A horrific game of dares reveals the ugliest side of a desperate family man.
Like an alternative, bite-size version of Breaking Bad, first-time director E.L. Katz’s gruesome comedy Cheap Thrills takes an unassuming suburban family man named Craig (Pat Healy) and exposes a repressed, dark side of his psyche via the sinful temptation of money. What begins as an quick drink between old friends at a bar evolves into a horrific freak show of debauchery, mutilation, and mind-blowing excess driven by the promise of big money.
Most of us would go pretty far–perhaps much farther than we think ourselves capable–to get our hands on that kind of dough. Katz and writers David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga stretch the bounds of morality with the characters of Craig and his scruffy, sketchy old high school buddy Vince (Ethan Embry).
Though the exact nature of their previous friendship is never clearly explained (good choice by the writers), Craig, a conservative, self-conscious fellow, and Vince, a rougher, more reckless spirit, seem relatively content to randomly bump into each other at a local bar after years without contact. They’re both strapped for cash, with Craig struggling to provide for his wife and baby, and Vince paying his way as a shady debt collector.
Before Craig can call it a night and go home to his family (like a respectable father), he and Vince run into hootin’ n’ hollerin’ party dude Colin (David Koechner) and his quiet, hot wife Violet (Sara Paxton), who happens to be celebrating her birthday. The loaded (on booze, coke, and most importantly, money) Colin begins daring Craig and Vince to do simple dares like taking shots of tequila and getting girls to slap them, with big bucks as incentive.
The foursome eventually drift over to Colin and Violet’s home–an eccentric hippy cave filled with weird art and tchotchkes–where the dares become exponentially more objectionable and vile. (It’d be a shame to spoil just how extreme these little freak shows become, but what I will say is that I have a reasonably strong stomach when it comes to gross-out horror flicks, and some of the latter dares border on unwatchable.)
“I need that money for my family,” Craig mutters with a bloody, broken nose, dished out by his “buddy” Vince. Does he really need the money that bad? As he sacrifices more and more of his morality and decency, one begins to wonder whether he’s doing these terrible things for his family, or because he’s been waiting his entire life for something or someone to unlock his wild side. This sophisticated idea makes Cheap Thrills stand out amongst its genre movie contemporaries. There’s food for thought buried deep beneath the filth.
Healy (always good) and Embry (pulling off tough-guy machismo despite being known for his earlier work as a cute, clean-cut teen) communicate the devolution of their characters’ friendship with refined nuance, which can be hard to pull off amid such a chaotic scenario. Through quick, spiteful glances and subtle, is-he-kidding-or-isn’t-he personal jabs, we watch as they gnash at each other’s throats, all in the name of the $250,000 that Colin has thrown up in the air for them to fight over. Koechner, mostly known for his comedic roles in The Office and the Anchorman movies, is familiarly funny and zany here, but is given the opportunity to wander into dark territory as Colin and Violet become more menacing ringmasters as the film wears on.
One of the characters arrives at a revelation in the film’s climactic scene that doesn’t feel sufficiently earned. It doesn’t come completely out of left field, and it makes sense from certain angles, but the turn feels forced and more in support of another character’s arc. Aside from this instance, the film is harmonious.
Katz constantly finds interesting ways to shoot Colin and Violet’s kooky abode, where most of the film plays out. It at first doesn’t seem so creepy, but as the night’s events grow crazier and more frightening, so does the house. Deep shadows and moody lighting create an ominous atmosphere that lends itself to the devilish material.
There’s a punk rock vibe to Cheap Thrills that comes through most towards the end of the film, when things get really outrageous and brutal. The interplay between the four main characters is balanced perfectly, with Koechner and Paxton setting the rhythm and groove and Healy and Embry playing dueling frontmen without stepping on each other’s toes. It’s a compact, twisted, delightful (if you’re into this sort of thing) nugget of exploitation that thrives on committed performances and sound craftsmanship.