The best horror films make you question your own values, psychologically forcing you to rationalize the unthinkable – for my money, at least. Slasher films about murderous dolls or angry undead groundskeepers possess their own kind of supernatural terror, but to this day, I still haven’t heard of a doll coming to life and slaughtering its owner. There’s a fantasy element that provides safety, unlike a movie such as Cheap Thrills, an unnerving presentation of man’s biggest folly – ourselves. People are vile, greedy, self-obsessed beings who react based on survival instincts when backed into a corner, forgetting moral normals like loyalty, compassion, and civility – but of course we chose to believe otherwise. Such silly, ignorant, naive souls we are.
Staring eviction in the face, newly jobless family man Craig (Pat Healy) decides to drown his sorrows for a bit at the local watering hole, not knowing his life is about to change forever. While sitting by himself, he’s recognized by his old friend Vince (Ethan Embry), and the two start reminiscing. On hard times, Vince sympathizes with Craig, and the two attempt to forget about life’s problems, which is where a man named Colin (David Koechner) and his wife Violet (Sara Paxton) come into our story. Expressing interest in having a memorable night in celebration of Violet’s birthday, Colin introduces a betting game to promote some fun. Putting dollar values on tasks, Colin challenges Pat and Vince to different dares and pays the winner accordingly. Starting out harmless enough, the dares slowly become more and more, we’ll say interesting – who am I kidding, you see where this is going.
I should have known Cheap Thrills was a bit of Troma inspired genius, coming from Chop director/Deadgirl writer Trent Haaga. Sharing scripting duties with David Chirchirillo, director E.L. Katz inherits a dementedly original screenplay ripe with social commentary and dark, twisted comedy, creating a devious playground for our director to explore. We’ve seen dark comedies before that play with man’s deep, individual desires, but something about the perverse nature of this hybrid torture porn/rags to riches thriller understands just how ridiculous a scenario is being presented – and enjoys the hell out of tormenting our doomed leads.
Cheap Thrills benefits from being perfectly cast, as no one character steals the show. Craig’s shy attitude and desperate demeanor make him a constant wild card, and it’s Pat Healy who draws out the inner “everyman” in half of our daredevil duo. The other half, played by Ethan Embry, presents the brutish bruiser personality arc, giving us a character in Vince who we expect to ace every challenge thanks to his burly, prison-ready physique.
Our “contestants” are a blast to watch, but without David Koechner’s performance as “gamemaster” Colin, the chemistry would have been awkwardly skewed. Koechner’s wildly extravagant expressions, precision comedic timing, and larger-than-life persona not only create a devilishly charming sociopath, but also an enigmatic showman that hypnotizes us instantly. Free to act as he pleases, Koechner brings “A” game work memorable enough to rival characters like Champ Kind, and does so while creating some of the most entertaining genre insanity in years. Sara Paxton adds a layer of cool, calm, and collected psychosis to the mix, as Colin’s sultry wife, only upping the obvious depravity of Colin’s puppeteering – making Paxton arguably the most interesting character of all.
E.L. Katz might be new to the horror scene, but collaborating previously with the likes of Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, and Adam Gierasch has given him a clear, crisp directorial vision comparable to blood-soaked seasoned veterans. Experience is crucial in the filmmaking industry, but so is passion, something else Katz oozes thanks to a horror journalist background that saw him writing for Fangoria (among other publications) – a brother in arms! All this immersion into the world of horror makes Cheap Thrills an almost insta-classic in terms of visual debauchery, as both Craig and Vince are savagely beaten down by Colin’s game – and Katz spares our eyes no relief. There’s a reason why E.L. was snatched up for The ABCs Of Death 2 before Cheap Thrills even received a full release…
It’s not that we’re sadistic enough to enjoy other people’s pain – but there’s no denying that Cheap Thrills delivers exactly as the title suggests. Any movie that can turn a barroom game into a righteous dark comedy is aces in my book, but denying any true horror here is a mistake. Director E.L. Katz orchestrates an absolutely bonkers tale of unconventional generosity, deranged boredom and uncompromising humility, all coming together in an addictively rewarding package. Cheap Thrills is hands down the most f#ck*ed up movie in years – and I loved every bloody minute. Could you value a man’s life at $50?
Cheap Thrills is a darkly comedic cult winner blending Troma-inspired wackiness with pure, devious genre entertainment - just don't try any of these dares at home.