I swear to Thor it wasn’t intentional. Netflix freed the ravenous cinephile that comprises roughly 45% of my personality. Though never limiting myself, I naturally gravitated to horror, probably because I can’t handle the roughly ten minutes of every day I’m not actively terrified of something. The genre reflects the fears of the time, and going through offerings decade by decade can be downright Kinseyan in what it teaches. The hicksploitation subgenre looms large over ‘70s horror, because of changing social mores, rising tension between urban centers and rural sprawl, and (because any Boomer who accidentally read this would pillory me if I left it out any list of Very Important Things) Vietnam. The ‘70s is where the masters who defined the genre initially found their voices, and in many cases did so within the realm of hicksploitation. No serious horror fan can go for long without seeing the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Last House on the Left, and I Spit On Your Grave. I did and more, and thus became something of a hicksploitation buff. All by accident.
The subgenre hinges on a simple fact: rednecks are creepier than the one grown man in a karate class full of 6 year olds. In her brilliant Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Carol Clover suggests that the genesis of the fear stems from emasculation. Big city interests rape rural areas (something made explicit in the dialogue of ur-hicksploitation masterpiece Deliverance), leading to a disenfranchised underclass of white men who react to their symbolic castration by becoming hypermasculine avatars of hillbilly vengeance, like Kali in a Git-R-Done baseball cap. As the city folk enter the country (usually rapaciously), the locals respond with either metaphorical dicks (Texas Chain Saw Massacre) or literal ones (I Spit On Your Grave).
Though some of my personal fear of rednecks probably owes to one or more of these films caught in fragments during my misspent youth, the current incarnation owes more to the version existing in the mind of a working class liberal atheist. There is nothing more frightening to me than the combination of ignorance and skinning knives. These are people who are polar opposites of me, hate everything I love, and have disconcerting skill with firearms. My point is that I can take one look at your standard rural small business owner and see menace. Granted, some of that has to do with the fact that I am a sexy, sexy man.
But what if it was all a misunderstanding? What if the local redneck eying me piggishly was just wondering how my hybrid handles dirt roads? What if his awkward giggle stemmed from his self-conscious awareness of our differences in education or opportunity? What if the sodomy was entirely romantic? My point is, what if this hillbilly happened to be a decent guy? He’s a little dirty, sure, but that’s because he’s an outdoorsman. He has a drawl, but so does about half of the country. Hell, maybe if you stopped to really ask, the thousand yard stare, the blood scabbing under his fingernails and the fact that he’s charging you with a buzzing chainsaw has a perfectly reasonable explanation too. That is the premise of 2010’s hicksploitation parody Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.
A group of college students, led by douchebag-in-training Chad (easily identifiable by his popped collar and perma-sneer), head out into the sticks for spring break. Hicksploitation films inevitably begin with a minor run-in with the locals (“Duelin’ Banjos” in Deliverance, the hitchhiker in Massacre), blown out of proportion by hillbilly rage, thus setting the violence in motion. This frames the violence as being in response to Clover’s symbolic castration and also shows the rednecks as fundamentally irrational psychopaths who want nothing more than to fuck and eat a couple of city slickers. In Tucker & Dale, the kids cut the titular hillbillies off in traffic, and because the kids have seen the movies and internalized the fears, they’re just positive that every single man in a sleeveless plaid work shirt is ready to make some human swamp chum.
The thing of it is, Tucker and Dale are two sweet natured if slightly dim good ol’ boys. Tucker has finally scraped enough cash together to buy a vacation home, which he and Dale plan to fix up amidst bouts of drinking and fishing. Dale acts weird when trying to talk to resident beauty Allison because she’s a ridiculously hot college girl, and plainly out of Dale’s league. Things escalate from there because Tucker and Dale have the knack of always saying the exact wrong thing for the situation turning the film into a full-contact episode of Three’s Company. The film hits all the right points, telling Texas Chain Saw Massacre from Leatherface’s point of view, if he were simply a misunderstood and lovestruck hick.
At the start, a single conversation would have sorted things out, but by the time level-headed Allison gets Dale and Chad to sit down at the same table, things have spiraled too far out of control to be salvaged. Chad is the primary engine behind the hillbilly-hate, reveling in the power of being powerless. It’s a timely message, what with political discourse sizzling with constant cries of victimization from rich, white Christians. Never have the enfranchised been so angry. Here we have mostly rich, mostly urban, mostly white college kids so frightened that they’re willing to turn to violence, terrorizing the fishing enthusiasts who, in the minds of the kids, are the aggressors in the situation. It plays in the same territory that caused beleaguered Christians in predominantly Muslim Oklahoma to enact a ban on the rapid encroachment of Sharia Law.
Tucker & Dale boasts a geek friendly cast, anchored by Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, with 30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden and Jesse Moss, making his second Now Fear This appearance. Everyone is perfect, especially Labine, a sloppy teddy bear of a man who brings a ramshackle charisma to the lovable Dale. His physicality prompts comparisons to Jack Black, but he lacks the manic mugging, instead wearing his roles with utter conviction that makes the most ridiculous of characters oddly believable.
Most importantly Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is funny as all hell. You don’t have to be a hicksploitation or splatter fan to appreciate the humor, but a good understanding of the genre makes the film transcendent. Robbed of a good theatrical run, Tucker & Dale is the perfect cult film: clever, tight and deserving of a loving and devoted audience.