Director – E.L. Katz,
Cast – Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner, Amanda Fuller
Release Year – 2014
Reviewed by John of the Dead
I had heard non-stop praise for Cheap Thrills since its debut in May of 2014, but I did not watch the film until recently. Why? Well, I have little time for films that are not horror, and this did not seem very horror to me. The trailer gave me the impression that it was similar to films like Would You Rather?, but without that “edge” that gives it the umph that bumps its from thriller to horror. So why am I writing this? Well, after viewing Cheap Thrills I can say that while it is still borderline horror at best, it’s a flick heavy in tension, or should I say “thrills”, and warrants inclusion in the genre. It’s also really good too.
Down on the dumps after losing his job and getting an eviction notice on the same day, Craig Daniels heads out to the bar for some time to reflect on what he will do next. Here he meets Vince, an old high school friend, and tonight is going to be the craziest night of their lives. A scheming couple offers the struggling friends enough money to get them out of their current financial woes, so long as they complete a series of twisted dares. As the dares grow in severity, so does the payout, and by the time the night is over the old friends won’t be friends at all.
Just by reading the plot summary you can already tell where the story is headed. This is a simple flick where the thrills start simple and eventually get so out of hand that laws are broken and blood is shed. We see two different dynamics from the protagonists, where Craig is the weak guy who did everything right in life and still wound up broke, and Vince is the hard ass who dropped out of school and finds work here and there as a collector of bad debts. Both could use the money, and Colin is well aware of that. Celebrating the birthday of his wife Violet, they toy with the two for their own entertainment. There are only a few locations used, and quite honestly I never felt the film lack movement because of this. The dares that occurred, and were fulfilled, were entertaining enough and everything else was just additional joy.
E. L. Katz makes his directorial debut here, and he does a damn good job. Previous to this he co-wrote a few low-budget mediocre horror flicks (Home Sick, Pop Skull, Autopsy), yet this effort blows them all out of the water. With a very simple story, the characters play a heavy role in selling the experience. Pat Healy stars as Craig, and you should recognize him if you watched Ti West’s The Innkeepers. Ethan Embry (Late Phases) portrays Vince, while the comical David Koechner is Colin and Sara Paxton, who starred in Healy in The Innkeepers, is Colin’s wife Violet. Everyone delivered a hell of a performance, however Healy and Embry were the ones pushed to the most extremes.
Katz’s execution of the thrills is what left me the most impressed. Even when things start off tame, like slapping a stripper’s ass, he still created some solid tension. As the dares became more…daring, the tension reached supreme levels and is sure to leave you with high blood pressure when the end-credits roll. Just because the film lacks kills does not mean it lacks gore, and you will see some live-action goodies towards the end of the film. There are very few kills, so keep that in mind, but if you are going to deliver a film limited in kills you’d best be sure your execution is on point, and it was.
Overall, Cheap Thrills is never really scary and that doesn’t matter. It’s never about that. The tension is what makes it exciting, and the severity of what goes on before you is what makes it horrific. If you want a solid experience where the stakes are insidiously increasing then this is your flick.