Thursday, January 19, 2012

Culture Shock 01.19.12: Tucker and Dale vs. stereotypes

"Tucker and Dale vs. Evil" is a romantic comedy masquerading as a horror spoof in which various college-student stereotypes meet grizzly ends.

If you like horror movies but are tired of horror clichés, it's a nice way to spend an evening.

But if you feel empty the next morning, it may be because of a nagging sense that "Tucker and Dale" could have been so much more.

"Hillbilly horror" is one of the most used and abused sub-genres of horror. City slickers go to the woods or the mountains or the middle of nowhere and run afoul of the natives — inbred, possibly cannibalistic rednecks wielding meat hooks, axes and chain saws. From "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" to "The Hills Have Eyes" to "House of 1,000 Corpses," it's a family tree without a lot of branches.

But "Tucker and Dale" diverges from the norm. This time, the rednecks are the heroes.

Dale (Tyler Labine) and his best and probably only friend Tucker (cult favorite Alan Tudyk of "Firefly") are just two good ol' boys minding their own business. They're on their way to Tucker's new fixer-upper cabin in the woods, a not-so-palatial spread Tucker insists on calling a "vacation home."

On the way, they pick up supplies at one of those absurdly well-stocked country stores that exist only in movie depictions of country stores. (This is part of the genre, so roll with it.) While there, they encounter an SUV full of college students, who happen to be on the way to party it up at another nearby cabin. This is somewhat breaking with tradition, because cabins in these movies normally don't have close neighbors.

Anyway, the students — probably having seen all of the horror movies I named, plus "Deliverance" — are immediately suspicious of Tucker and Dale.

After they get to their cabin, and after a few ghost stories and beers — ghost stories being something college students tell only in movies — the college kids decide it's a good time for skinny-dipping. Except they keep their underwear on, because skinny-dipping no longer means what it did when I was in college.

At this point, a student named Allison (Katrina Bowden of "30 Rock") falls, hits her head and is rescued by Tucker and Dale, who are fishing nearby. When Allison's friends assume she has been kidnapped by those two scary rednecks, a hilariously tragic series of misunderstandings follows. Each of the kids' attempts to "rescue" Allison ends with one or more of them painfully dead, and Tucker and Dale become convinced the college kids are part of a suicide cult.

If this sounds like a cool idea with a heartwarming message about not judging people by appearances, it is — as far as it goes. I hope everyone learns a valuable lesson about not looking down on hillbillies. But while "Tucker and Dale" fights the evil of stereotyping rednecks, it embraces just about every other movie cliché.

Writer/directer Eli Craig and co-writer Morgan Jurgenson saddle Allison with two-dimensional friends, which at least has the advantage of letting us not care when they die. And the movie saddles us with a standard-issue romance between a hopelessly mismatched pair: namely Dale and Allison.

If there is any genre more deserving of being subverted than hillbilly horror, it's the romantic comedy about a couple of opposites who overcome their differences — and plot contrivances — to find love.

We've all seen "Lady and the Tramp." Enough already.

For what it is, "Tucker and Dale" is a fun movie, even if it does underuse its greatest asset, leaving Tudyk to sit out most of the final reel. Yet, "Tucker and Dale" is a missed opportunity.

Maybe it's too much to expect two hillbillies to deal with more than one evil at a time.

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