Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2011): Academic Elitism and the Casualties of Class Consciousness
If asked to describe Tucker and Dale vs Evil in broad terms, I’d call it a subversive take on classic 1970s slasher horror tropes of college kids who visit a cabin in the woods only to be stalked and preyed on by sadistic hillbillies. This time the hillbillies are friendly simpletons who are violently targeted by prejudice fraternity pricks. And while that be a decent enough summary of what makes Tucker and Dale a uniquely enjoyable viewing experience, it doesn’t do justice to what makes the film an insightful and resonant one.
Tucker and Dale is the second of four films on this list that I’ve already reviewed back in 2014 for my Indie Horror-thon, during which I reviewed my favorite (at the time) indie horror flicks. And once more, I’m just going to move right into my dissection of the film’s core themes; so check out my original review of the horror comedy film here before continuing.
Dale: You thought I looked like some kind of freak?
Allison: We misjudged you Dale. I’m… I’m really sorry.
Dale: Don’t be sorry, it’s my fault. I should have known if a guy like me talked to a girl like you, somebody would end up dead.
To properly analyze Tucker and Dale, it’s first important to note its place in the history of the subgenre. The framework for American slasher films with redneck antagonists was solidified through the 1970s with the most prolific example being 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In it, you’ll see all of the key tropes that helped define that era of horror cinema– the dirty hillbillies who torture tourists passing through their backwoods neighborhood. One of the characters is usually the product of inbreeding, almost all of them are sexually repressed. They drag their prey back to their decrepit cabin in the woods where they torture and murder them for sport.
These films rarely offer any motivation for their villains– they are this way because hillbillies are inherently moronic, misogynistic, and violent (cannibalistic even) barbarians.
Enter Tucker and Dale, two well-intentioned best friends who load up their pickup truck and head to their newly-acquired vacation home in the mountains to fix it up and pass their time fishing and relaxing. Tucker is the more assertive friend who helps build up the confidence of his friend Dale, the burly friend with a heart of gold and an inferiority complex.
On route to their cabin to fix it up, Tucker and Dale have a run-in with a group of vacationing college students– exaggerated stereotypes of entitled fraternity and sorority brats. In case you’re unsure of how on-the-nose the filmmakers were here, the ringleader is a guy named Chad who pops his collar on his pollo shirt, which he wears at the lake.
When Tucker notices Dale’s infatuation with one of the college girls at a gas station in the opening sequence, he pressures Dale to spark a conversation. Dale quickly rejects the suggestion, saying “Are you out of your mind, Tucker? They’re college girls, and they grew up with vacation homes and guys like me fixing their toilets!” When Dale finally works up the courage to talk to one of the college girls, they perceive it as an act of aggression and react with threats of violence– insulting Dale’s appearance in the process.
The most tragic part of Tucker and Dale isn’t the relentless put-downs and personal attacks that Dale is subjected to by the college kids, it’s that it’s apparent by the opening sequence that he’s spent his entire life internalizing this kind of self-hatred. He accepts as absolute truth the societally-enforced notions that the characteristics associated with his class (note: he’s a working poor farmer) are inferior to characteristics he associates with the elitist college kids.
Karl Marx might argue that Dale is the victim of class consciousness, the beliefs held by someone based on their socioeconomic rank. And Dale’s rank is towards the very bottom. As a result, he’s internalized negative attributes about his positioning in a society that doesn’t value his level of education or his productivity output. This has convinced Dale not only that his place in society is low, but also that his potential is limited– economically, and in his interpersonal relationships.
Academic elitism also plays a major role in contextualizing Tucker and Dale. Special attention is placed on the college kids’ status as college students. When Dale finally has a moment to connect with the only compassionate college student, Ally, he admits that he didn’t make it past third grade even though he is clearly intelligent– suggesting he was neglected by an education system that didn’t see his potential.
Later, Ally relates to Dale’s insecurities when she confesses that she has doubts in her ability to grow into an effective therapist. Though not clearly stated, it’s suggested that the disparity in academic advancement between Dale and the clearly deranged Chad has more to do with privilege than merit.
There are certainly moments of Tucker and Dale vs Dale of missed potential to dive deeper into the commentary of socioeconomic privilege. But under a pile of dead frat guy bodies, Tucker and Dale is a hilarious, feel-good gorefest best enjoyed with friends (college educated or otherwise) and a cooler of crisp PBRs.