How far would you go for money? This is the simple premise behind E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills. First-time filmmaker Katz effectively sets relatable problems as the catalyst to the story before the absurd takes over. Everyman Craig (Pat Healy) is a young dad who loses his job and receives an eviction notice on one terrible day. Reeling from all the bads news, he seeks solace where many people do: the local dive bar. He runs into a former skater and fellow classmate, Vince (Ethan Embry), and they catch up on each other’s difficult recent past. Their reunion is interrupted by two strangers (David Koechner and Sara Paxton), who offer them cash for outlandish dares for some birthday entertainment. They start easy: get a woman to slap one if the guys in the face, punch a security guard before he punches them. As the dares get more violent, the prize money increases. Let the games begin.
At the dark center of this story is a very believable scenario. No, not the one where David Koechner shows up with the Double Dare challenge of your life and an offer to pay off your student loans. Craig’s bad day has become common for many in the workforce during the Great Recession. It’s a period of uncertainty, where plenty of these bad days exist. In Craig’s situation, both his wife and child now face eviction with him.. She pleads with him to come home, but for Craig, the game the couple presents offers more than economic incentive. It is also an opportunity to remain in the breadwinner, patriarchal role. This is something that the majority of male audience members of horror films may empathize with since they were also the demographic to be hardest hit with layoffs, cutbacks and unending unemployment.
Which then brings us to the insanely rich couple looking to exploit the friends’ poverty for amusement. Their humanity practically nonexistent, the couple takes joy at the financial power over the those they have ensnared. Like Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, the class distinction between the protagonist and antagonist can be the root cause of violence. They are not on a level playing field, and therefore must either “eat the rich” or survive them. In Cheap Thrills, there’s a thread of a Marxist proverb in the plot that pits friends against each other for limited resources at the behest of rich bourgeois.
The film chugs along at a steady pace, and never stops to milk the scene dry of momentum. The editing gives filmgoers some of the best reaction shots in recent memory, with special accolades to Paxton’s catatonic trophy wife character, Violet. Healy and Paxton are indie horror’s answer to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan; I look forward to every time those two share screentime. In their previous coupling, as a pair of ghost-hunting hotel clerks in Ti West’s The Innkeepers, they carried the movie through its unseen terrors with a cutesy friendship. In Cheap Thrills, they’re antagonists who play off each other’s presence silently. Craig feels closer to Violet than the two other men. Quite unmoved by all the violence, Violet seems to have more of a vested interest in Craig, who is simultaneously repulsed and connected to her, something that plays against his friendship with his former schoolmate, Vince.
Vince is an interesting character as well, standing in for the hypermasculine figure against Craig’s domestic personality. He and David Koechner’s Colin are the manly men who dub Craig “misfit” and tease him. Vince is the first to escalate the violence of the two because of the prize money at stake. Colin is that “anything goes” loudmouth character that doesn’t come across as a villain so much as a frat bro. We’ve seen Koechner play his type before, but never in such a subtly sinister way. Make no mistakes, his laissez faire attitude is more evidence of his disconnect from humanity than it is purposefully sadistic.
Pulling all this anarchy together is director E.L. Katz. After a stint as a horror and music writer, Katz went to film school and came under the tutelage of Adam Wingard, the filmmaker behind You’re Next and two shorts in the V/H/S series. A few of Cheap Thrills’ interior shots looked inspired by Wingard’s under lighting, trending towards warmer shades instead of the bleaker ones also commonly used in the genre. If Cheap Thrills is any indication of the kind of clever genre goodies we can expect from Katz, then be very excited to get your tickets.
Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer based in Brooklyn. You can usually find her outside of a movie theater excitedly talking about the film she just saw or on Twitter.
Director: E.L. Katz
Writers: David Chirchirillo, Trent Haaga
Starring: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner
Release Date: Mar. 21, 2014