‘Cheap Thrills’ Review
How much money would it take to convince you to walk into your neighbor's home and take a s--- on his kitchen floor? How much money would you pay to see someone else do it?
'Cheap Thrills' asks those questions and takes immense pleasure at imagining the answers. 'A Horrible Way to Die' producer E.L. Katz's directorial debut is a grisly exploitation film that extracts the greedy heart of human nature like its Mola Ram in 'Temple of Doom.' In a series of escalating stunts, horrible people provoke the horrible side of other mostly horrible people until they agree to act out horrible fantasies. 'Cheap Thrills' is not an easy watch, but Katz's loose tone allows the movie to swing between extreme vulgarity and comedic antics with little hesitation. It needs to — there's only so much pooping on the floor one stomach can take.
Craig (Pat Healy, 'The Innkeepers') is hitting rock bottom when he runs into his old high school Vince (Ethan Embry), recently released from jail. Coming up for air at their local dive, the two swap stories of sorrow and comeback plans. Coincidence puts them in the same bar as Colin (David Koechner), a loudmouth millionaire looking to spice up the evening by throwing money at scrapped-for-cash sad sacks. He hooks Craig and Vince with drinks, small talk, and a simple dare: “Whoever drinks this shot first gets $50.” The two men become Colin's dancing monkeys, a birthday gift for Mr. Deep Pockets' sadistic wife Violet (Sara Paxton). The tip of the iceberg is tame: smooth talk a woman, spank a waitress, punch the bouncer in the face... But when Craig and Vince follow their patrons back home, the requests escalate. Colin and Violent want to see their guests' blood, sweat, and tears as much as their gusto.
The simplistic thrills of 'Cheap Thrills' are welcome. The movie avoids the elaborate pitfalls of the 'Saw' movies by sticking with primal forms of torment. Listing everything Craig and Vince are forced to endure over the 90 minutes of 'Cheap Thrills' would take away what the movie is bringing to the table. The movie goes there, as if to say everything you watched on 'Fear Factor' was for chumps. The relentless approach requires stamina. Katz leaves it to the viewer to sift through the foul-minded stunts to find subtext and thoughtfulness, for those who need it. Others will latch on to its brutality. 'Cheap Thrills' is a not-too-distant cousin to the “torture porn” horror movies that take glee in punishment in brutality. You're either in or your out from minute one.
Katz's vibrant quartet does their best to connect the dots between Craig and Vince's perverse acts and the propensity for awful behavior that we may all possess. Healy allows the quick blow of losing a job and home to weigh down on Craig, who trudges behind his party companions like he's hauling a boulder. When his morals are comprised, we see Craig break. He's reborn as a fiery phoenix, capable of self-mutilation when $20,000 are on the line. It's a physical performance that Healy attacks full force (maybe Katz's dared him to do it?). Embry's Vince is pure id from minute one, always indulging without Craig's purposeful drive. He just wants money. That's not enough to make him a contender.
Katz plays fast and loose with 'Cheap Thrills'. His direction is pointed, but never rigid, the ambiance relying on naturalism to make his gruesome horrors that much more gut-wrenching. He leans on Koechner for laughs — because who wouldn't? The 'Anchorman' actor is casually devilish, a wry sense of humor born from knowing exactly what path Craig and Vince are wandering down. As his gorgeous significant other, Paxton is undervalued. It's implied that Violet is as much a puppeteer as Colin, but 'Cheap Thrills' reduces her to a wide-eyed, silent, sex object. There's power and mystery behind Violet's eyes. A taste would have only added to the chaos.
By relying on shock value, 'Cheap Thrills' undercuts its most interesting threads, the “sinful” choices we often make in the name of materialism. With the pieces he has in play, Katz could have pushed further. But 'Cheap Thrills' is an effective gorefest, best digested with a rowdy theater of likeminded horror buffs who will hoot and holler and drop their jaws at the close quarters mayhem of an ambitious first feature. For that niche group, watching a guy poop on the floor is a selling point.
'Cheap Thrills' is now playing in select theaters and on VOD.
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter whose work has been featured on New York Magazine’s Vulture, Time Out New York, Film.com, and Hollywood.com. He is the host of the pop culture podcast Fighting in the War Room.