Reviews

'Tucker & Dale vs. Evil' Is a Gleeful and Punchy Horror Flick

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is a gleeful and punchy horror flick with a brilliantly sharp premise: the hillbillies are actually nice guys.


Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

Director: Eli Craig
Cast: Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss
Rated: R
Studio: Magnet Releasing
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-09-30 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

In the movies, hillbillies are shady characters with hearts of pure evil. Such accepted wisdom has become ingrained in horror lore, shaping classics (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), forgettable schlock (Vacancy or Jeepers Creepers), and even art house drama (Winter’s Bone). The stereotype is used so casually and so frequently that it’s something of a surprise that it’s something of a surprise that no one has thought to parody it before now.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is a gleeful and punchy horror flick that draws on its predecessors -- everything from Deliverance to The Hills Have Eyes to Fargo -- and yet sports a brilliantly sharp and heretofore unexplored premise: its titular characters are actually naïve nice guys. Screenwriter and first-time director Eli Craig helms a film in which the scary and gory moments are better than most in the past year’s crop of horror films, and the humour is hilarious enough to resurrect the always uncertain horror-comedy subgenre. What's more, at a brisk 90 minutes, its cultish ingenuity and obvious enthusiasm for that subgenre don't overstay their welcome.

Deep in the Appalachian mountains -- "hillbilly country," as one of the characters notes -- two goofball best buds, played by Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk, are setting off to fix up their vacation home, blissfully unaware that the area was the site of a massacre some years ago. Upon arrival, they explain away the bones hanging from their roof as a sign the past resident "musta been an archaeologist or something." Unfortunately, a group of college kids is camping in the same spot, and either instinctively or from years of movie indoctrination, they don’t take too kindly to hillbillies.

Wacky misunderstandings and miscommunications abound as the blood begins to spill; the film mines the bizarreness of its scenario, and the first half is blazingly inventive. The twist, of course, is that the story is always told from the perspective of the two assailed hillbillies who, wide-eyed and pretty socially awkward to begin with, have trouble explaining to the local sheriff why they are spattered with blood.

Labine is perfectly cast as Dale, who has a gruff but affable charm. But Tudyk steals the show (as he did in Death at a Funeral) with another wholly convincing performance. He pitches his lines with a Southern twang and a half-sigh, and it's terrific fun to watch him run amok with a chainsaw, a half-homage and half-spoof of one of horror’s most recognisable images, a startling reinvigoration of the cliché. He's chasing teenagers, of course, teenagers, who are usually the victims and, in the case of one lucky individual, the eventual hero/survivor of this kind of film. Here they come across as a group of spoilt and loud-mouthed brats. You wonder whether they are always this dislikable in horror movies, and you’re simply prevented from noticing to such an extent because most of the time, they’re the ones we’re meant to be rooting for.

This twist is one of many that make Tucker & Dale wittier than either the Scream series or Shaun of the Dead. The film knows that undercutting the elements that make up indelible, genre-defining moments -- Leatherface and his lethal instrument, the rape scene in Deliverance, the wood-chipper from Fargo -- is a silliness that is just waiting to burst out.

The first half of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is terrific. But for all its innovation, it seems to run out of energy by the end: it has perhaps a few too many destined-to-die teenagers, and resolves this by suddenly killing them off quickly and bloodily. The final act turns into rote slasher material, with a psycho killer on the rampage and the uneasy hero having to find the inner strength to continue. There is the possibility, maybe, that the film is parodying yet another familiar horror movie cliché -- starting strong and then dropping off -- but I doubt it. The climax, too, is placidly predictable, although the faux soap operatic revelation that a key character is "half hillbilly" manages to raise a laugh.

All that said, this adroit genre hybrid avoids the snide postmodern winks and self-conscious cleverness that has plagued horror-comedy combinations of late. Audiences will appreciate the respectful references, the originality of its setup, and its endearing lead performances. If only every homespun spoof were as hard-hitting and genuinely funny as this one.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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