By Simon Miraudo
April 9, 2014
Black comedies should be as funny as they are grim, otherwise they’d call them ‘stone cold bummers’ or something. Well, E.L. Katz gets the ‘black’ part right in his Machiavellian Cheap Thrills, the former film journo’s first effort as a feature director. In it, a good man goes bad over the course of one hellish evening thanks to the promise of no-strings-attached cash and the prodding of a pair of wealthy misanthropes. To those looking for a bad time – and some good, no, great gore – take note: you’ll get a kick out of Cheap Thrills, if not a giggle.
Compliance‘s Pat Healy, the patron saint of uncomfortable indie cinema, plays recently fired mechanic Craig, who competes against burnt-out old buddy Vince (Ethan Embry) in a series of escalating dares, instigated by coke-snorting Colin (David Koechner) and his dead-eyed wife Violet (Sara Paxton). After randomly – or perhaps not so randomly – meeting in a bar, the foursome eventually head to Colin and Violet’s house, where the challenges exponentially increase in difficulty and disgust-ability. Where they once offered a few hundred bucks to see who could finish their drinks fastest, the married weirdos eventually throw faecal matter, self-mutilation, cannibalism, and even murder into the mix. Needless to say, their shindig devolves into a dinner party that would make Peter Greenaway sick into his own lap.
Though its central quartet is excellent, especially the increasingly-desperate Healy and the often one-dimensionally-drawn improv powerhouse Koechner, Cheap Thrills is sorely lacking a funny side. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe the picture is being mismarketed as a cheeky good time for deviant movielovers. Or maybe it’s too self-serious, considering the grotesque, Looney Tunes-esque antics its characters get up to. That’s not to say screenwriters David Chirchirillo & Trent Haaga shouldn’t take its subjects – so corrupted by money they’ll shed any semblance of humanity in the pursuit of it – seriously. Simply that, as a satire, its target remains unclear in the mire of all the unpleasant violence and depravity. A few well-placed comic beats, or perhaps even a further-heightening of the stakes, might have made Cheap Thrills sting a little more, indicting its gleeful audience in the process.
The tone set by composer Mads Heldtberg and cinematographers Andrew Wheeler & Sebastian Winterø is a dreary one, though there are some nightmarish sequences that’ll shrink the extremities, and a final shot to sink in your stomach. Still, alongside the bleak Compliance (which similarly tightened the screws over its short runtime, and posed a confronting ‘what if it were you’ scenario to the viewer) or the winking, scary slasher spoof You’re Next (made by Katz’s frequent collaborator Adam Wingard), it feels like the weirder, shallower sibling of some fascinating, multi-layered horror flicks.
Cheap Thrills will be available from Quickflix on April 16, 2014.