Director: E.L. Katz
Running time: 85 minutes
Back people up against a wall, either literally or figuratively, and they'll do whatever it takes to break free. Smack someone in the face. Go from civilized human to ravenous monster. Commit homicide. The possibilities are endless, albeit uniformly bleak, when it comes to survival tactics.
As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures, and in first-time director E.L. Katz's blacker-than-tar comedy Cheap Thrills, desperation breeds personal disintegration. Co-written by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo, the film is many things: original, satirical, violent, funny. Most importantly, though, it's a dynamite example of cinematic shock value, best experienced with little to no knowledge of what's in store. Thus, writing this review won't be an easy task, since the beauty of Cheap Thrills lies in its unpredictability and narrative fearlessness. In terms of Katz's desire to make audiences squirm while they laugh, nothing is off-limits, and he's not afraid to escalate the situation to its meanest possible level.
It's reality-based genre cinema at its most uncompromising and visceral, and, yes, it co-stars David "Champ Kind" Koechner, a comedic veteran who, aside from Anchorman and a few other exceptions, has made a career out of popping up in lowbrow duds (A Haunted House, anyone?). His involvement is part of the film's surprise attack—after all, he's the guy from silly time-wasters like Snakes on a Plane (2006), Balls of Fury (2007), and The Comebacks (2007). But that false sense of security quickly disappears in Cheap Thrills. Here, Koechner is a revelation, playing the manic, dominant ringmaster for Katz's circus of depravity.
In the eyes of protagonist Craig (Pat Healy, perfectly sympathetic before turning explosive), Koechner's character, Colin, might as well be Lucifer himself. Craig's life is in dire straits—he just lost his job at the car wash, he's in overwhelming debt, and he, as well as his loving wife (Amanda Fuller) and their 15-month-old son, are about to get evicted out of their humble apartment. Trapped in a haze of self-defeat and sinking depression, Craig wanders into a ratty bar where he randomly bumps into an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), with whom he pounds some beers and relays his sad-sack existence. During their heart-to-heart, fellow bar patron Colin and his younger, sexy wife (Sara Paxton), interrupt the conversation with some bizarre yet tempting propositions—it's Violet's birthday, so Colin wants to entertain her by paying strangers to take absurd dares, like smacking a stripper's derriere and snuffing the muscular bouncer in the face. Since both Craig and Vince are financially strapped, they accept the challenges.
With each bet, the danger increases, even as the foursome head back to Colin's swanky loft for some night caps and more intimate fuckery. And with that, Cheap Thrills takes a hard left turn into humiliation, sadism, and mutilation, all in the name of earning upwards of $200,000 for simply doing one thing or another. Cheap Thrills masks its deeper themes underneath the comedy and thriller genre exteriors. As much as Katz clearly wants the viewer to laugh and cringe in all the right places, he and screenwriters Haaga and Chirchirillo have a rather downbeat perspective on humanity—flash tons of cash in front of a man's face and watch him turn completely savage in order to claim it as his own. With little remorse for its characters, Katz' wickedly punishing film evolves into one of the smartest commentaries on our society's current economic darkness, presenting a scenario where the wealthy toss away money like it's tissue paper, having a merry old time at the expense of the less fortunate bastards who'll cut off their limbs or commit infidelity just for the almighty dollar.
Following its triumphant SXSW Film Festival premiere in March, Cheap Thrills was picked up for distribution by Drafthouse Films, and is currently on track for an early 2014 release. Consider yourself warned. Genre flicks this unique, daring, and perversely thoughtful don't come around very often. Which, one gets the impression, Katz seems to realize—the film ends with an impeccably spot-on closing image, one that, if Cheap Thrills earns the cult hit status it damn well deserves, should be emblazoned on posters, T-shirts, and other paraphernalia you'd find available for purchase at future Fantastic Fest editions. He might not have the most optimistic outlook on humanity, but Katz certainly knows how to leave them on humorously grim high.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)