Eli Craig isn't a name that most audiences would know off the top of their heads. But horror fans have been keeping an interested eye on Craig for a while. With Netflix's upcoming Little Evil, fans will finally get to see what he's been working on for the past few years.
The director planted his piece on the Hollywood game board back in 2010 with his first feature film, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, which set the tone for his offbeat style of filmmaking. The horror-comedy, which starred Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine as good-hearted hillbilly friends who get caught up in a misunderstanding that leads to death — make that many hilariously gruesome deaths — is now something of a cult classic.
It's hard enough to get one genre right, let alone two. Genre blending isn't easy, which is why so few directors attempt it. But ever since the success of Shaun of the Dead in 2004, a few brave filmmakers have experimented with the horror-comedy hybrid, each adding another layer to the elastic subgenre. In Craig's work, it's easy to see the influence of two horror-comedy auteurs that came before him: Edgar Wright and Sam Raimi.
The influence of Raimi, whose Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness set the standard for the modern horror-comedy, weaves through Craig's work. In both Tucker and Dale and Little Evil, Craig utilizes quick cuts and Dutch angles that are reminiscent of Raimi's distinctive visual style. The result is a slightly off-kilter view of the world that works for a wacky subgenre like horror-comedy. The dramatic lighting that Craig employs adds to this. Shadows are a big deal, and a deep contrast between light and dark that can either ratchet up the eeriness of a scene or the humor, depending on how Craig decides to frame it. It's not a technique unique to Raimi, but it's certainly one that he has made his own, and it's impossible to watch certain scenes in Craig's movies without thinking of Raimi's love of big, bold shadowplay.
The influence of Wright, particularly Shaun of the Dead, is also there in the humor. The key to Craig's comedy working is that he has an eye for casting the right people. Labine and Tudyk had phenomenal chemistry in Tucker and Dale, and Little Evil is a constellation of great comedic actors, with rising star Bridget Everett damn near stealing the entire movie as Al.
The genius of it is that Craig plants relatable, normal characters into extreme situations. His characters are not caricatures, as characters so often are in comedy. They are well-defined, memorable, and vibrant—but you don't watch a character of Eli Craig's and think, You'd never meet a person like that in real life. The brilliance of his characters, and why his comedy works, is that you would meet people exactly like the ones that populate his scenes.
Tudyk and Labine might be rednecks through and through, with their shitkicker accents, their overalls and and their pickup truck and their beer — but they are not stereotypes. They are neither slow, nor stupid. In fact, both are well-read, thoughtful, and sensitive, upending the "dumb redneck" trope and blowing up the "psycho hillbilly" stereotype of horror movies.
Likewise, in Little Evil, Everett's Al is a huge, memorable personality, and she steals every scene not because she's so unrealistic, but because she's real. There are thousands of people like Al's masculine, "bro" dropping lesbian, thousands like Tucker and Dale's peaceful rednecks. They are reality; most of us know someone like the people in Craig's work. They simply aren't the sort of characters that are put into films: Not sexy enough for pure horror, not outrageous enough for pure comedy, Craig's characters work because they exist and thrive in the no man's land of the marriage of both.
The realness of these characters, and the understated humor of his films, are why the funny stuff works. The comedy comes naturally from relatable characters being forced into insane situations, and they react just as we would—they're just better at delivering a great line. While the humor of Tucker and Dale is more obvious and the improv crew of Little Evil offer comedy that's a bit more low key, it's all handled in such a way that you can't feel the try behind it. These aren't people trying to be funny, and that's exactly why they are.
Craig, like all the best filmmakers, is a real student of those who came before him, and his attention to detail shows in his work. Horror-comedy only works if the comedy is as funny as the horror is scary, and in Craig's films, that's exactly what you get. And, for those looking to see the influences in his work, there are enough winks and nods to directors like Wright and Raimi to keep even the most picky cinephile busy. The result are films that may never find a huge audience—but they find the right audience, and with that right audience, they resonate.