I see dozens of horror thrillers that deliver a solid plot and a couple of attempts at actual suspense, only to follow those moments up with crummy gore and a disappointing ending. It’s difficult to maintain the suspense and deliver a climax that lives up to its plot. Enter EL Katz’s Cheap Thrills, a pitch black, hilarious, and audacious horror comedy that delivers its goods by the truckloads.
Cheap thrills premiered at SXSW last year to blaring applause. Borrowing the style of the original Saw and reminiscent of Bobcat Goldwait’s God Bless America and World’s Greatest Dad, Cheap Thrills is much more than its title. The film follows a couple of old friends who’ve hit rock bottom in their professional careers – they find a mysterious guy named Colin in a bar who offers them ridiculous amounts of money if they indulge in bizarre challenges. The guy is much like Mike Whitney from Who Dares Wins, except the dares are twisted and creepy.
The interesting thing about Cheap Thrills is that it makes you ponder over the line between right and wrong. The two desperate men come from different backdrops, one is a family man and the other is a common thief. When the chips are down, both men become equally desperate to score some easy money. One of them has to do it for his family, the other has to do it to start a new life. Which one would you call more righteous, or less sinful?
Therein lies the deliciously simplistic appeal of Cheap Thrills. It’s a basic, but compelling horror story, and it executes it with such panache that you'll be more than willing to overlook the few rough spots. We’re never told who Colin is or why he is offering money for crackpot games. He’s just another rich guy, so rich that he has to indulge in depravity to fulfill himself emotionally. In any case nitpicking would be ignoring the fact that the film was designed to be a simple but effective cat and mouse chase. Two mice, one large hyena and one sincerely brutal cat, to be precise.
As the desperation to win increases, Craig and Vince lose themselves more in insanity. The challenges increase from hitting dart boards, to defecating in the neighbors house, to more despicable and sadistic acts. This could have come across as schlocky like in most torture porn movies but the actors Pat Healy and Ethan Embry are terrific in their roles and elevate the film beyond the schlock realm. They both begin as annoying jerks but slowly thaw out once the jolts start hitting the screen. David Koechner contributes some fine work as the bizarre Mike Whitney. You can see genuine madness in his eyes when he uses Craig and Vince as puppets in his fiendish little game. There’s even Sara Paxton playing a character who is supposedly Colin’s wife and engages in some massively psychotic behavior.
And that’s the entirety of the cast. Four main characters and an hour of hair raising games. Director Katz, making his debut brings a lot more style and confidence to a story that could have been a hollow mess in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. From the opening scene to its horrifying finale Cheap Thrills maintains its forward momentum with ferocity. It’s creepy as hell, audaciously written, beautifully shot, anchored by fine performances and has a director who's not afraid to go the extra mile in terms of intensity and black humor. Cheap Thrills is intelligent filmmaking and a gigantic guilty pleasure, except that I don’t feel any guilt making you watch the film.