A desperate man will do anything to save his family from eviction.
After lots of buzz generated by its SXSW screening last year and a particularly effective trailer I was eager to check out Cheap Thrills. Now I have.
It’s the directorial debut of horror writer and producer E.L. Katz and is all about the lengths a desperate family man (Pat Healy) will go to in order to save his family from poverty when a wealthy couple confront him and a friend to a series of escalating challenges.
The film relishes in the slow creep of tension, with light-hearted banter very slowly becoming something more sinister. This is its greatest asset, helping to sell the increasingly outlandish activities forced upon Healy and co-star Ethan Embry all the way up to an unsurprisingly violent finale.
And things do get gruesome, running the gamut from outright shocks to squirm-inducing moments and arguably going beyond to something altogether less palatable. It’s clear from the off that things are never heading in a pleasant direction but the level Katz takes things to might turn a few too many stomachs.
For those who persevere it certainly has its effective scenes – particularly one revolving around a potentially cash-winning digit – but there’s more to the film than mere gore. The central question of how far a person is willing to go for desperately-needed cash is far from unique but it’s explored comprehensively here while also escalating in ways that are generally quite believable.
As a first film, there’s plenty to admire on a technical level. The effects work is subtle but impressive and it’s all shot with an eye for vivid colour and composition which makes it look like a far more expensive endeavour.
And that sense of quality is helped by the performances – with the small cast really giving their all. Embry brings layers to his toughness and Sara Paxton is suitably null in the background while comic star David Koechner has the perfect mix of charm and simmering violence. But the movie belongs to Healy who manages to sell the descent of a decent man in a way that’s touching, believable and eventually horrifying.
Cheap Thrills has all the right elements in place – from a decent premise to strong performances and a gruesome element which will please hardy fans – but the final result isn’t quite as compelling as it might be. Katz excels at pacing individual scenes but can’t quite sustain the tension throughout the entire 88 minute running time. So it all ends up feeling oddly unsatisfying.
That said, horror sorts will find much to enjoy and Katz shows definite genre potential as a director.