Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: E.L. Katz
Written by: David Chirchirillo & Trent Haaga
Starring: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner & Amanda Fuller
Take WOULD YOU RATHER and add an episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT. This is the recipe for CHEAP THRILLS, a darkly comedic thriller. Though not without some faults, the film caters to those with a sick sense of humor. The lack of locations and small amount of performers reveal a film shot on an evidently shoe-string budget. The real entertainment value comes from how utterly twisted the material gets and some nasty laughs to be had. CHEAP THRILLS is a mix of dark-comedy and thriller. That’s the only real way to describe the tone of film. In parts, it made me laugh. In others, it out-and-out disturbed me. Even with a bit of a mixed end result, some praise needs to be given to a story that affects the viewer on both sides of the emotional coin.
Craig’s day is going from bad to worse. He woke up to an eviction notice on his apartment door and got fired from his job as a mechanic. The prospects of providing for his wife and baby are looking grim. Blowing off some stress over a few drinks at a bar, Craig comes across an old high school friend, named Vince. They catch up and discover that neither man is at an ideal financial point in their lives. Luckily, they make the acquaintance of Colin and Violet, a rich husband and wife with a unique idea for a night on the town. Craig and Vince find themselves engaged a competition of dares set to the tune of ridiculously high cash prizes from the eccentric couple. These begin as somewhat mild (take a shot of tequila or hold your breath the longest) and begin to escalate into something far more dangerous than anyone could have predicted. How will the competition turn out? To what lengths will it go? Will there be a winner and what will be left of them? Without spoiling anything, things go pretty far into insane territory!
This is the directorial debut of E.L. Katz, who has written low-budget genre fare in the past. Ironically, he isn’t the screenwriter of this piece. That distinction belongs to co-writer Trent Haaga (who formerly worked for Troma studios and also penned the criminally underrated DEADGIRL). The script is full of dark comedy throughout, but it also hits a few nerves (both literally and figuratively). The really big thing that separates CHEAP THRILLS from being a torture-porn flick (which WOULD YOU RATHER kind of was) is the rivalry between Craig and Vince. This part of the plot ratchets up the intensity, especially due to Colin and Violet exploiting the differences between our two protagonists.
Craig is played by Pat Healy, who was the best thing about Ti West’s mediocre INNKEEPERS and played a significant role in COMPLIANCE. Healy proves himself to be a bit of a chameleon, because he inhabits the role of desperate father pushed to the limits fantastically. Ethan Embry, who I only know from an unaired episode of FEAR ITSELF (but apparently he’s been in a lot of work), is good as Vince. David Koechner (known for mostly comedy) is Colin and Sarah Paxton (THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT remake, also THE INNKEEPERS) is Violet. Though the two don’t seem like a convincing couple on the outside, that’s kind of the point with their characters. Koechner is an older rich scumbag and Paxton is his trophy wife. Both of them play off each other so well and give the viewer two truly memorable villains (not to keep harping on it, but a bit like Jeffrey Combs’s role in WOULD YOU RATHER).
The formula that CHEAP THRILLS follows has been seen many times before in other stories. There are only so many ways that the escalating situation can turn out and the climax that Katz chooses is a solid one, but also isn’t exactly unpredictable. The journey of getting there also has its ups and downs. At a running time of 85 minutes, the film still feels padded and stretched in some areas. One plot revelation of where things might be heading was entirely pointless. If you’ve seen either WOULD YOU RATHER or Cutting Cards (a notable episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT), then you pretty much have a basic layout for CHEAP THRILLS.
This doesn’t mean that the film is a bad or empty experience though, because where things work are in the execution. Given the solid performances from everyone involved, most of the jokes did effectively get laughs out of me (albeit at the expense of something downright wrong or sadistic), and there are legitimately gruesome scenes throughout. One of these actually got me to yell out loud “No!” and another had my stomach in knots.
E.L. Katz has proved himself to be a pretty damn good director and I look forward to seeing what he does next (so far, a segment in ABCS OF DEATH 2). Though it’s predictable in the grand scheme of the plot, CHEAP THRILLS definitely succeeds in going absolutely batshit nuts throughout. It feels like a feature-length version of a really cool short film. This is both a blessing and a curse. Some parts are clearly padded for time and the ending is satisfying enough, if not foreshadowed. When it works, it really works! Shocking, gruesome, sickly funny, and all sorts of messed up, CHEAP THRILLS will most likely satisfy those who are drawn to a film with this premise.