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There’s nothing quite like pure, undiluted desperation to help someone solidify their personal beliefs. Sure, you might fancy yourself a pacifist, a vegan, a Creationist, an atheist, a philanthropist, an activist or just a plain, old nice person. When the chips are really down, however, and you have a gun to your head (either literally or figuratively), how many of those deeply held beliefs will actually outlast the most primal emotion of them all: desperate need? If it came down to saving yourself and/or your loved ones, I’d wager to say that the staunchest vegetarian could be made to choke down a steak, the most honest among us could be compelled to lie their asses off and the most pie-in-the-sky do-gooder could, in fact, be persuaded to become an absolute monster.

In an age where income inequity is at an all-time high, the gaping abyss between the “haves” and the “have-nots” has never been wider or deeper. As conspicuous consumption approaches a level not seen since the vaunted ’80s (Gordon Gekko would absolutely rule the 2010s) and the middle-class continues to shrink into oblivion, American society begins, more and more, to resemble the grotesque, self-cannibalistic plutocracy that Brian Yuzna introduced us to in Society (1989). Eat the rich? Not if they eat you first, baby!

E.L. Katz’s directorial debut, Cheap Thrills (2013), takes these twin notions (the desperation of the poor and the mercenary callousness of the ultra-rich) and mashes them expertly together, coming up with a film that’s equal parts pitch-black comedy, endurance match and twisted social commentary. In many ways, Katz’s film makes an interesting companion piece to Michael Haneke’s equally bleak Funny Games (1997), showcasing a world where unrelenting cruelty is the norm and any sense of “humanity” is snuffed out quicker than a candle in a hurricane. While it’s never really a “fun” ride, per se, Cheap Thrills is a masterful film, one of the smartest, most unpleasant movies to stick in our craws in a long, long time.

Our hapless, downtrodden “hero” is Craig Daniels (Pat Healy), a former hot-shot writer who now toils away in a garage, his ability to provide for his wife, Audrey (Amanda Fuller), and new baby slipping away more and more each day. When Craig gets the double-whammy of being laid off and receiving an eviction notice on the same day, he decides to throw the towel in and head to the local bar rather than have an extremely unpleasant conversation with his loving wife. Craig’s not a bad guy, he’s just completely overwhelmed: with his glasses, thinning hair and nerdy demeanor, there’s nothing about him that indicates he can fight his way out of a paper sack, much less a crippling financial crisis.

While drowning his sorrows, Craig happens to bump into an old high school buddy, Vince (Ethan Embry). Like Craig, Vince has also fallen on hard times but he’s an altogether more carnivorous beast than his former friend is: he’s been to prison, has the kind of nervous, suspicious glare that’s meant to keep the world at arm’s length and currently makes ends meet as a strong-arm debt collector. He once broke a guy’s arm for $80, while the guy’s young daughter watched…in other words, Vince does not give one single, flying fuck about the rest of the world. But, yeah: it’s always good to see old friends, right?

As the pair continue to, awkwardly, reconnect, they happen to come into the orbit of another couple of bar patrons, the incredibly conspicuous Colin (David Koechner) and his impossibly bored wife, Violet (Sara Paxton). It’s Violet’s birthday, according to Colin, and the self-proclaimed ultra-rich husband (he brags about a $10K bottle of tequila sitting in his luxurious mansion, for starters) wants to give her an ultra-memorable night.

To that end, Colin begins offering Craig and Vince money for performing a series of “tasks” that range from being the first to drink a shot ($50) to slapping a stripper’s ass ($200) to punching a massive, meat-head bouncer right in the nose ($500). Through it all, Vince is as eager as can be, heartily leaping into whatever Colin commands, regardless of the danger, illegality, etc…as long as he doesn’t have to “suck Craig’s dick,” Vince is down for whatever the night entails, especially once Colin busts out the Peruvian marching powder. Craig, on the other hand, is much less enthusiastic: he may be desperate but he’s also a happily married man and a pretty decent guy…snorting coke, hanging out at strip clubs and getting into brawls really isn’t his thing.

When the party moves to Colin and Violet’s mansion, however, the whole thing begins to tilt on its axis. Vince becomes increasingly excitable and violent, Colin’s “tasks” become increasingly dark (self-mutilation is but one of the party favors) and Violet seems to be throwing herself at Craig with the kind of zeal normally reserved for hawks hunting squirrels. Despite desperately needing the proffered cash in order to support his family, Craig faces one moral quandary after another. Will he be forced to choose between his basic humanity or his family’s needs, making the terrible decision to either be a bad person or a bad husband/father? Or, in the end, will he be turned into the living equivalent of a child’s toy, bent and abused due to the capricious desires of a mysterious, all-powerful “benefactor”? They may be cheap thrills but, in the end, Craig and Vince might just end up paying the highest price of all.

Similar to the recent upswing in doppelgänger films, the current trend definitely seems to favor movies in which normally good, deserving members of the middle-lower class are forced to do terrible things in order to secure financial stability, usually at the urging of the filthy rich. Of these films, three managed to really catch my eye: Daniel Stamm’s 13 Sins (2014), David Guy Levy’s Would You Rather (2014) and E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills. While 13 Sins was a blackly-comic geekfest that tended to accentuate the numerous outrageous setpieces, Would You Rather was an altogether more serious affair, albeit one tempered by the inherent bat-shittery that is the incomparable Jeffrey Combs. Unlike the colorful insanity of Stamm’s film, Levy’s tense thriller focused more on physical and psychological torture, making it the much more relentless, if repetitious, of the two.

