of actually addressing the offensive “poor people are evil subhumans” subtext of many horror films, but ultimately only manages to reinforce it. Even the romance between Dale and Allison is only allowable because, unlike her friends, Allison, it turns out, is actually from a blue-collar background as well, further cementing the class restrictions that Chad was so eager to enforce earlier in the film. And mostly I find all this frustrating because the film otherwise is so very good and the makers of horror films don’t need to shy away from their subtext, they don’t have to dumb it down, and that’s what it feels like happened here.