Throwbacks are the new remakes. Apparently, Hollywood wised up to the fact that they've milked every halfway recognizable franchise/brand dry and must now resort to selling feelings. The phenomenon gestated in the horror genre, with movies like Hatchet and The House of the Devil,* and is being field tested in mainstream blockbusters. The recent mega-budgeted Hugo and The Muppets aren't so much movies as they are advertisements for nostalgia disguised as movies. They offer nothing original, but their pretty pictures and numerous references to yesteryear buy enough good will from starving audiences that they don't have to.
Fortunately, Eli Craig's amazing new film Tucker & Dale vs. Evil offers a shining example of how to make throwbacks work. He understands that the key to any successful homage is to not copy great art, but to honor it while creating something original. Craig and co-writer Morgan Jurgenson pull off an impressive hat-trick here by also delivering a nearly spot-on horror-comedy that has more heart and lead chemistry than most "legit" movies. The filmmakers triumph in taking up the Shaun of the Dead mantle where so many others have failed.
The premise is a genre-film version of Three's Company: a group of obnoxious college kids heads to a remote Appalachian cabin, where they encounter what they believe to be a murderous redneck duo; through a series of hilarious misunderstandings, the kids end up offing themselves in ways that make the clueless good-old-boys look like serial killers. In one scene, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) takes a chainsaw to a pile of branches in order to make fire wood; he accidentally cuts into a beehive and the ensuing swarm sends him racing through the woods, screaming and twirling his chainsaw madly about; one of the students (who'd been sneaking up on Tucker and Dale's summer cabin) sees the freaked out, dirty hillbilly and runs for his life--straight into an enormous, chest-splitting tree branch.
During a late-night skinny-dip, one of the kids, Allison (Katrina Bowden), is so startled to see Tucker and Dale fishing that she falls and hits her head on a rock. The men get her into their boat and take her back to the cabin to help treat the wound. Later, they leave a hasty message for Allison's friends carved into a tree trunk ("We got ur friend"), which leads to a series of hilarious, ill-fated rescue attempts. All the while, Dale (Tyler Labine) and Allison begin the world's strangest, most endearing courtship--which is punctuated by more incidents of the poor girl cracking her head and passing out.
While this may sound like a thin gag stretched thinner over ninety minutes, Tucker & Dale is consistently original and interesting. Most movies like this are so frustrating because every problem could potentially be resolved with a simple conversation. Craig and Jurgenson stage that conversation, with the key players sitting down for some Earl Grey tea. Some are nursing fresh wounds, others simply bruised egos, but everyone has the chance to air their grievances and start over. It's here that the film takes another sharp turn and establishes the "evil" that our heroes must face; the threat's ludicrousness doesn't make it any less menacing, and the movie's third act relies on the emotional connections the characters have established--along with the audience's connection to the characters--to see us through what could have bee a typical kill-or-be-killed showdown.
Like Edgar Wright before them, Craig and Jurgenson understand that both components of the horror-comedy sub-genre are equally important. Tucker & Dale is never scary, but it's tense and graphic enough to resemble a classic 80s-style slasher film. The filmmakers layer a truly touching and funny bromance and a budding romance onto this template and play things out to their logical conclusions. The writing is top-notch, as is the acting (except for the first ten minutes; more on that in a moment), and even if you've never seen a horror film, I suspect you'll be affected and amused. This could have easily gone the route of Dumb Southerner/Dumb Frat Kids humor, but Tucker & Dale feels like a reaction to the legions of movies that think they're more clever than they actually are.
My one complaint is that the opening ten minutes are absolutely terrible. That's a weird thing to put in a positive review, but the fact that Tucker & Dale rebounds from such a problematic start is a testament to its greatness. The beginning suffers from a severe rhythm disorder that's hard to peg. The best I can do is give an example of what doesn't work:
As the college kids speed down a country road in their van, one of them pops up from the back seat and says, urgently, "Guys! We've got a serious problem here!" Everyone turns and asks, "What's wrong?"
The girl says, "We're out of beer!", which prompts everyone to scream and convulse in a way that I haven't seen since I stopped watching iCarly. A significant tonal shift happens shortly after this embarrassing minute, leading me to wonder if the screenwriters made some kind of Awesome Writing pact with the devil after churning out a handful of pages.
Yep, it's pretty awful. But if you stick with the movie, you'll discover one of the funniest, most surprising comedies of the year. And while I love what Tudyk and Labine do with the Tucker and Dale characters, I don't need to see a sequel (I haven't heard of one, in case you're wondering, but damn near everything is franchise-ready these days). I would rather Craig and Jurgenson follow the Wright model of using his Hollywood capital to make mind-bending, inventive new films (I may disagree on the success of Wright's subsequent movies, but I admire the hell out of his work ethic and passion).
Warning: the following statement is ridiculous:
Every filmmaker and every studio executive needs to watch Tucker & Dale vs. Evil for an entertaining but very serious lesson in how to do things right.
Here's a movie that proudly displays its roots but doesn't use them as a crutch to slack off on the story. It's a crime that this was shelved for three years and then had to slink onto home video after a few special screenings. But I'm not surprised; rare films like this remind audiences of what giving a shit looks like--if the world were full of Tucker & Dales, studios might have to spend more money on screenplays than special effects. And that's just silly, right?
*I don't mean to disparriage Ti West's masterpiece by mentioning it in the company of Hatchet. The House of the Devil, like Tucker & Dale, is also a nostalgia piece that does wonderful things with the genre.