Katz’s Cheap Thrills splits the difference and ends up the strongest of the three, thanks in no small part to the excellent performances and a truly twisted script (courtesy of Troma’s Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo, who served as a PA on Haag’s equally twisted Chop (2011)). While the film does become a bit predictable towards the end (if you’ve seen one of these films, you have a pretty good idea of how most of them end), there are still plenty of surprises and left-field revelations. To be honest, I would have expected nothing less from the demented scribe behind The Toxic Avenger IV (2000) and the dreamy, if no less disturbed, Deadgirl (2008).

Acting-wise, the film is grounded by its four leads, each of whom pulls an equal share of the weight. Healy, no stranger to genre fans thanks to performances in everything from Magnolia (1999) to The Innkeepers (2011) to Starry Eyes (2014) is fantastically balanced as the hapless Craig. In order for the film to work, we have to be 100% on Craig’s side, even as the situation gradually degrades from “awkward” to “awful”: if we stop supporting him too early, we lose any moral compass that the film might possess. It’s to Healy’s immense credit that we always buy what Craig is selling: this isn’t just an effortless performance, this is an actor actually “becoming” their character and, as always, it’s a real treat to watch. Suffice to say that once Healy really gets to cut loose, in the film’s final third, it’s the absolute best release to the built-up tension possible.

As Craig’s foil, Vince could have been one of those eternally reprehensible characters who practically demands a comeuppance: think of the hateful jock assholes who are always first on the firing line in any good slasher. Thanks to Embry’s all-in performance, however, Vince comes across as much more complex and fully rounded than he might have seemed on paper. Makes no bones about it: Vince isn’t anyone’s definition of a “nice guy.” Like Craig, however, he is a pathetically desperate individual and, agree with his tactics or not, it’s hard for us to not, at the very least, empathize with (some of) his choices. Vince is a battered, broken person and he holds on to only truism, clutching it as tight as possible: money makes the world run and if you don’t have any, you just don’t exist. Embry, who was so good in the recent Late Phases (2013), has experienced the same kind of genre career resurgence that Elijah Wood has: let’s hope he keeps striking while the iron is sizzling.

Meanwhile, Sara Paxton (who also did time with Healy in Ti West’s The Innkeepers) and David Koechner (who is, perhaps, the living embodiment of “Oh, hey: that guy!) are pitch-perfect as the jaded, sinister rich couple. While Paxton spends much of the film staring at her smart phone with enough ennui to choke Sofia Coppola, she’s also responsible for some of the film’s most unsubtle, uncomfortable scenes. Her timing is perfect: the part where she blandly asks Craig if he wants her to email him photos of the night is superb, as is the one where she nonchalantly suggests that fucking her will, in fact, make him feel better. Although she never gets as much to do as Koechner, Paxton is a vital component to everything and her interplay with her on-screen husband is pretty flawless.

For his part, Koechner balances the smarmy and sinister sides of Colin with uncanny ease: from scene to scene, it’s all but impossible to predict which way his temperament will go, which produces an absolutely essential sense of sustained tension. Colin is a filthy rich vulgarian, unlike Comb’s refined aristocrat from Would You Rather: he’s the living embodiment of the trashy “nouveau riche,” the start-up millionaire who makes up for lost time by throwing money at anything that moves. Alternately goofy, charismatic, slovenly and whip-smart, Colin is a helluva character and Koechner brings him to brilliant, roaring life.

From beginning to end, Cheap Thrills is exceptionally well-made: Andrew Wheeler and Sebastian Wintero Hansen’s cinematography is consistently warm and well-composed, while Mads Heldtberg, who also did the flat-out excellent score for You’re Next (2011), manages to avoid telegraphing anything…no stingers or musical jump scares here, folks. Throughout it all, Katz displays an absolute deft touch, whether it’s through his ability to draw out the tension, the exacting interplay of the performers or the way in which he makes the most of claustrophobic locations like Colin and Violet’s living room. Most importantly, Katz is able to execute all of the film’s major setpieces (none of which I would dream of spoiling) without a hitch: like puppets on a string, Katz hauls us from one shocker to the next.

While there’s a lot to love in Cheap Thrills, the film is, undoubtedly, a pretty nasty piece of work: emotionally similar to the aforementioned Funny Games, Cheap Thrills couches its essential nihilism in some fancy duds but it’s still nihilism, none the less. I’m willing to wager that many folks (the same folks who had similar issues with 13 Sins and Would You Rather, naturally) will find this proximity to utter desperation to be both wearying and the dictionary definition of a “bummer.” For those who either find themselves slipping through the cracks or know someone who has, however, Cheap Thrills might just be one of the more perfect depictions of our modern malaise.

At the end of the day, I’m sure it would comfort us all to know that we could, heartily and without reservation, tell people like Colin and Violet to take their money and shove it where the sun will never shine. The true horror of Cheap Thrills, of course, is that none of us will ever really be sure until we actually have to make that choice. At the end of the day, Katz’s film asks a very simple question: what would you do for the money, honey? In our brave new world, you might not like the answer.

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