Film Review: Cheap Thrills
A refreshingly clever and twisted take on standard gore and torture films, Cheap Thrills is an effectively nasty little film in which most of the screen violence is self-inflicted. Two losers, one a struggling family man facing eviction (Pat Healy), one a perennial waster (Ethan Embry), are tasked with increasingly strange, unpleasant and violent dares by a mysterious rich couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton) they meet in a bar. The tasks start as simply as downing a shot and groping a stripper, but once the party moves back to the couple’s house, things take a turn for the worse.
Unlike many lesser films, such as last year’s unadventurous Would You Rather?, Cheap Thrills impressively builds up the action, rather than playing it’s cards all at once. The situation is disturbingly relatable, with plausible motivations and horribly realistic violence. The title is ironic; for most of its runtime, Cheap Thrills is subtle and only gives us flashes of violence (although towards the end there is some really unpleasant gore), instead focusing on building up the characters and the stakes on the line to create some interesting drama and conflict, rather than just showing us mindless violence.
Another refreshing feature of Cheap Thrills is its unanimously good cast. Main man Healy is sympathetic and incredibly committed as an ordinary man at first wanting to leave the game but slowly finding himself sucked in and turning to the dark side as the desperation caused by his money problems begin to set in. Embry, given the tougher task of being pretty unlikeable from the start, is brilliantly loathsome, turning quickly from wanting a fun time and some money to being genuinely evil as he gets consumed by the game. Paxton, usually seen in quieter, more sympathetic roles, is interesting as the vapid, mostly emotionless trophy wife. At first, she’s difficult to grasp, seeming mostly bored by the pranks that ensue, but slowly she reveals an odder side of herself as she gets more intensely involved in the tasks.
However, the real revelation of the film is David Koechner as the friendly, charming stranger who encourages two random men in a bar to humiliate, degrade and injure themselves for his own meaningless bundles of cash. Koechner is mostly known for ‘bullying jock’ roles in comedies (his most famous roles are as Champ Kind in Anchorman and Todd Packer in The Office) and he’s essentially playing the same role here; the key difference is the level of menace and sleaze he brings as he jokes around whilst encouraging men to get in fights and cut off limbs.
Budgetary issues stop Cheap Thrills from getting too ambitious and its plot could never be described as original but for its limitations and low budget feel, it does its job very well. The acting, characters and script are a cut above standard horror fare, whilst its slow burn narrative style ensure that when the darkest material hits late in the film, it hits hard. An undercurrent of satire on reality TV and the extent to which humans are willing to degrade themselves for wealth and fame, meanwhile, gives Cheap Thrills something to say rather than being, as the title suggests, a cheap thrill. It isn’t reinventing the wheel or bringing anything particularly original to the table, but as far as gore films, Cheap Thrills is smartly effective, and already a strong contender for the best horror film of 2014.
By Harry Ford