Cheap Thrills – Review

 

For all of the endless gripes with trailers for giving away too much of the movie they’re advertising, a relatively new phenomena is that of the “deceptive trailer” – a trailer which promises a particular kind of movie, then delivers another entirely. Back in 2011, this phenomena reached an unheard of level of infamy when, mere weeks after the release of Drive, a woman in Michigan sued the distributor FilmDistrict over what she claimed was a misleading ad campaign – stating that film she eventually saw "bore very little similarity to a chase, or race action film … having very little driving in the motion picture”. Whether or not she was an idiot who couldn’t appreciate an otherwise brilliant movie, she did have a point. Hollywood’s been at it for years, luring people in on the slightest thing they think will latch on with audiences and put bums on seats. For a brilliant example of this, look no further than the trailer for Cheap Thrills (if you haven’t already) in which you’ll quickly notice how the use of the line “from the producers of You’re Next” instantly turns the trailer for a psychological black comedy into what seems to be a horror movie. Firstly, it’s certainly the former, not the latter; secondly, it is vastly superior in every conceivable way to You’re Next; and thirdly, what possible connection is there between the two audiences? None would be the short answer.

 

Cheap Thrills follows Craig (played to perfection by Pat Healy), an auto mechanic facing eviction from his home on the same day he’s laid off at work. Hesitant to break the news to his wife – a stay-at-home mum to their infant son – Craig drowns his sorrows in a local bar, where he runs into Vince, an old friend (played by a surprisingly against-type Ethan Embry) working to make ends meet as a violent debt collector. As the pair lament their mutually downbeat circumstances, they happen upon a rich couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton) out to celebrate the young wife’s birthday. But with all the money they could ever want, the couple have an interesting idea to make the night special: paying Craig and Vince to perform a series of tasks put before them.

 

Closer in tone to the cerebrally horrific likes of Funny Games than the lacklustre slash ‘em up antics of You’re Next, Cheap Thrills very swiftly makes good on the promise of its own title before setting its sights on filling the gap left behind by Funny Games with a brilliantly acted, atmospheric and genuinely unsettling exercise in tension. The bulk of Cheap Thrills involves four adults merely sat talking, yet the end result is one of the most surprising experiences you’ll find in a cinema screen this year. “What would you do?” is the universally relatable mantra here, and that it sticks with you as long as it does once the credits have rolled is a testament to how successful it is in execution. Like The Grey a few years back, Cheap Thrills works in large part due to it’s uncompromising embrace of sheer unadulterated nihilism; there is no point, no grand design, no lesson to be learnt, there is merely the need to survive – financially in this case. It’s a razor sharp screenplay by a pair of low-level B-movie writers whose previous body of work is frankly baffling in comparison.

 

A superb cast take the brilliant screenplay to another level entirely, with a stellar turn by Pat Healy cementing an engaging lead with a rich, texturing and utterly immersive performance. Healy’s lead could so easily have been “just a wimpy guy”, yet morphs before your eyes into a fully-fledged red-blooded human being naturally and with complete investment. Embry is a surprise as well; long the mainstay of instantly forgettable comedies, it’s refreshing to see him this engaging in a role that actually covers new ground. That last point is also true of Sara Paxton, a former child actress now in her mid-twenties who has really never broken out of her comfort zone of Disney-friendly teen movies and B-level horror flicks like Shark Night. There is something genuinely unsettling about Paxton’s performance, her dead-eyed ease with proceedings at once both intriguing and utterly terrifying. It’s the performance of her career by a long mile, but admittedly, that’s a pretty low bar to climb. 

 

It’s Koetchner however that proves the film’s real gem. Known mostly for his role as Champ Kind in the Anchorman movies, Koetchner’s comedic background proves invaluable here as (arguably) the antagonist of the piece. Like Paxton, his character is both alluring and terrifying, yet he retains an innate likeability that really solidifies the ensemble and creates a superbly engaging atmosphere in which it’s hard not to revel.

 

As a feature debut, Cheap Thrills is a decent effort from director E.L. Katz; although it does veer uncomfortably towards traditional “indie style” at times. When it works however, it’s visually engaging; frenetic when it needs to be and even intimate when it’s called for. Stylistically, Katz seems to understand how to evolve his work to fit any given moment – something rarely found nowadays in young directors out to make their names with the next breakthrough sleeper hit. Most important is that Katz at no point takes the easy option of shooting Cheap Thrills as if it’s a horror movie, instead leaning on more dramatic – and even comedic – visual tropes to create an immersive environment in which the focus is on the characters and nowhere else. Having directed a segment of the upcoming ABCs Of Death 2, the highest praise I can offer is that I’m genuinely intrigued by what Katz is able to come up with in a short film segment; something I’ll rarely say of any of these horror anthologies.

 

On balance, Cheap Thrills stands head and shoulders above the average low-budget horror offering that litters up multiplexes; but on it’s own terms, it’s a startling, jolting and brilliantly unsettling character drama that takes every one of its strongest assets and aligns them to work in impressive unison. Sure, it’s not as jaw-droopingly brilliant as Funny Games, but it’s a fantastically nihilistic exploration of narrative tension; and best of all, it’ll annoy the hell out of anyone going in to see another You’re Next.

 

 

Catch Van Connor’s reviews in our Movies section and live on Slam Dunk Cinema every Saturday at 12PM on Sheffield Live! 93.2FM or on the podcast via iTunes.

 

In it
Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koetchner

Behind it
E.L. Katz




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