EXPECTATIONS: I have a soft spot for horror films about the evil rich using the poor as pawns in their sadistic games, although I wonder if I'll feel the same after I strike it big as a film critic.
REALITY: Ever since The Most Dangerous Game arrived in the midst of the Great Depression, this kind of film usually accompanies economic downturn. I guess the huddling masses must get a little pleasure from having their worst fears confirmed: Yes, the rich are out to get you. Most recently, Saw VI - in which Jigsaw's acolytes preyed upon insurance executives - heralded the beginning of our recession. And, in the four years since, we've gotten a remake of 13 tzameti, 13 Sins (no relation), Hostel Part III and Would You Rather. Cheap Thrills is a little late to the recession party, but it's better than all five of the aforementioned films combined for reasons ... well, let's get to that later.
Ow, this isn't thrilling for me in the slightest.
The premise is simple enough: New father and recovering gambling addict Craig (Pat Healy) and his estranged friend, low-rent mob enforcer Vince (Ethan Embry), bump into each other at the kind of bar where people drink to forget. In this case, Craig, drowning in debt and the looming threat of eviction, is drinking to forget that he has just been fired from his job at an auto shop. They run into Colin (David Koechner), the evil rich dude of Cheap Thrills, slumming it in this seedy bar with his wife, Violet (Sara Paxton), to celebrate her birthday. From the moment Colin offers $50 to the first guy who can down a shot of tequila, Craig and Vince find themselves facing a long night of railing cocaine and painkillers and a series of escalating bets with $500,000 in prizes. Because that's how evil rich people celebrate birthdays. No points for originality there.
Cheap Thrills really shines when it casts those other films in relief. Would You Rather, Saw VI, 13 Sins and Hostel Part III were grim and front-loaded with graphic violence, with scant few moments of comedy - I mean, the darkest possible satire. (The 13 tzameti remake was laugh-free, unless the idea of 50 Cent, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke and Michael Shannon sharing film space makes you chuckle.) Conversely, Cheap Thrills is more comedy than horror, balancing a couple of queasy moments against the performance of a lifetime from the underrated Koechner, who's clearly relishing this rare opportunity to play the lead villain, whom he essays with a surprising amount of complexity: Colin may be evil-rich, but he's not altogether unlikable. He complains to Vince about the neighbors, who allow their dog to shit on his lawn. When Vince offers to solve Colin's problem through violence, Colin cocks his head and says, "I'm not gonna pay you to kill a helpless dog. What kind of sick birthday present would that be? It's Violet's birthday, Vince." Colin presents himself as the warm center of the universe, the kind of guy who offers you access to his stash of exotic painkillers before you maim yourself for his amusement. In some ways, Colin is more decent than Todd Packard or Champ Kind, the sleazy-ignoramus roles that made Koechner famous.
"It's a black comedy for the social media generation," is something that a lesser website might publish.That concession gives Cheap Thrills an incomparable amount of depth. Usually, this kind of movie tells us that evil-rich dudes get rich just by virtue of being evil. There's nothing redeemable about Jeffrey Combs' sadistocrat in Would You Rather or the "nah, we'd rather let you die" insurance suits from Saw VI, but Colin makes a persuasive argument that the evil-rich get rich by virtue of being likable - by being good with people. How else would a man parlay a fairly innocuous bet over a tequila shot into a bet that requires Craig and Vince to do a little B&E job on his neighbors, let alone the horrific bets to come? Writer/director E.L. Katz comes from the same vague collective of filmmakers responsible for You're Next, and he demonstrates the same keen ear for dialogue and well-drawn characters. If You're Next served up a new-money family of the petty and unlikable to a trio of masked killers, Cheap Thrills accomplishes that which is both opposite and equal: The new-money sadists are the life of the party, and it's the victims who are petty and unlikable.
That said, Cheap Thrills isn't quite as strong as You're Next. It's a little shorter, a little slighter and a little less surprising. Because Cheap Thrills adheres so strongly to the formula of its brethren, it ends pretty much according to expectations. And it's less committed to the horrific than the comedic, even if the restraint that engenders is sort of admirable in a market that rewards young filmmakers for transgressing and one-upping their antecedents. In Would You Rather, a character blew his hand off with a firecracker. The most gruesome moment in Cheap Thrills ... well, it's only a fraction of that.
MINORITY REPORT: Low-rent mob enforcer Ethan Embry? Evil rich dude David Koechner? Is Recession Cinema raiding the TBS comedy sidekick vault for stock characters now? - Joseph "Jay Dub" Wade
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