Cheap Thrills (2014)

Directed By: E L Katz
Written By: Trent Haaga
Starring: Pat Healy
  Ethan Embry
  David Koechner
  Sara Paxton
Cheap Thrills

I had the pleasure of seeing Cheap Thrills at FrightFest 2013 and in the year that’s passed, I haven’t seen a better film. And I watch a lot of films.

It’s brave, gut-wrenchingly disgusting, hysterically funny, tightly edited, perfectly acted and the script is one of the best I’ve seen committed to film in a very long time. Deserving of a vastly greater success than it will almost certainly receive thanks to limited releasing, Cheap Thrills is an absolute must-see. Seek this gem out.

Pat Healy plays down on his luck Craig, who in the space of a day, finds an eviction notice on the front of his apartment and loses his job, leaving his beleaguered wife and newborn baby with no financial support. Instead of heading home, Craig pops into the nearest dive bar to drown his sorrows and bumps into an old high school friend-cum-shady debt recovery type, Vince (Ethan Embry). Persuaded to stay out a little longer, the two then meet cocaine snorting, money waving douchebag Colin (David Koechner) who is out on the town entertaining his vapid, bored trophy wife Violet (Sara Paxton) on her birthday.

This chance meeting proves to be the start of an evening of escalating dares and terrifying life choices as the money hungry pair enter into a ‘game’, dictated by the wealthy Colin, where the eventual outcome is utterly unpredictable.

Those familiar with 2008′s Deadgirl may immediately spot Trent Haaga‘s darkly comic fingerprints all over Cheap Thrills, and it shows fantastic progression for the Troma alum. Paired with Evan L Katz‘s bold and assured first-time direction, it’s a winning combination. The direction is so great, in fact, that you’d be forgiven for thinking Katz had a wealth of experience behind the lens as the limited sets and budget are utilised perfectly but are basic enough to let the script and the actors shine.

Pat Healy is an absolute revelation. He’s been putting out solidly good work on the indie scene for quite some time now, and this, along with The Innkeepers and Compliance, should be more than enough to get him noticed. (Please cast this man!) It’s also really, really nice to see Ethan Embry in a role he can finally sink his teeth into. He’s an actor that clearly has the chops but never seems to get the parts to exercise them, so Cheap Thrills offers him a moment to shine and it’s marvelous. The film wouldn’t work without Koechner and Paxton too, they’re so at-odds that it just shouldn’t work, but they’re brilliant together and help to provide most of the laughs.

The script itself contains some of the cleverest, pithiest, downright darkest dialogue that I’ve heard in years and kudos must go to Haaga for pulling no punches and staying true to his challenging and uncompromising vision. There are things here that I never imagined I’d see committed to celluloid and it’s rare that a movie can offer that level of surprise these days as boundaries are pushed further and further.

Although there are some horrendously stomach-churning moments, there’s little blood on show so gorehounds need not apply. The film puts its characters through the ringer too, but that doesn’t mean it’s another entry into the vast ‘torture porn’ canon either; it’s much smarter than that.

There have been a few films like Cheap Thrills lately, such as 13 Sins and Would You Rather, but none come close to the sheer calculated madness on show here. Within the first five minutes we’re thrown straight into Craig’s unfortunate World and from there on in, there isn’t a moment where your attention will waver. The main difference between Cheap Thrills and something like Would You Rather is that here, our protagonists always have free will and therefore their decisions and actions are altogether more harrowing and morally troubling. It’s a small distinction, but a very important one.

There simply aren’t enough positive adjectives to throw at Cheap Thrills, it’s that good. It’s not often that a film leaves me speechless but this came close. It’s damn near perfect filmmaking and I am incredibly excited to see what Haaga and Katz come up with next. I can only hope they choose to work together again!

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★★

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