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Like Adam Wingard’s excellent “You’re Next”, “Cheap Thrills” is a film which seems to have been lurking around for a while, building up word of mouth from enthusiastic horror fans at a variety of genre festivals. It’s certainly a film with solid creep credentials, first-time director E.L. Katz having worked on or written the likes of “Autopsy” and “The Aggression Scale”, with a segment in the upcoming “ABCs of Death 2” on the horizon. The cast is similarly interesting, reuniting Pat Healy and Sara Paxton, so enjoyable together in Ti West’s “The Innkeepers”, who are joined by Ethan Embry (“Vacancy”) and comedian David Koechner (“Anchorman”) for what is essentially a four player show.
The film opens with Healy as Craig, a downtrodden man struggling to support his family in tough economic times, an eviction notice hanging over his head. After losing his job as a mechanic, he heads for a bar to drown his many sorrows, where he runs into his old friend Vince (Embry), who he hasn’t seen for several years. After a few drinks, the two guys are approached by rich couple Colin (Koechner) and Violet (Paxton), who it’s pretty clear have money to burn, offering them cash for racing each other to down shots. Lured by the promise of big money for more dares, Craig and Vince are invited back to their luxurious home, where things quickly escalate, and though it’s obvious that their hosts have sinister intentions, the two men are too desperate for money to quit.
Happily, “Cheap Tricks” is absolutely worth the praise that’s been heaped on it, and it definitely stands as one of the best US indie horrors of the last year. E.L. Katz does a great job of really milking the gleefully sick premise for all it’s worth, and though it’s signposted from early where things are ultimately going, the film has plenty of surprises up its sleeve. Fast moving and ghoulishly inventive, it’s a textbook example of how to notch up tension and how to balance queasy laughs with suspense, and Katz keeps the viewer gripped throughout, keeping things tight and focused and never wandering off on needless subplots or distractions. While the film is gruesome and has a few squirm inducing sequences, oddly enough what makes it truly effective is the fact that it never goes too far, the challenges and trials that Craig and Vince undergo remaining basically believable through till the end. There’s never a hint of torture porn or over the top grand guignol, and as a result Katz actually delivers a far more shocking gut punch than if he’d gone for the more visceral route of gore schlock suggested by the title and premise.
Instead, where the film really hits home is in its depiction of friendship, the shifting bond between Craig and Vince making for a solid emotional core that rings true and makes some of the later developments genuinely painful to watch. There’s a convincing air of desperation to the proceedings, and the ever present fear of economic ruin adds a definite edge as well as allowing Katz to play upon notions of modern masculinity and the pressure to act as a bread winner in the traditional sense.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the efforts of the cast, all the more so since the film for most of its running time revolves exclusively around the four leads. Healy and Embry are fantastic as the two unfortunates, and the chemistry they share really underlines the film’s dark exploration of a friendship being pushed to its limits and beyond – after the credits roll, it’s arguably some of the emotional beats that remain in the mind rather than the sadism. Koechner is also on great form, skewing his usual amiably eccentric screen persona with unsettling results, making Colin monstrous, though oddly likeable. Paxton similarly subverts her usual role as the wide eyed innocent to great effect.
“Cheap Thrills” really is a great deal of nasty, mean-spirited fun, and works both as a short, sharp sick joke and as a grim anti-bromance. Boosted by an excellent, note-perfect cast, E.L. Katz has made a memorable debut that should have an appeal beyond the limits of the horror genre, and which deserves credit for being much more than just another gore flick.
In UK cinemas Friday 2nd May.
E.L. Katz (director) / David Chirchirillo, Trent Haaga (screenplay)
CAST: Pat Healy … Craig
Ethan Embry … Vince
Sara Paxton … Violet
David Koechner … Colin
Amanda Fuller … Audrey