SFF 13: Cheap Thrills (2013)
Director: E.L Katz
Director: E.L Katz
Rating: 8 out of 10
Cheap Thrills is a Molotov cocktail of genres. It takes the attributes of horror, comedy, tragedy, a morality play and family drama, pours them all into a discarded liquor bottle, lights the damp rag on fire and throws it in your face with deadly force. It is a film that is fuelled by the conceit of how far would you plunge into the depths of hell in order to make ends-meat for your family? Taking us into a sordid world of parlour games where the decreasing value of human decency is treated as nothing more than entertainment for the highest bidder in the room. It’s sick, depraved and pretty damn hilarious all at the same time.
The Story follows Craig (Pat Healy), an everyday family man who is struggling to financially support his wife and child. In the course of one day, he finds himself burdened with an eviction notice from his landlord, terminated from a dead end job as a mechanic, and to top it all off, he is in financial debt. To say that Craig is down on his luck is to say the least.
He hits up a local bar on his way home from work to drown his sorrows. There he reunites with an old high school buddy, Vince (Ethan Embry), and the two men reminisce about their high school days.
Later in the night, by chance, their paths cross with a strange couple who beg the two men to share a drink with them (David Koechner and Sara Paxton). Vince accepts their offer much to Craig’s hesitation and together the four of them hit the town for an unforgettable night. As the night wears on, the situation takes a turn for the weird when the couple offer Vince and Craig large sums of money to pull off random pranks for their own amusement.
Vince and Craig think nothing of it at first and agree to their terms. But as the night progresses, they eventually end up back at the couple’s house where these ‘games’ exacerbate becoming all the more strange and depraved. Both men are drawn into these parlour games under the allure of increasingly large sums of cash. Thus they find themselves rapidly descending into the depths of hell in pursuit of easy money and cheap thrills.
While watching Cheap Thrills, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities it shared with the TV series Breaking Bad. Pat Healy’s character arc shares numerous parallels with Bryan Cranston’s Walter White. Craig was once an aspiring yet failed writer who became a family man ultimately forced to watch his dreams fall by the way side. As the stakes of the parlor games escalate, his true nature starts to shine through revealing the quality of an embittered guy who is potentially resentful of where life has left him. Despite his better judgement, the allure of the increasing amount of cash on offer is just too overbearing to refuse and his greed starts to settle in.
The parallels with Breaking Bad don’t stop there as they also extend to Craig’s partner-in-crime Vince. Vince is a high school dropout and a self-proclaimed loser who is struggling to steer clear of being hauled back to prison while attempting to make an honest living. Both men are merely shells of their former selves.
Both Healy and Embry deliver strong performances throughout, most notably Ethan Embry who provides a bulk of the laughs as the slightly saner voice of reason between the two men. Throughout the course of this demented night, both men come to learn where their true nature, and more importantly, where their individual moral compass points.
Leading them into this sick game is David Koechner and Sara Paxton as the host and hostess coercing the mayhem. David Koechner is nothing short of excellent as he effortlessly shifts gears from being, at first, buffoonish with a certain “dudebro” charm before eventually revealing a cold, controlled and menacing unpredictability. Sara Paxton lurks behind her husband as the quiet, mysterious, sensual and kind of spaced out mistress. She is juxtaposed very well along-side her animated on-screen husband. They are the perfect embodiment of sleaze, boredom, wealth and entitlement as they look down upon other people as if they merely exist to be subject of their own convenience and entertainment.
Cheap Thrills marks as the directional debut for E.L Katz – best known for his screenwriting credit on Autopsy. For this being his first time out of the gate, he has gone for broke as he shows he is not afraid to take as many risks as he ends up indulging in. Clocking in at around Ninety Minutes, the pacing is spot on for what is needed. Katz manages to obtain strong performances from all involved and keeps the film as tense as it needs to be without it ever letting up. It’s a film where the less you know about it going in then the better the experience you will have.
Even though the film is filled with numerous gags that could be considered horrific, the atmosphere and mood doesn’t reflect that of a horrific nature. Instead of playing its deck of cards with a downbeat and sombre mood, Katz fills the air with an electric, puke-stained Punk Rock atmosphere . At every turn, Katz opts for squirms rather than genuine scares.
At its demented heart, it embodies the unkempt spirit of a Troma flick while being glazed with an appealing outer coat of polish and shine in presentation. Maybe this shouldn’t be too surprising considering the screenplay had a helping hand from former Troma alumnus Trent Haggar.
With that said though, it is not without a few questionable flaws. At a certain point, one of the parlor games in question does teeter very close to bordering on inappropriate or tasteless. Thankfully, it does feed into the context of the narrative and it is mostly forgivable. I won’t lie though in saying that when this one particular game played out, I was in a mixture of laughter whilst at the same time squirming in desperation to look away from the screen.
As long as it all fits within the desired context then personally I’m fine with it. In this case, no matter how nauseating it may be, it does serve its context accordingly. This context is driven home with a brilliant closing shot that sums up the inherent irony surrounding the central conceit by confronting both the characters and the audience with the same question -- “was all of this really worth it?”
For some audiences, the cruelty of the parlour games may be a sticking point as to whether you will enjoy this film or not. Director E.L Katz is not afraid in filling the film with wall to wall moments of cringe worthy awkwardness before asking you to laugh uncomfortably at those situations. It’s a film that is akin to observing a train wreck. You know you shouldn’t look but you just can’t take your eyes off it.
Even if I do take slight issue with that one troublesome scene in particular, it certainly didn’t kill the buzz that I had for the film as a whole. I’m very glad that the film takes as many risks as it does and I very much appreciate the punk rock aesthetic that rocks the entire film. E.L Katz is more than happy to give the middle finger to that old saying of “In good taste” as his film is the definition of “no taste whatsoever”
If you do have a broad mind, an iron clad stomach and are not afraid to indulge yourself in laughter at a small scale of depravity then this is one you should seek out. It is a rather entertaining slice of demented mayhem with an interesting and ponderous question underscoring it.