The art house and the film nerd: ‘Detective Dee’ and ‘Tucker and Dale’ playing Uptown

I think pretty much anybody in Minnesota would identify the Uptown Theater and its sister, the Lagoon, as being art-house theaters. I mean, if there is some exhausting, tormented film from Sweden about sad children who grow up to be sexually precocious young adults who weep during lovemaking, what theater are you going to check first to see if it’s playing? Certainly not Block E — no, that’s where you look for the latest Jason Statham film, which, by the way, I saw and was a little disappointing. 

But anybody who frequents Uptown’s two theaters knows that “art house” is — well, perhaps not a misnomer, but at least something of a curiousnomer. Let’s say a puzzlingnomer, unless you’re allergic to portmanteau words. Because art-house theaters have always really been about satisfying the tastes of the dedicated cinéaste, and dedicated cinéastes come in a few stripes. There is the fan of classic film, who, one presumes, watches old Garbo movies with rapt attention, reciting her dialogue in time with the film, and later retiring to a house filled with cats named “Pumpkin” and “Mrs. Precious.” There’s another sort who doesn’t show up as often anymore, but once was the financial backbone of the art-house theater: the pervert. They were there for the precocious Swedish sexuality, never mind the crying, but porn theaters and later home viewing emptied the art houses of this patron, except once in a while, when a film comes out that has Liam Neeson in a three-way love affair with Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried.

These two sorts of filmgoers probably account for less than 30 percent of the audience of art-house theaters. So who makes up the difference?

Film nerds.

I don’t say this in a mocking way. I myself am something of a film nerd, although I must confess that I also am a bit of the cat-fancying classic film fan and also maybe, just a little bit, just on very lonely nights, and just when it’s a Liam Neeson film, a pervert. But film nerds are the bread and butter of art-house theaters, and they’re why the presumably august Uptown and Lagoon theaters have, in recent months, been home to the following: a film about a murderous, shotgun-wielding hobo; a Norwegian faux documentary about college students who help to hunt trolls; and a samurai movie that primarily consists of a 40-minute fight scene. All have their arty qualities, yes, but their primary attraction is a bit more rudimentary. They have nerd appeal. It’s why I go, and I see every single one.

I have often pondered how decisions are made, and I think it comes down to this: Any sort of outrageous genre film might find a spot on the calendar, so long as it is independent, low-budget, or from another country — and Canada counts. And this is why these two pillars of the very finest in American cinema currently feature a film with a character named Donkey Wang and a film about college students menaced by hillbillies.

"Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Blue Flame"
Photo courtesy of Huayi Brothers
“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Blue Flame”

To give these films their proper due, they’re great fun. The first is a period mystery by legendary Chinese director Tsui Hark, who may be best-known for the “Once Upon a Time in China” series. His films always have an unexpected historical veneer — “Once Upon a Time” had as its main character Wong Fei-hung, a famous Chinese martial artist and acupuncturist. This film, called “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Blue Flame,” bases itself around one Di Renjie, who was an official to China’s only female emperor back in the Tang Dynasty which was, oh, about the same time that poetry was first written in English. You might not guess that from seeing the film’s title, which sounds like an old Three Investigators mystery. You also might not guess it from watching the film, which is something like a CSI episode set in a martial arts movie and directed by Guillermo del Toro. There are mysterious cases of spontaneous human combustion, albino police officers, talking deer, and a network of underground caves described as a “spooky pandemonium,” and seeming to be something of a goblin market. And this is where you will find Dr. Donkey Wang.

Oh, yeah, and people often just break out into extended martial arts scenes, usually involving 30 people attacking two, and the two fighting them off with aerial somersaults. It’s a gorgeous film, and entertainingly oddball, but it’s a pulp adventure and not some anguished film about stoic but damaged Scandinavian emotions.

Right down the street from Detective Dee is a 1980s slasher film. Properly, the film, titled “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil,” is a satire of the genre, but they didn’t tell this to the make-up guy. The film is filled with gruesome kills, mostly involving sharp sticks or wood chippers, and, just as they would in a “Friday the 13th” film, entrails spill.

"Tucker and Dale vs. Evil"
Photo courtesy of Maple Pictures
“Tucker and Dale vs. Evil”

Actually, the film borrows from a specific subgenre of the slasher film, called Hixploitation. Rather than the masked killers of summer-camp movies, the villains were characters borrowed from “Deliverance.” But this film, written and directed by Eli Craig, reverses the usual formula. The murderous hillbillies aren’t murderous at all, and are played by two enormously appealing actors, Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine. They’ve come up to a recently purchased cabin on a lake (it’s a ghastly thing, filled with bones and newspaper clippings of old killings), and they are beset with misfortune in the form of college students. A half-dozen of these young vacationers set up tent next door and immediately decide Tucker and Dale are out to kill them. As it turns out, our best and brightest’s survival instincts are somewhat lacking. They end up dispatching themselves in a series of events that Tucker and Dale can only assume is a suicide pact.

The film is made as a pastiche of older horror films, which means the kids, for the most part, are types rather than characters. But director Craig takes great care to make his two title characters into genuine personalities — right up until we behold them through the eyes of the college students, when suddenly they become figures of enormous menace.

Is this art? Well, yes, I would argue it is, as what could be nobler than satire? But there’s a more primal appeal here, a mixture of low comedy and what film theorists call “the frenzy of the visible.” And thank goodness art-house theaters have a definition of art that is expansive enough to include films like these. Liam Neeson only makes so many ménage à trois movies.

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