It seems like the horror genre has its periods where certain sub-genres are most popular. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, it was the zombie film genre with George Romero cooking up new zombie classics like Dawn of the Dead frequently. Today, we have found footage horror flicks like Paranormal Activity costing minimal funds, but with minimal effort put towards them. A couple years back, it was the torture porn genre.
The crudely named sub-genre largely represents films that have a focus on torture for entertainment. The prime example of this is the Saw franchise, which is famous (perhaps infamous), for going that extra mile with insane yet inventive torture scenes. Other examples would be films like The Collector, Hostel, and The Human Centipede. While most of these films were not huge hits with critics, they found a huge following from the masses of dedicated horror fans. The latest entry in the torture porn genre is Cheap Thrills, which tries to trump the cliches that have plagued the genre. While it has some hangups throughout, the film ultimately comes together.
After getting fired from his job, Craig is desperate for money as eviction is looming. He along with his friend Vince meet up with Colin and his wife Violet, a rich couple looking for a good time. Their idea of fun is making these two do insane dares which ultimately pushes Colin to his limits.
Cheap Thrills, unlike most horror films these days, features its fair share of great performances. Pat Healy has mostly been a character actor in his career, but really gets to shine in his lead role here. As an audience, we see the good man inside him, which makes his transformation as the film goes along all the more saddening. Well-known comedic actor David Koechner steals the show each frame that he is in, though, as this mysterious man who has the desire to see people go through such acts. It’s like taking one of Koechner’s comedic characters, but adding a dark undertone to them.
Cheap Thrills is essentially a black comedy, and has a lot of great moments of bleak comedy. From dealing with the complications of a certain dare the characters are put through or debating cutting off one’s pinky, the script written by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo is always able to find the humor in such dark events. With most of this cast having experience with comedy, they are able to thrive in these scenes.
Despite being a cheaply made film, the production aspects presented here are quite good. First time director E. L. Katz shows a lot of poise and skill behind the camera, making great use of his limited sets and budget. Katz, like the characters themselves, moves the film at a fast pace with loads of energy and style. Despite the film mostly being set in one location and other limitations, Katz is able to make most of these factors minuscule in importance, which is key.
Contrasting with the dark comedy are a lot of really shocking moments that are actually quite memorable. While some of the initial set-ups of these crazy stunts are quite funny, the end result is often times very disturbing. Most of these disturbing moments are not driven by visuals, but instead by just seeing these characters stoop to the lowest possible level just to earn the barest amount of money.
While the set-up for the film is quite interesting, the film ultimately feels very predictable. There are a few interesting little twists as the story is developing, but the film ends in a very predictable way for this kind of film. It felt almost identical with last year’s Would You Rather, which hurt the film throughout for me. It seems like both Haaga and Chirchirillo could have found a more inventive ending, but instead went with a kind of safe horror movie ending.
Cheap Thrills has a lean running time of only 89 minutes, but it has several points where the film meanders a great deal. This especially occurs a lot in the second act, with the film going through a few of these challenges lacking any progression of either story or characters. I get that a concept like this is more of a short film idea rather than a feature film, but perhaps giving more background in this time frame would have given more meaning to the characters and story.
Perhaps the biggest issue of the film is that these characters really don’t have enough background, especially the rich couple making these two do these insane acts. The audience never gets anything but a base level of understanding that they enjoy watching these needy men do anything just for a quick dollar. A psychological understanding of who these people are and why they are doing such would have been quite interesting for sure, and really elevated this film to that extra level.
Cheap Thrills, while being a great deal of fun with its dares, never can reach the depth the film wants to with its themes. Katz and crew are trying to create a film that addresses the issues between the upper class and lower class, but this theme is never conveyed very well. This is an interesting idea for sure, and quite a timely one, but the film falls short with following through with this concept.
Cheap Thrills never reaches the grand heights it set out to achieve, but is a bleak comedy with its fair share of fun and disturbing moments. Certainly a solid effort from everyone involved.
Take a Drink: for each insane dare
Do a Shot: during the pinky scene, you will need it
Take a Drink: every time the characters do
Do a Shot: for the final shot of the movie; what a way to end it