Writers: David Chirchillo, Trent Haaga
Cast: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, Sara Paxton
Running time: 88mins
The lowdown: With thrills to die for, there’s nothing cheap about this viciously entertaining chiller. Debuting director E.L. Katz and writers Dave Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga have concocted a riveting endurance marathon which pits two old school friends against each in a gruelling game of cash prize one-upmanship. Imagine I’m A Celebrity but with more dismemberment for a hint of what’s in store, and despite the presence of Anchorman’s Dave Koechner as the sadistic ringleader the laughs here are frequently replaced with gasps of shock. Funny Games for the recession generation.
The full verdict: Home invasion films are a cornerstone of horror cinema. Largely locked down to a single location with a modest sized cast they are cheap to make and tap into that primal fear of the big, bad world beating down your front door.
Must see home invasion movies include Funny Games, Inside, Panic Room, Cherry Tree Lane, You’re Next and Straw Dogs.
Cheap Thrills proudly shoves its way onto the list with the killer twist that here the hapless protagonists willingly enter the psychos’ lair, ignoring opportunities to flee even as home invasion regulars humiliation, torture and savagery predictably go into overdrive.
And the reason for this? Money, naturally. Cheap Thrills is credit crunch horror and a (slightly) exaggerated spin on a tradition of reality TV that demands debasement for a fleeting taste of the good life.
Pat Healy (who previously appeared with co-star Paxton in spooky gem The Innkeepers), gives a breakout performance as Craig, a failed writer who loses his minimum wage garage job the same day an eviction notice is slapped on his cramped apartment door.
Unable to face his wife and baby, Craig seeks solace in a local bar, bumping into school friend Vince (Embry, wounded and dangerous). Numerous tequilas later they hook up with Colin and Violet (Koechner and Paxton, flamboyant and lethal), a bizarro couple garishly splashing wads of cash, happily coughing up large sums if Craig and Vince pull inane pranks.
Invited back to the couple’s swanky house in the hills, the dares become darker and more violent as Craig and Vince turn on themselves and each other for an ever-growing jackpot.
Fans of extreme cinema rest assured Cheap Thrills provides plenty of onscreen mayhem to justify the entrance fee, including an expertly played scene of dismemberment that echoes Pulp Fiction’s adrenalin shot to the heart set piece.
But, what gives the blood-spattered finale its punch to the nose is a script that allows for breathers between the infidelity, escalating violence and fecal vandalism to peel back the secrets and regrets (as well as a stagnated economy) that drives Craig and Vince onwards.
The climax is devastating but fully earned while a killer final shot channels Funny Games, Evil Dead II and John Woo’s Hard Boiled and will most likely grace t-shirts at horror film festivals the world over.