Cheap Thrills, the debut feature from Mumblegore participant E.L. Katz, may not even be considered a horror film. It’s got gore and violence aplenty, but it’s not afraid to make you laugh. You could even argue that the film’s humor is the key ingredient in its easy digestion. Cheap Thrills is grim to the point of nihilism, but never without purpose – there’s some real meat on these bones. The film scrutinizes the morality of the modern social contract in a visceral, hilarious way, shocking us until we’re doubled over, and forcing us to question what it means to be a “good” person in this fucked up world.
Like many of the best horror films, Cheap Thrills explores what humans are capable of doing for personal gain. Selfishness is in our blood, a relic of our prehistoric wiring to fight or take flight. Cheap Thrills probes these muddy waters with glee, but the results are still horrifying.
The film’s setup isn’t exactly novel, but its acceleration and ultimate destination more than make up for it. Craig (Pat Healy) is the patriarch of a family barely clinging to their middle class existence. And today’s the day when he can’t catch a break. Not only is an early morning sexcapade cut short by his newborn’s shrieks, but he’s greeted by an eviction notice as he heads to work. Once he arrives there? You guessed it – they’re downsizing and he’s first on the chopping block.
Craig is an independent dude, but we’re not sure if this is the result of confidence or cowardice. Regardless, he’s fully convinced that he has the power to dig his family out of their financial hole. It doesn’t take long to learn how serious he is.
But first, Craig heads to a local bar, determined to drown the day’s shit in cheap booze. At best, he’ll have a drunken epiphany. At worst, he’ll find the courage to tell his wife about the day’s unfortunate developments.
Fate, however, has other things on her mind…it had to be this bar, it had to be this night. Craig’s self-pitying reverie is cut short by Vince (Ethan Embry), an old high school buddy who’s spent the years since as a low-level heavy for the criminal underworld. He once broke a guy’s arm for 80 dollars. Cool, right? Vince is genuinely pleased to see Craig and offers to pitch a few hundred bucks his way once their reminiscing turns serious. But good intentions and a few Benjamins can’t make a dent in the $4500 Craig needs.
Soon, that meager sum is the last thing on either man’s mind. Before long, they’re partying with Colin and Violet, an offbeat couple out barhopping to celebrate the latter’s birthday. She informs the strangers that “we have fun,” but what exactly this means isn’t made clear until later. Their eccentricity is first evident in their carefree approach to money — Colin offers $50 to whoever does a shot first, $200 to whoever gets a girl to slap them, and so on. With the help of several illegal substances and a well-timed punch to the face, our four new friends wind up back at the couple’s villa to continue the elaborate series of dares.
Despite Craig and Vince’s past history, Colin’s challenges immediately set them up as foils. Craig has only become more of a milquetoast since graduating high school, while Vince took dropping out in stride, allowing his combative personality to flourish. Their initial friendliness is quickly tossed aside as the mysterious couple raises the financial stakes. No matter how close you used to be, money will always be a better, more loyal friend.
Watching Craig and Vince challenge each other’s authority while reconciling their own potential for depravity is the most engaging part of Cheap Thrills. Screenwriters David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga wrote their script as an investigation of this relationship, but its effectiveness is the ultimate result of Pat Healy and Ethan Embry’s fantastic performances. The first challenge director E.L. Katz asked them to perform was embodying these flawed, excruciatingly human characters. It’s impossible to find a victor. As the pranks become more serious, Cheap Thrills’ entire moral underpinning rests on their blue-collared shoulders. Give them both the winnings, guys, no tiebreakers needed.
David Koechner plays the suspiciously wealthy, fedora-wearing benefactor of the night. Imagine Champ Kind, his character from Anchorman, as a socially adept sociopath instead of a complete cartoon and you’ll have a pretty good picture of Colin. Koechner’s comic delivery and inherent approachability make him the perfect Siren for our high school friends.
But even the most tempting of Sirens needs a partner – besides a few tangential characters, the only female presence in Cheap Thrills is Sara Paxton’s Violet. Her birthday celebration provides the impetus for the night’s proceedings, but she spends most of her time watching through unreadable eyes, taking pictures, and, uh, tending to Craig. Cheap Thrills is a dissection of the traits and responsibilities typically assigned to Men, so her limited involvement never seems like an issue. She’s gorgeous and mysterious, constantly stirring up this masculine melting pot with actions both subtle and overtly malicious. By the end of the film, it’s obvious that she’s more than just a pretty face.
Cheap Thrills’ investigation of boundaries, masculinity, and morality is what makes it so relevant to our modern age. As a society, we’re brainwashed to think that Family is the pinnacle of private life. Not only having a family, but supporting them, giving them what they want, and by any means necessary. America isn’t known for its public considerations – we’re much more caught up in our private liberties and duties. The simple narrative of Cheap Thrills places this societal structure on trial and makes us the judge. This is a laissez-faire economy at its most libertarian and brutal.
Thankfully, Katz and company don’t provide a pallet cleanser for the psychological questions Cheap Thrills leaves in your mouth. Any interpretations and condemnations are yours to make, even as our protagonist makes his own definitive choices. We’re free to judge from the comfort of our couch, cringing, laughing, and shaking our head incredulously. But the ride eventually ends and the film’s questions only become heavier once we drag our asses of the couch and face the mirror. Where do we stand? Would we have done anything different?
In roughly 85 minutes, Cheap Thrills manages to be the most surprising and enjoyable film I’ve seen in 2014. It doesn’t concern itself with logistics; explanations would only slow it down. Who cares where Colin’s money comes from? Shut up and enjoy the ride.
And this is one ride you don’t want to miss. For a film called Cheap Thrills, the result is anything but. Both a hilarious night of misadventure and an astute social commentary, it’s a film worth tracking down as soon as possible.
In fact, I dare you.
About the Author
Matt Dartnell has been fascinated with horror films ever since his dad told him to never ever watch The Exorcist. This attraction has led to exhilarated evenings, sleepless nights, and a lifetime of messed up imagery to haunt him during midnight trips to the bathroom. Matt is in his final semester of film school where he emphasizes in critical theory. Follow him on Twitter @MattchstickMan.