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The Little Movie That Could—movie review

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
September 29, 2011 4:39 AM
9 Comments
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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.

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9 Comments

  • B Jones | May 16, 2012 12:36 PMReply

    I watched this movie on Netflix Instant after only reading the trailer. I'm 50 and I loved it. I then re-watched it with my 46 yr old girlfriend and her 16 yr old son and we all loved it. Then the 16 yr old son watched it with his 16 yr old buddy and THEY both loved it. I see a trend. I'm guessing this movie goes on to make much more in DVD sales than it ever did at the box office ($222k if I'm not mistaken, based on The Numbers website.)

    Tudyk's stock took a considerable rise in my book after this movie, I looked up his filmography and had a couple of aha moments when I found he was in both Firefly and Dollhouse (both Joss Whedon creations.) and instantly remembered his strong characters in both productions. It wasn't so much that he played his parts well... it was that he is able to pull off such diverse characters with such ability. Right now he's at the top of my underrated actor list.

  • John Bengtson | February 8, 2012 1:52 AMReply

    Great pick! Slasher films aren't my cup of tea, but I saw this on your recommendation, and thought it was exceptionally clever. The misunderstandings and situations gone wrong flowed logically, and kept building and building right up to the satisfying end. The lead actors were very funny. I saw this on Netflix Instant View, and can imagine how fun it must have been to see it with a large audience.

  • R.S.L. | December 27, 2011 7:23 AMReply

    First, lets address the elephant in the room you refer to as 'theft' being a main reason for slow release. BS! When is the last time you had to actually pay money to see a film? Been a while huh? Or lay down some cash for a DVD? I have plenty of 'coasters' in my DVD collection if you'd like to review some! I'm sick and tired of having to shell out tons of cash for a family of four to go see a movie that turns out that the only funny, relative, or action filled parts, were the trailers that were shown! Until they start running movies at the theaters and on DVD, with a disclaimer that says "Satisfaction Guaranteed, or your money back!", I ain't buying 'first' anymore! As for this movie, loved it! Just put my order in (http://www.amazon.com/Tucker-Dale-vs-Evil-Blu-ray/dp/B005HI4LLY/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1324987845&sr=8-4) and suggest anyone else who likes, 'original', 'funny', 'good acting', and 'well written', to do the same.

  • Big Black | October 12, 2011 7:10 AMReply

    BullSHIT that piracy held up release of this... if anything, it helped. Someone put up a workprint, and rabid fans went for it - shortly after that, Magnet Releasing snagged it up.

    You want a reason? Read the paragraphs the detail the dicking around potential distributors gave the filmmaker, as he did every step that was asked of him, AND THEY STILL DIDN'T BUY THE FILM BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T BELIEVE IN IT! All this in the face of 'successful numbers' that they live and die by.

    The days of getting big upfront money are LONG GONE. If you believe in your film, DIY and get some of that money without middlemen - if there's money to be made, the suckfish will come to find you.

  • Sheri Candler | October 2, 2011 11:46 AMReply

    I'm a little confused by the comments that widespread piracy has done this film harm. In looking up the title on boxofficemojo, I see that supposedly the film has done exceptionally well in Russia, Germany and Austria. http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=tuckeranddalevsevil.htm
    The same film on The Numbers site show a different BO though http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Tucker-and-Dale-Vs-Evil less than half the amount. With such a discrepancy, it is hard to tell what the truth is which is par for the course in film accounting. Anyone brave enough to set the record straight?

    While I am all about cheering for the filmmaker who succeeds, I can't believe Eli Craig held out for a distribution deal meanwhile his film went loose on the internet. The film could have been brought to the public 2 years ago if he had done some self distribution to the audiences that enjoyed seeing it at festivals instead of dealing with sales agents and distributors giving notes on how to change it to suit their needs. I hope he got a good upfront deal with Magnet at least.

  • Rosie | October 1, 2011 6:21 AMReply

    Mr.Maltin Thank you for the more of the back story. I have been waiting for this movie for almost 2 years and I finally saw it last night.

    This movie is truly the funniest best movie I have seen in a long time. Not only are Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine amazing. The whole movie really flowed well, it felt smooth not like this part then this part and now this part. The pacing was good.

    The writing was excellent, so many absolutely ilarious lines I need to watch it again and again. The setting was good. I was afraid it would be too gory and it is gory but it felt just the right amount and it was mixed in with funny. There were many emotions.

    Alan Tudyk is brilliant. He is an amazing character actor and I love watching him and seeing someone new he creates. Tyler Labine I have been noticing for a while. I love the heart he puts into his characters.

    I think what I loved the most from this movie is how much it made me laugh and how little it grossed me out. Perfect Halloween movie but not for kids because of all the deaths.

    Comment for the Crew:
    Eli Craig I look forward to seeing more movies by you. Morgan Jurgenson awesome lines too many funny ones to remember.
    Alan and Tyler thank you so much for a great movie. College kids way to go!

    I left the movie feeling fully satisfied and happy that the movie was better than I even hoped for. I went with my Mom and younger sister and they both loved it
    as well.

    Rosie long time Alan Tudyk fan

  • F.P. | September 30, 2011 1:45 AMReply

    Thank you so much for posting this, Mr. Maltin. Every indie feature producer and director needs to read this article before they make their next film and understand what can happen to, what should have been, a slam-dunk cult classic.

    Having seen T&D with one of those raucous crowds, I can attest it's such a crowd-pleaser that even a grandmother would recommend it. The films' stars are the real deal, in this film and virtually every other project they've ever been in. Look at what happened with the casts of midnight classics like Rocky Horror, Donnie Darko, etc. It says a lot about the state of our biz when people in power actively avoid projects that are sure to attract those kinds of loyal midnight audiences, even when the metrics prove it out.

    Thank you again for giving us this powerful test case!

  • Emil Rottwang | September 29, 2011 11:03 AMReply

    Love this film when we did the Boston Premiere at last year's TERROR'THON. Hope it finds an audience.

  • Debbie Willey | September 29, 2011 4:35 AMReply

    personally, I'm HAPPY that Cooper and Galifianakis were turned down - I'd rather watch Alan Tudyk in a commercial for tires than pretty much anything those two have ever done.....

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