Review: Cheap Thrills (2014)

Cheap Thrills - 2014 - 1

Director: E.L. Katz
Screenwriter: Trent Haaga & David Chirchirillo
Cast: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner, Amanda Fuller & Brighton Sharbino
Runtime: 88 min // Certificate: 15

Two old friends bump into each other at a bar one night. One of them, Craig (Healy; Compliance), is just a week away from eviction, while the other, Vince (Embry; Once Upon a Time) is surviving but also struggling to get by. They drown their sorrows, resentful but apparently resigned to their fates, yet behind both of their eyes you can see but a small glimmer of ruthlessness. Defeat, inevitable though it might appear, simply isn’t an option for either of them. Enter Colin (Koechner; Anchorman) and Violet (Paxton; The Innkeepers), an eccentric and wealthy man and his distant, seemingly gold-digging girlfriend. Colin and Violet befriend the men; they buy them drinks, they give them money to indulge in cheap pranks and then invite them to their house for a night of drink and drugs, in which $250,000 is on offer for the man who is most willing to fight for it in whatever despicable and depraved way Colin and Violet see fit.

For me the title says it all; Cheap Thrills. Beneath all of the horror, the gore, the bleak humour and the uninhibited surrealism of the situation, this is a simple exploitation film in which the genre’s traditional roles – the male tormentor(s) and the female victim(s) – are twisted, reversed and perverted to tell an altogether more pertinent tale about the exploitation of the desperate, the destitute and the unfortunate by those who, by no virtue of their own accomplishments (or lack thereof), possess inordinate power, influence and wealth. That the film’s two victims are prepared to humiliate, mutilate and debauch both themselves and each other in the simple pursuit of the means to survive suggests to me that it doesn’t require too much of a leap into the unknown to argue that Cheap Thrills is but a metaphor for the post-recession economy, in which we have been conditioned to cherish – to steal a famous phrase – the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Cheap Thrills - 2014 - 2

It is through this symbolism, blunt though it might often be, that E.L. Katz’s debut film manages to feel at once old-fashioned (though far from out-dated) and contemporary. Via its deft combination of the classic sensibilities of the exploitation genre – power struggles, desperation and the debasement of characters’ humanity – with a bleak, modern tale about the lengths to which two desperate men will go in order to obtain money, Cheap Thrills feels like a throwback to the poetic, evocative and often acutely complex horror of the genre’s “golden age”, in which man’s potential for evil in the face of hardship was always far scarier than zombies, poltergeists and clumsy men with knives. Fear is at its most palpable not when it hides in the shadows but when it festers in the back of your mind and forces you to confront yourself; “what would you do?” it asks, well aware that the answer to that question is far more terrifying than anything you might see on the screen.

That this manipulation of our basic fears is Cheap Thrills’ great success shouldn’t detract, however, from the fact that it manages to be both a visceral piece of exploitation horror and an acerbic satire about the state of the American economy and Western society. In one crucial scene that seems to capture the film’s entire raison d’etre, the two victims attempt to outbid each other for the opportunity to chop off their own ‘pinkie’ with a meat cleaver for a cash reward. When one is offered $25,000, the other says he’ll do it for $23,000. The first man counters this with $22,000, which is countered again with an offer of $21,000 and so on and so forth, right the way down to $15,000. The characters thus literally engage in a monetary valuation of their own bodies and autonomy. They devalue themselves, knowing that if they don’t reduce – on a metaphorical level – the price of their labour, then someone else will take it from them. In the new economy then, everything has a price and nothing is sacred.

Cheap Thrills - 2014 - 3

Yet for all of the symbolism of both the physical and psychological exploitation of these characters, what is most impressive about Cheap Thrills is that it is the rarest of rare beasts; an enjoyable “horror comedy”, insomuch as one can even consider the film’s bleak, blacker-than-the-coals-of-Hell-itself humour as “comedy”. The strength of the performances, not least from Koechner and Paxton who capture their respective characters’ repulsive silent insanity with a keen awareness of what it is that drives them to do what they do, invites the audience to laugh even though we’re always on edge, fully aware of the terrors that lurk all around us. That the film is able to jump so suddenly and so aggressively from extreme slapstick to ferocious horror is a testament to the way in which the two victims become so feral and so animalised in their desperation to “win” that we find them simultaneously amusing and revolting.

If I were to make one complaint it would be that the film is bookended by a slow, hesitant start and a rather predictable, though admittedly gruelling, ending. Though I recognise that both the meandering build-up and the generic conclusion both serve a purpose – the former to unsettle the audience and take them by surprise, the latter to represent the inevitable end result of wealth’s all-consuming exploitation of those at the bottom – I couldn’t help but feel that they did a disservice to all of the wonderfully dreadful stuff that occurs in the bulk of the film. Nonetheless, this is a minor issue. Cheap Thrills has all the features of schlocky exploitation cinema but the purpose and significance of classic, character-driven horror, with a fierce but jocular approach to its subject matter to boot.

It might not be to everyone’s tastes but Katz’s film gave this horror fanatic a real, ahem, “cheap thrill” (sorry, not sorry) and did so with style, humour and an obvious appreciation for its genre.