Fantastic Fest 2013 Review: Cheap Thrills

With a grindhouse title like Cheap Thrills, Cheap Thrills delivers the goods by exploiting its characters in fun and provocative ways. I may be such a tough bastard that I wasn’t phased by some of the more extreme moments, and I even saw a few of the surprises coming, but I still appreciate the craft of building the drama and taking it to the end.

Craig (Pat Healy) and Vince (Ethan Embry) are desperate for money, so when rich couple Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton) pay them for completing dares, they go further and further humiliating themselves for money. The story never goes beyond the surface of desperation, but to be fair, the film promises it won’t get deeper. It is called Cheap Thrills.

First of all, it is nice to see Pat Healy get a leading role. Secondly, it is nice to see David Koechner get a menacing role, and one where he’s not “on” playing a goofy character. Those are great too, but I’m always rooting for comedians to get to show their range. Paxton has never quite had a femme fatale role like this before either, so props to Cheap Thrills for giving some actors a vehicle.

The debut film from director E.L. Katz creates a steady build-up for the dares. As soon as we hear Colin’s silly bar bets, we probably know he’s building towards something more extreme. Once they go to Colin’s house, we get into the somewhat standard temptations. adultery, vandalism, theft, and humiliation. It is entirely believable that Craig and Vince would take each step the deeper they get, rather than throw them off the deep end right away. I’m glad it doesn’t delve too far into analyzing the dehumanization of the games because that would be pretentious. This is cheap thrills. It’s about simple one-upsmanship.

Maybe I am a little twisted that I was ahead of some of the games. I’ve seen so much that I could see where each game is going, and what possible wrench Vince can throw at Craig or vice versa. A big set piece is the same bet from Tarantino’s Four Rooms segment, and that in turn was a lift from something else. I had also seen Would You Rather already and I can’t unsee that. I liked the way Would You Rather manipulated the game a little more and was more surprised by their twists, but I have to take Cheap Thrills as it comes. I don’t think it matters if you’ve seen Would You Rather or not, but full disclosure: I couldn’t help thinking about it.

Cheap Thrills is a crowd pleaser, taking delight in the gory details of each game. I mean literally, it’s great to see with a crowd so you can hear everybody go, “Ohhhhhhh!” The characterizations are good, and I really like how Colin has more moral lines than his guests. I might have been onto the games and the twists but I’m a tough crowd for Cheap Thrills. Maybe I’m a candidate for Cheaper Thrills, Cheap Thrills 3D or Cheap Thrills in Space.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.