CHEAP THRILLS is best described as an all-night bender of relentless bastardry, with a cluster of brilliantly nasty performances. Lean, mean, and darkly hilarious, it’s quite frankly one of the best movies of the year. There’s no fat and very little meat on the bone — this is one angry, snarling, remarkably-spry skeleton with sharp canines in its jaws, lunging right for your throat, and by the time you realize your ass has been kicked, the lights are up and it’s time to leave the theater.
Low-budget horror filmmakers David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga wrote the efficient, sharp script, which was then directed by first-time feature director E.L. Katz with the pedal to the floor. The four principals in the cast are all actors you’ve seen before, but all four of them get the chance to show new depths to their talent. This is the kind of breakthrough movie that’s good for everyone, and we can only hope their next work will have teeth the way CHEAP THRILLS does.
Pat Healy, the wonderful, ingratiating journeyman character actor who was so amiable in THE INNKEEPERS and so chilling in COMPLIANCE, plays Craig, a young husband and father to a baby girl who works as a mechanic in L.A. until an epic bad day, of the sort that led Bill Murray to join the Army in STRIPES, finds him suddenly unemployed and facing eviction. On the way home to tell his wife, Craig makes a stop in a dive bar, where he runs into Vince, an old friend from high school who he hasn’t seen or talked to in years. Vince is a cheap hood clad in flannel, a thick beard, and a skullcap who makes money strongarming debtors. It’d take you a minute to realize he’s played by Ethan Embry, the onetime child actor who’s most famous to my generation as the Jennifer-Love-Hewitt-loving protagonist of 1998’s CAN’T HARDLY WAIT. It’s good casting whether or not you recognize him from that or anything else, because either way you can believe that Vince and Craig were buddies once and you can believe that their lives have taken them in different directions. Craig got a job and a wife and grew up, and to a guy like Vince, it looks like he went soft. One drink turns into many, and Vince convinces Craig to hang out and make the best of a rotten fucking day.
This is where they meet Colin and Violet, a married couple with money to burn (literally). Craig first notices Violet, as she’s a pretty blond hanging out in a corner table with a guy who probably doesn’t look like the most obvious romantic match for her. He’s older than her and much more gregarious, since she’s one of those disaffected rich-girl types who petulantly text-message their way through parties. Violet is played by Sara Paxton, who’s usually cast in more friendly ingenue-type roles. She was excellent alongside Pat Healy in THE INNKEEPERS, though I first saw her in SUPERHERO MOVIE, which is kind of terrible but she’s very sweet in it. She does sweetness extremely well, which is why this movie is such a drastic departure. Her ice-cold impassivity is all the more noticeable because of the guy who plays Colin, who is arguably the most recognizable guy in the movie, comedian David Koechner.
Most of the funniest people in the world will probably gladly tell you how underrated David Koechner is — he did a year on SNL, he’s provided strong support for virtually every major comedian of the past two decades (Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, Norm MacDonald, Bob Odenkirk & David Cross, Jack Black, Steve Carell, Johnny Knoxville, Samuel L. Jackson), he was the single most Mike Judge character in Mike Judge’s underrated comedy EXTRACT, and of course he’s best known for playing Champ Kind of the San Diego News Team in two ANCHORMAN movies. He’s a guy who radiates laughs; even if you’re one of those sad folks who doesn’t know him by name, you see him and you expect comedy. Which is exactly what makes his casting in CHEAP THRILLS and his incredible, redefining performance in it so surprising and so effective. Colin at first appears to be one of those L.A. bald men who covers up his baldness with a trendy porkpie hat — very Heisenberg, by the way. He’s the life of the party, even when the party becomes a torture chamber.
Colin tells the guys it’s Violet’s birthday, and invites the two of them to chill with them. They’re a married couple but not the boring kind; they have fun by making bets for cash. It starts small. Colin bets Craig or Vince they won’t take a shot, or won’t talk to a hot chick at the bar, or won’t slap a stripper on the ass, because by now the quartet has drunkenly absconded to a strip club. It started small, which is why Craig doesn’t seem to think as much about it beforehand as he would by the time he gets dared to punch a gigantic bouncer in the face (a nice cameo by Todd Farmer of DRIVE ANGRY fame). If you’re wondering why Craig has a bloody nose in all the production stills, that’s how it happens. That’s how it starts.
Craig wakes up in a swank living room. They’re back at Colin and Violet’s place. The drinking and the games continue. The bets escalate. To some degree, it’s a crazy night out and the alcohol (and pretty soon, drugs) has a lot to do with the decision-making, but the not-so-underlying fact is that both Craig and Vince can really use the money. You’d be surprised at what you’d do for money. Wouldn’t you? I don’t think I’m spoiling much by revealing that the violence in CHEAP THRILLS is nowhere near finished when Craig gets punched out by that bouncer — there’s much more grisliness to come, although don’t think you’ll be able to guess what kind of violence is committed, and by whom. One reason I loved CHEAP THRILLS so much is because I see many more movies than the average human being, I can predict the vast majority of them, and yet I had no goddamn idea where this one was headed. CHEAP THRILLS is pure cinema of escalation, presided over by a malevolent comic ringmaster who is so good at being so funny and so likable that is has a disjointed calming effect. You can’t possibly imagine things can go as wrong as they do as long as David Koechner is in the house, and yet here we are.
You can ascribe all the subtext to CHEAP THRILLS you want to — Is it about how the internet, via constant YouTube videos and viral footage of stunts and accidents, has desensitized us to actual live human suffering? Is it about reality-TV culture, where almost anyone will debase themselves just for a little cash and a little more attention? Is it a commentary on modern notions of masculinity and aggressiveness, of feeling hemmed in by a domestic life with maximum stress and minimum outlets for release? Is it about how Craig and Vince are only a bank account away from being like Colin and Violet, who are sadists and sociopaths (note the C-V/C-V first-initial scheme)? It’s probably a little bit about all of these things and more, but the whole shebang is neatly compacted into a concise, manageable, phenomenally entertaining package. The story is so simple it could almost look easy — four main characters, only a couple locations, 85-minute running time — but it takes a lot of skill to engineer simplicity in a way that carries this much impact. There are all too many movies, this calendar year alone, that are twice as long and have less than half as much to say.
This is why I’m calling CHEAP THRILLS one of the best films I’ve seen all year, and if you don’t agree that it can be categorized as horror, just try doing what I did and eat a meal while you watch it. It’ll make you queasier than a movie marathon of Cronenberg’s THE FLY, Henenlotter’s BASKET CASE, and a whole mess of Fulci flicks. CHEAP THRILLS brings back the antiquated exploitation term “video nasty” and puts the nastiness on full dial. It’s a mean little bastard of a new-generation grindhouse classic and you’re probably going to love it. Bet you a hundred bucks.
Drafthouse Films has acquired CHEAP THRILLS and will most likely be releasing it at the end of the year. Visit the official site for updates.
Tonight, CHEAP THRILLS is playing at the Vista in Los Feliz, courtesy of Cinefamily. Comedian Doug Benson will be recording his podcast “Doug Loves Movies” along with some of the cast. The Vista is a beautiful theater to view such ugliness in, and this is a rare opportunity to get an early look at a movie everyone will be talking about.
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