The best indie genre flicks are the ones that sneak up on you. A little movie that you throw on idly without much in the way of expectations that takes you on a ride you never imagined and leaves you gob smacked as the credits roll. Cheap Thrills is one such movie. Shot in 14 days, the miniscule production packs a punch that few movies ten times its size can muster. Indie horror veteran E.L. Katz delivers a directorial debut that toys with audience expectations from start to finish. He leads audiences down a road that they think they can predict, only to pull the rug out whenever possible and leave the audience in a battered daze. For someone with a sense of humor as sick as my own, it’s a brilliant dark comedy. For others, it will be a horrific thriller. Regardless, the flick isn’t one that you’ll easily shake off.
Awkward character specialist Pat Healy (Ghost World, Compliance, The Innkeepers) stars as a sad sack who opens the film by getting an eviction notice for the apartment he shares with his new wife and child and then goes to work and is fired. He then heads out for a night of medicinal drinking with his childhood buddy (Ethan Embry), and they bitch about all their woes in the way old friends do. Then an odd couple played by David Koechner (Champ from the Anchorman movies) and Sara Paxton (The Innkeepers) spots the sad sack duo from across the bar. They invite the lovable losers over for a drink, and Koechner announces that for his wife’s birthday he’s seeking some strangers to play some games. The wealthy couple likes to see what they can make people do for cash and immediately challenge Healy and Embry to do silly things like shove shots down their mouths and slap strippers on the behind for a hundred bucks a pop. As the night wears on, the challenges become more intense and the number of zeroes involved in the cash prize increase as well. Soon the dark comedy becomes just plain old dark and blood is in the air as two old friends learn just how far they’ll go for a quick buck.
There’s some social commentary apparent in the screenplay that Katz whipped up with his genre scripting buddies Trent Haaga (Deadgirl) and David Chirchirillo. Class warfare and Reality TV-tinged exploitation entertainment are gently mocked in the story, but thankfully, Katz and co. never jam their message down the audiences’ throat. If you’re looking for some subtext flavor to your genre sleaze, it’s all there to be enjoyed. Yet, the focus of the director and cast lies in crafting an unpredictable narrative populated with fascinating characters and everyone delivers in a big bad way. Katz shoots the film in handheld cameras, partly out of budgetary/time related necessities, but also to ground the film in realism over any particular genre trappings. When things get crazy (and hoo-boy do they ever), he takes advantage with a few stylized sequences, but never in a way that feels like directorial dick swinging. Simplicity is the key here, and it’s the story and actors that are the main draw.
At the center of it, all is Pat Healy, a master of awkward comedy and nerdy tragedy. He delivers one of his typical losers for laughs while also coming through with some seriously disturbing work when the time is right. He’s a loser pushed too far, and the journey into psychosis is harrowing to watch. Embry plays a different kind of loser in his bearded underachiever, and while he doesn’t have as much of a showcase role, he becomes the lone figure of sanity in the last act and an endearingly tragic figure. Improv comedy specialist David Koechner is a truly odd choice to play the psychotic cash-master here, but it’s also an inspired choice. There’s always been something loony in Koechner’s eyes in his comedy performances that Katz fully capitalizes on here and the actor delivers one hell of a performance. More importantly, it works well as stunt casting because previous associations will make audiences want to trust Koechner in the early going and as Admiral Ackbar once said, “it’s a trap.” The mind-bogglingly charming Sara Paxton is also cast against type as Koechner’s quietly creepy wife, but the actress delivers some truly chilling work (particular in a sequence that finally brings her and Healy together for Innkeepers fans, only under the worse possible circumstances). The movie is essentially a four-hander between those actors, so if even one role had been miscast the whole thing would have fallen apart. Thankfully Katz’s finest achievement as director was perfectly slotting each actor into an ideal role and then standing back to let them rip.
Cheap Thrills is a tough film to review because describing any of the standout sequences will give the game away and spoil it. But in broad terms, the film works as a sick comedy with an arsenic-laced horror undercurrent. It’s one of those bad night movies like Martin Scorsese’s After Hours or even Superbad to an extent. You know, one of those movies that perfectly captures what it’s like to stay at a bad party too long as you powerlessly watch things spiral out of control. That’s a hard subgenre to pull off as it requires such delicate pacing and a laser-eyed attention to detail to avoid the story ever stepping over the bounds of credibility. Thankfully, E.L. Katz proves more than up to the task in his debut and delivers a movie so darkly amusing that he instantly feels like a potential new genre master on the rise. For those who love sick entertainment, Cheap Thrills is a diamond in the rough. Seek it out, laugh it up, and then feel dirty about it afterwards. Yep, it’s one of “those” movies and a great one.