When husband and father Craig (Pat Healy) decides to drown his sorrows at a bar after being fired from his job as a mechanic, he runs into an old friend (Ethan Embry) he hasn’t seen in years. After a few drinks they meet a mysterious stranger (David Koechner) and his wife (Sara Paxton) who, after a few harmless betting games in the bar, invite them back to their lavish home. Facing eviction from his family home, the initially reluctant Craig agrees to go because of the prospect of earning some quick cash but once there things suddenly get really serious as the betting starts to spiral out of control.
Writer turned first time feature director E.L. Katz impresses mightily with this bold and very accomplished debut. He introduces us to characters that we can care about (something often missing from horrors these days) and slowly draws you in in a trap-like fashion – you think it’s safe because it starts out harmless enough but the stakes gradually get higher, tightening the screws, sto to speak, as it goes on.
Most of the film takes place in one location so it automatically has a claustrophobic atmosphere to it. But what’s perhaps so skilfull about it and the reason it works so well is how it makes you want to escape the increasingly horrible, often very graphic situations but at the same time making you not want to look away, repelling and entertaining you in equal measure. That’s a very hard thing for a movie to achieve but Katz pulls it off with aplomb.
Pat Healy – who some may know recently from such things as Ti West’s The Innkeepers and as the prank caller in Compliance – plays the lead and he functions as our anchor throughout the ever-spiralling madness of the truth or dare betting. He has a likeable quality that draws on our affection from the get-go, making it all the more uncomfortable when he starts to succumb to the temptations because of his financial troubles. There’s also great supporting work from the likes of Ethan Embry (practically unrecognisable from his days in teen comedies like Can’t Hardly Wait and Empire Records), Sara Paxton and a particularly surprising turn from David Koechner (best known for playing Champ in the Anchorman movies) as the strange “benefactor” of the central game.
The film functions as much as a social commentary on morality as it does a straight-up heightened reality horror-tinged crime flick. Just how far would you go for money? Maybe holding your breath for two minutes might seem okay but what about cutting off your pinkie finger for $15,000? Is that going too far? You’re constantly put into the shoes of the two participants to wonder: would I do that? It throws up these interesting questions and moral dilemmas while at the same time never letting it turn into a heavy-handed message flick about consumerism and materialism. It merely has that extra underlying thread to help make it stand out from the crowd.
What sounds on the page like an exploitative excuse to be graphic turns out to be a sharply written, darkly hilarious and consistently surprising gem of a film that shows great promise in its debut director and is a shining example of jet-black comedy done right. It has worthwhile subtext if you wanna dig for it but can be enjoyed purely as a gleefully nasty and wickedly entertaining slice of genre cinema.
Cheap Thrills is out now on DVD & Blu-ray.