Written by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo
Directed by E.L. Katz
The new film Cheap Thrills is the kind of horror film that’s so effective, you may only want to see it once. Consider that a compliment of the highest order, as this low-budget indie film, playing at Fantastic Fest this weekend, aspires to be a wholly nasty piece of work and reaches that plateau early and often. Anchored by an appropriately sweaty and desperate Pat Healy, Cheap Thrills is gruesome and visceral, while always being slightly tethered to matters of the real world.
Healy is Craig, a would-be writer who gets an eviction notice on the small apartment he, his wife, and his baby son live in, and loses his low-paying mechanic job all on the same day. To drown his sorrows, he slumps over to a bar where he coincidentally runs into an old high-school friend (Ethan Embry) who scrapes by as a thuggish debt collector. The evening escalates past just one drink when a rich married couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton) invite them over to their table to share a fancy bottle of tequila, then to begin a series of dares. The dares start out amusingly—make a drunk girl slap you in the face—but quickly become nefarious and violent once the game shifts from the bar to the couple’s swanky house in the Hollywood Hills.
Because of Koechner’s presence, it wouldn’t be wrong to presume that Cheap Thrills is as much comedy as it is horror, but it’s to the credit of first-time director E.L. Katz and writers Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo that the tone never devolves into pandering humor. In fact, it’s because Koechner’s best-known as a fun-loving lout in other roles that his work here is so unnerving. Imagine Champ Kind encouraging you to perform acts of violence all for a couple thousand bucks; in concept and execution, the gambit behind Cheap Thrills is never not unsettling and creepy. And, once the third act kicks in, the story moves past minor acts of criminal wildness, like a unique form of home-invasion vandalism, into the truly bloody and heinous. In spite of the final twist of the screw being a mite predictable—compared with what came before—Cheap Thrills still works quite well as a diabolical and menacing little horror film. Though Healy and Koechner deliver solid performances, Embry (a long way from his baby-faced bass player in That Thing You Do!) and Paxton (in a truly twisted reunion with Healy, her co-star from The Innkeepers) are equally as impressive. Embry, in particular, fits surprisingly well into a role as a bruiser with a hard past weighing down on him.
Cheap Thrills may have been a literally cheap film to make—the majority of the story takes place inside and directly around the couple’s abode—but it’s unwavering in its commitment to create a profoundly uncomfortable feeling from start to finish. Other pieces of fiction may have wondered how far a person would go to maintain his family, how far he would go to preserve his way of life even if he has to sell his soul to do it, but Cheap Thrills feels like it takes that internal question well past the boundaries of decency and good taste. It’s hard not to imagine that the filmmakers wouldn’t have it any other way.
Note. This review was originally published in conjunction with Cheap Thrills‘ premiere at Fantastic Fest in September 2013.
— Josh Spiegel