Fast-moving, gruesome, twisted, about-to-be cult thriller that underneath the horror may pack a violent satirical punch. If ever a film did what it says on the tin, it’s this.
Craig (well-known indie face Pat Healy from The Innkeepers) is struggling to support his wife and baby. He’s way behind with the rent and this is the morning he’s been given an eviction notice, so when he also loses his job, it’s the last straw. Drowning his sorrows in a bar, he bumps into an old schoolfriend, loser Vince (Ethan Embry, Gray’s Anatomy), whom he hasn’t seen for years. They’re contrasting characters – Craig, quiet and conventional; Vince, rootless, impulsive and prone to violence. But both need money urgently. Watching – and then targeting – them are a thrill-seeking couple with apparently limitless money to burn. Colin (David Koechner, more usually playing comedy in Anchorman II and Saturday Night Live) is obscenely rich, manic, charismatic, persuasive and calculating. His wife Violet (Sara Paxton, The Innkeepers, Shark Night) appears to be a blonde, beautiful dummy, but she’s also an observer – at first – silently taking pictures on her iPhone of the men’s disintegration over the course of the night.
On the pretext that it’s Violet’s birthday and to liven up the evening, Colin draws Craig and Vince into seemingly innocent games in return for money. First it’s easy – $30 to whoever downs the first shot. Then, for each dare, the stakes and the danger are raised until it’s $500 for whoever punches a strip club bouncer – but when he punches back, the screen goes black, and Craig wakes up to find they’re all back at Colin and Violet’s luxurious house, still partying. “If you never see us again, you’ll never forget this night,” Colin tells him ominously.
As they imbibe colossal quantities of expensive tequila and inhale generous lines of coke, the price tag for each challenge escalates. Colin pushes Craig and Vince – both of them desperate for the increasingly undreamed-of amounts of money he offers – to degrade themselves more and more. There’s an open safe spewing out wads of banknotes and Colin promises an eye-watering $250,000 to whoever wins what is, in effect, his sadistic real-life reality-TV gameshow played out in a domestic setting.
Greed – or maybe simply need – takes the two men over. Instead of just fighting their own consciences or their revulsion at the increasingly gross things they’re being manipulated to do, the former friends and allies now start competing against each other to win the cash. It’s not just a question of who will take up the challenge and get the money on offer, it’s also who will do it first to cut out the other one. In a horrible travesty of an auction, they underbid on the price of having a finger cut off, each willing to have it done more cheaply than the other, eventually beating Colin down from his starting offer of $25,000 to $15,000. And then it gets worse. The tasks get more exploitative, and they become more brutally violent towards each other, until, bloodied, battered, there’s only one dare left and only one of them can win the prize.
It’s as if the premise from Roald Dahl’s The Man From The South (how unbelievably tame that seems after seeing this) has been taken to the ultimate extreme. And like Tales Of The Unexpected, there’s an outrageous twist. But to get there you have to get through scenes of almost painfully unwatchable violence, shock-horror and degradation. Underneath, it’s a satire – or maybe morality tale – about how far people are willing to go for money. What would your price be? And perhaps, in some ways like Haneke’s Funny Games, it implicates us too, the audience, in being willing to watch others suffer for our entertainment. Or maybe it’s good cheap quickfire shock-horror genre thrills, appropriately well directed and well scripted, a potential cult classic, with some blacker than black humour thrown in. Either way, it’s pretty unforgettable.
Cheap Thrills is released on 6th June 2014 in the UK