Cheap Thrills (2014)
Director: E.L. Katz
Synopsis: A down-on-his-luck, wannabe writer struggling to scrounge up enough money to keep his wife and infant child off the streets comes across a childhood friend and a pair of deranged good samaritans.
Overview: Cheap Thrills is a wildly subversive independent comedy in the same vein as the very best theatrical works of Bobcat Goldthwait. Serving as the directorial debut for E.L. Katz, Cheap Thrills stars two of the most under-appreciated character actors of the past twenty-plus years. As former high school friends Craig Daniels and Vince, Pat Healy and Ethan Embry offer two of the most nuanced performances of their respective careers in one of the most surprising black comedies in recent memory.
After being fired from his day job as a local auto mechanic, Craig’s life takes a turn for the worse. When he accidentally stumbles across Vince at a bar upon the eve of his family’s eviction notice, the two former best buds meet Colin and Violet, a pair of newlyweds played by David Koechner and Sara Paxton, whose idea of a good time includes staging a series of increasingly bizarre bets with the promise of hard cash money rewards. What follows is a night of increasing tension, depravity, and fratricidal violence that sees one friend go home the winner and the other the loser.
Except the price that Healy and Embry pay in Cheap Thrills comes at the cost of their very humanity and livelihood. Even though Embry plays the role of an unfeeling debt collector by day, and Healy is an emotionally desperate breadwinner with a seeming heart of gold, the tables turn as the two inevitably come to fisticuffs and let one another know exactly what they’ve always thought of each other.
Meanwhile, Koechner and Paxton snidely mock their chosen contestants’ pain in a reality television program of their own making and design. Capricious and cruel, Cheap Thrills is an unlikely exploitation film of the highest order, replete with tasteful production design and a whole cast of remarkably capable comedic talents. Katz has done the unthinkable in his directorial debut with a black comedy that never shies away from going as far as the audience might expect it go, and then just a little further out beyond the viewer’s already riled sensibilities. By placing its two chief protagonists at odds with one another, the viewer is offered a truly honest interrogation of ambition and aimlessness in the face of working class desperation, with neither Healy or Embry truly coming away as the hero of the film’s twisted social parable.
Upon reaching the gripping, surprising, and unsettling climax of Cheap Thrills, the viewer is left alone with one of the movie’s objectively sympathetic characters who has survived a night of unthinkable terror to live to see another day. Like the unforgettable and macabre final sequence from Tobe Hooper’s seminal horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Cheap Thrills invites the viewer into a world of latent vulgarity that mirrors their own to an extent often left unexamined. Craig may have won his family the money they need to get by while he scrambles to find another job at the end of Cheap Thrills, but in Katz’s hands his personal narrative will forever be stained by one turbulent night of visceral terror and sick pleasures.
Featured Image: Drafthouse Films