It isn’t often that I designate myself a movie’s advocate, but that’s how strongly I feel about an underdog release called Tucker and Dale vs Evil, which begins a limited theatrical engagement on Friday. (It’s already available On Demand, so check your local cable provider.) A film that played to cheering crowds at Sundance and South by Southwest over a year ago shouldn’t have had to wait this long to reach the public, but that’s the bittersweet story I just learned from its co-writer and director, Eli Craig.
An alumni of USC’s graduate cinema program, Eli brought his movie to my USC class last February, fresh from Sundance. My class, which numbers 360 students from all areas of the university, is the natural demographic for a film like this that pokes fun of—
—splatter movies—but I really liked it, too, and I normally don’t like seeing blood onscreen. What I responded to was the cleverness of the parody, which far exceeds a one-joke idea, its expert execution (especially for a first-time feature-film director) and the wonderful performances of its two leading actors, Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine. (They may not be marquee names, but they’re awfully talented—and busy. Tudyk has a following from the cult TV show Firefly, and even turned up in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, while Labine has been in several TV series and had a solid supporting role in this summer’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.)
But…these fine actors are not marquee names, and that’s been one handicap in getting distribution for Tucker and Dale. Another was the fact that after its film festival buzz it became one of the most pirated movies on the Internet! People who see “no harm” in illegally downloading films should know that this wholesale piracy—theft, if we want to call it by its actual name—hurt the movie’s salability.
Then there’s the challenge of trying to sell an audience a movie that doesn’t neatly fit into a pigeonhole. Is it a comedy? Yes. Does it also have bloody moments that might qualify it as a horror film? Yes.
But what about those great audience reactions? Here’s the real-life horror story Eli Craig told my class. One prominent distributor was interested in the film, but wary. They told the filmmaker that they would hold a test screening, and if it scored 20% higher than the norm they would take it. It scored MUCH higher—in the 90th percentile, to be precise—to a demographically diverse crowd, including a 62-year-old woman who said she’d recommend it to anybody.
The distributor decided that this had to be an anomaly, so they insisted on a second test screening. It went just as well. Now they insisted that Craig prepare a trailer, and IT had to earn a high test score, too. It did.
Finally, they said they wouldn’t go ahead unless the buyer for one of the nation’s largest theater chains agreed to book it. That fellow watched a screener, without an audience, thought the movie was cheesy, and turned it down. And that was that.
How a filmmaker like Craig maintains his enthusiasm in the face of such foolishness is beyond me, but I admire him tremendously for not losing faith in his own picture. I watched it for a second time with my class last week and enjoyed it all over again: it’s fresh, original, surprising in its use of violence, and genuinely funny. Tudyk and Labine are marvelous.
Oh, yes: from another chapter in the film’s long slog from script to screen, Craig had two talented, up-and-coming actors set to play the starring roles, but a potential investor didn’t think they were famous enough: Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis, before they had their breakthrough in The Hangover.
This all-too-familiar show-business cautionary tale can still have a happy ending if enough people spread the word about Tucker and Dale vs Evil.
Incidentally, if you order it On Demand, I encourage you to invite some friends over to join you. It’s the kind of movie that plays best with a crowd.