Monday, October 13, 2014

18 Days 'Til Halloween: Whiskers (Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil)

Last October I posted an overview of my more memorable costumes from Halloweens past. (In true warts-and-all spirit, I am including the preceding link even though going back to that year-old post proves my tendency to repeat the same stories over and over; you will find references there to the summertime haunted house I talked about on the 3rd of this month as well as some musings on how we don't trick-or-treat in our own neighborhood, as I elaborated upon on the 9th.) Towards the end of that retrospective I indicated that dressing up as a young adult (post-college and pre-kids) was a very different, and usually much less elaborate, affair than it had been as a kid, and you could reasonably conclude that this had something to do with an overall shift in priorities. I wanted to escape into monstrous fantasy as a child, and crazy tons of makeup and prosthetics facilitated that nicely. As I grew into my own skin, that need was lessened considerably, and moreover I wanted to be able to go to a party and drink and dance and have fun without negotiating a rubber werewolf muzzle or Godzilla gloves or whathaveyou.

But there's another element in play I didn't really talk about at all last year, which goes right along with growing up and growing into my own skin and factors heavily into Halloween costume choices, namely the fact that in college I grew out my vandyke and also grew a significant beer belly. Those things being the case, once you discard full latex face masks and/or monochrome make-up jobs, you find yourself with two choices: choose Halloween costumes which make sense for or outright refer to a portly beardy dude, or resign yourself to not really looking like the thing you're dressing up as. Given my inordinate love of communicating in pop culture touchstones, you can imagine that I'd rather not dress up at all than dress up wrong.

So, you know, the Devil is often depicted with a goatee, certainly, so that was a viable choice, and K-Fed sported a weird beard of his own that I was able to approximate. One year I dressed up as the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, just full-on showing off my belly in a too-tight shirt rather than trying to conceal it in any way. Trust me, there were times when I really wanted to go all in and dress up as The Crow, but while I could entertain the thought of getting some kind of man-girdle to give me the right gaunt avenging spirit profile, I knew I'd either end up looking like a hilarious Caesar Romero riff on the character, or I'd have to shave, in which case on November 1 when the gothic greasepaint came off I'd look 12 years old.

If only in the late 90's and early 00's I'd had the chance to dress up as Dale Dobson! I could have pulled that off, boy howdy. But, sadly, Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil did not technically exist until 2010, more's the pity.

Well, not that big of a pity. Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is a movie I went into with high hopes not only because it stars Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, both of whom I like a lot, but because the premise seems like such a can't-miss: two rednecks (the script constantly refers to them as "hillbillies" but I have now lived in the South long enough to be fully aware of the huge difference; the movie is Canadian, what do they know, eh?) stumble across a bunch of attractive college kids on a camping trip, and when the kids start dying, the rednecks are automatically assumed to be the homicidal villains, even though it's all accidents and misunderstandings. I love slasher flicks, I love a good satire that sends up the tropes of a given genre, so I was predisposed to love the flick a lot. Unless it turned out to only be ok, which is in fact the case.

I will give the screenplay credit for this much: the title characters are handled really well. For a cheap, dumb horror comedy that exists mainly to invert/subvert the hoariest of slasher tropes, it would have been the path of least resistance to simply portray Tucker and Dale as ignorant backwoods dimwits plugged into the plot-recycling machine. But the performances of Tudyk and Labine, combined with the script itself, give the two semi-heroes a lot more depth. There are some genuinely good laughs to be had that grow out of character, between Tucker's know-it-all swagger and Dale's innocence and emotional over-sensitivity.

The problem, then, is that the movie works so hard to present these three-dimensional buddies who end up having one really, really bad weekend at their fishing cabin in a way that feels vaguely plausible and grounded, when it should have turned things up and gone into over-the-top overkill mode. I'm of the opinion that realistic characters can offset unrealistic plot complications and coincidences, particularly in a comedy (or horror-comedy) where the expectations are adjusted to be genre-specific. And I'm equally of the opinion that unrealistic plots can actually be funnier and more horrific, too, which make sit all the more disappointing that things unfold in such a prosaic way in Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil.

The movie starts out with nine college kids, and you would expect that as each of them (except the archetypal Final Girl, of course, who by the way in this flick is played by Katrina Bowden, aka Cerie from 30 Rock) dies over the course of the running time, the deaths would become more spectacular and elaborate and bizarre, again because this feeds the demands of both slapstick comedy and slasher horror. But instead the first three deaths are all Running Into Something Sharp, the next is Self-inflicted Gunshot Wound, the next three are In A Fire (one on-screen immolation, the other two off-screen), and the last one is Falling From a Great Height. To be fair, that climactic one comes about due to an absurdly elaborate set-up involving an asthma inhaler and chamomile tea and the loft of an abandoned saw mill, but that doesn't really make up for the uninspired body count preceding it.

And except for the very first impaling, all of the deaths are ultimately the direct result of the college kids mistakenly thinking the "hillbillies" are hunting them for sport or something, and the college kids choosing to fight back, but then failing miserably and basically causing the carnage themselves. I know it's too easy to sit here and say it could have been better, but we all know that's my thing, right? But if there had been just a few more clever coincidences, where the college kids were minding their own business or trying to run away, and yet horrible things happened at random that looked like the work of a slasher, even if that had covered only half the deaths, and then the back half was in fact all combat backfires that Tucker and Dale had to narrowly escape, that would have worked a lot better for me. The kid who shoots himself, stupidly looking down the barrel of a loaded gun trying to figure out if the safety is on, does so right in front of the other kids, and yet they continue carrying on as if everything is "all those hillbillies' faults".

That's largely, within the logic of the movie, because one particular college kid has an irrational hatred of hillbillies because his own parents were murdered (dad) and tortured (mom) by hillbillies 20 years ago. That in turn sets up the ultimate resolution of the movie where Chad the college kid is the real monster who's been urging everyone into kill-or-be-killed mode, and ultimately Dale has to play the hero and rescue final girl Allison from Chad's clutches. And (spoiler!) in the epilogue it turns out that, despite all the fairly on-point culture clash comedy mined from Allison's ivory tower background and Dale's salt-of-the-earth nature, the two are falling in love, which is presented completely unironically. Sadly, all of these course corrections into extremely formulaic narrative resolution undermine any subversive power the film generates in the earlier reels.

So, not exactly on my list of recommendations. Not a complete waste of time, but not brilliant or scathing or much of anything realizing the full potential it could have had. Oh well, I guess they can't all be Cabin in the Woods, can they?

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