Movie Review - Cheap Thrills
E.L. Katz's directorial debut, Cheap Thrills, is anything but what the title may suggest. It is so much more than that. The movie is an unflinching Black Comedy that is, in turn, both relentlessly hilarious and deeply disturbing. The remarkable cast, including Ethan Embry, Pat Healy, David Koechner, and Sara Paxton, bring an unsettling realism to the taut script, resulting in one of the best horror / comedies ever produced. Frankly, I won't be offended if you stop reading this review right now and go find this in a theater. And if you can't find it in a theater, open iTunes or Amazon in your browser, rent Cheap Thrills and watch it immediately. Seriously. It's that good.
If you're still reading, I'll continue. Craig (Pat Healy) is a struggling writer working as a mechanic to support his wife and child. When he receives an eviction notice on the same day he loses his job, he heads to a local dive bar to drown his sorrows. There, he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old friend from high school. The two start talking about their problems, but when they're invited to join a rich married couple for drinks, the night starts to get interesting. Husband and wife, Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), begin offering the two cash in exchange for performing increasingly juvenile dares. Eventually the group relocate their party back to the couples home in the Hollywood Hills, where the stakes are increased, and the challenges begin to escalate from harmless fun to utter depravity.
E.L. Katz may be best known for his work as a writer, producer and horror journalist; but in his first outing as a director, he is absolutely perfect. The pace of the film is flawless. He doesn't waste any time diving head first into the story, and once the tension begins to set in, he presses the accelerator to the floor and drives the story head first into a brick wall. Katz is also quite skilled at staying true to the bleakness of the film, while never losing it's sense of humor. Which is not an easy thing to achieve. As a general rule, the combination hardly ever works for me. Rarely do the two find the perfect balance needed to make the film work as both, but Cheap Thrills finds that delicate equilibrium and never loses its' footing. And on top of his skill as film maker, he seems to bring out the best in his actors as well.
Pat Healy (The Innkeepers), in the performance of his life, masterfully evokes all of the disillusionment and desperation of a man on the verge of losing everything. His versatility throughout is phenomenal. He remains likable even as the tension mounts and he sinks deeper into the darkness of the nights events, which allows us to sympathize with Craig and with the decisions he makes. Craig's journey from a slightly reserved family man down on his luck to a man willing to do anything to keep his family afloat is truly twisted, and Healy handles it all expertly.
Ethan Embry (Can't Hardly Wait) is as solid as ever here as Craig's old friend, Vince. He is darker and more cynical, and provides the perfect counterbalance to his Healy's nice guy persona. He shows the perfect amount of restraint to prevent Vince from becoming an over the top caricature, while all the time hinting at something more sinister lying beneath the surface. And as the audience is left to wonder when and where it will show itself, Embry's performance takes us on vicious roller coaster ride.
Sara Paxton (The Last House on the Left) shines brightly as Colin's beautiful young wife, Violet, who is always fully aware and yet rarely completely interested. Her feigned detachment is like a thin veil, only lifted when she is directly engaged by Craig. But as the story spirals downward, her indifference to the situation begins to border on sociopathic. And Paxton plays it with all of the effortless charm required to make the audience simultaneously intrigued by, attracted to, and frightened of her.
But the biggest surprise for me was David Koechner (Anchorman) as Colin, a fun-loving rich party animal who is seemingly both hilarious and harmless. But as the night wears on and his true motives are revealed, we see within him a deep depravity. And as this perversity escalates with each dare, it provides for the most intensely comical and disturbing moments in the film. Koechner shows serious range here, succeeding in both the comedic and dramatic elements of this shocking performance masterfully.
I really cannot find a bad thing to say about this film. I loved everything from the opening credits until the end title sequence (done by none other than Mr. Brian Collins). It is a extraordinary achievement to make a movie that is so utterly demented so much god-damn fun. I look forward to future efforts from Katz, as he his really proved himself a force to be reckoned with here. Do yourself a favor and go see Cheap Thrills. You'll only have yourself to blame if you miss it.
- Leo Francis