The horror/comedy Cheap Thrills features a few good moments of genuine shock, but I’m having trouble with its total lack of message.
E.L. Katz’ horror comedy Cheap Thrills, already playing in certain theaters and making the rounds throughout the country, is the kind of film designed to make you wince. This is a film that is more defined by its mayhem tally than by its story. In its 88 minutes, a man pees on another man, someone defecates on the floor, a pet is eaten, a man is essentially extorted for sex, there’s some vomit, and there is an act of… well, you’ll have to see the film to get all the gory details. Needless to say, there’s a lot of twisted crap in this flick. It’s perhaps telling that Cheap Thrills‘ advertising boasts “From the producers of You’re Next.”
Cheap Thrills is about a pair of pretty nondescript everymen (Pat Healy and Ethan Embry) who run into one another in a bar. Healy needs money, and Embry needs fun. The two of them are approached by a wealthy thrill-seeking couple (the excellent David Koechner and Healy’s The Innkeepers‘ co-star Sara Paxton) who pay them to do daring things. $50 for the first to take a shot, $200 to the man who can get slapped at the bar, $500 for the first who can punch a security guard. As the evening grinds on, the amount of offered cash increases, as does immorality of the things our heroes have to do to get it. Pretty soon, you’ll be squirming in your seat at some of the pretty horrible and disgusting things they must do.
Cheap Thrills is being billed as a dark comedy, and I suppose there is a chuckle factor in wince-inducing extremity, but the tone of the film skews much more horrific. This is a film more about greed and desperation. These men begin to resent one another in the twisted contest. All this eventually leads to a kind of dark, twisted terminal velocity of vice wherein our heroes – and villains – have reached a weird desperate point of “Well, we’ve come this far…” and begin agreeing to things that even the drunkest people wouldn’t do. Pretty soon, they’re inspired less by greed, and more by their own increasingly evident mental illness. These people were most certainly inspired by the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre called “Man from the South.”
For some audience members, the gut-churning constant increase of sickness will be enough, and I admire E.L. Katz for daring to go as far as he did; some first-time horror filmmakers actually don’t bother to push the envelope. Cheap Thrills has been winning audience awards at recent film festivals for its simple setup and wonderfully gross payoffs. But what is Cheap Thrills really about? Surely there is some comment on what poverty does to people – how much would you physically suffer, and what laws would you break, just to be debt-free? But that angle is abandoned once the gore reaches a certain level. Indeed, the film eventually just tips into outright madness, swirling down the drain of sticky violence. I can only assume, then, that Cheap Thrills isn’t getting at much more than a visceral reaction. There can be a communal, midnight movie-type appeal to mere violent hyperbole, but if it helps if the film ultimately has something to say – positive or negative – about its heroes and/or villains.
As it stands, Cheap Thrills gets points for actually bothering to push some boundaries, and Koechner is amazingly game as the sadistic GM of the movie, but it lacks the tonal panache and thematic drive to really make it into a true cult classic. I recommend Ti West’s 2011 film The Innkeepers instead.