Combustible Celluloid
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With: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner, Amanda Fuller
Written by: Trent Haaga, David Chirchirillo
Directed by: E.L. Katz
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 88
Date: 03/28/2014

Cheap Thrills (2014)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Dare Weather

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The first thing I noticed about Cheap Thrills is that it features the two stars of The Innkeepers, Sara Paxton and Pat Healy, which is my favorite horror movie of the last five years. Then I noticed that director E.L. Katz is also somehow connected to Innkeepers director Ti West, in that West officially thanked Katz in the credits of his Trigger Man and The House of the Devil. (Apparently Katz was a journalist specializing in horror films; perhaps he gave West some early buzz?) So of course I wanted to see what Cheap Thrills was all about.

I was even more encouraged to discover that it's one of those movies that takes place over the course of one night. I prefer these stories to stories that are set over the course of years; the stretch of just a night seems better suited to the rhythms of cinema. Cheap Thrills is not a horror movie, but it's definitely an exploitation movie. In the 1970s, it could have been shown in a grindhouse theater to pleased patrons.

Healy stars as Craig, a nice guy who is married with a child. The first few minutes establishes his money troubles. His wife gently nudges him about asking for a raise at work. He opens his wallet to give her gas money, and it's rather empty in there. On the way out, he finds an eviction notice on his front door. Then, at work, the boss calls him into the office, which can only be a bad thing.

Understandably, Craig goes to a bar, where he runs into an old high school skateboarding buddy, Vince (Ethan Embry). Vince is a high school dropout, but is more confident and outgoing than Craig. They share an awkward drink and Craig goes to the bathroom. When he returns, Vince has joined a table with a couple, Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Paxton).

Colin is quite wealthy and begins throwing money around. Before long he begins daring the two regular guys to do ridiculous things -- such as trying to get a woman at the bar to slap them -- for money. When they are thrown out of a club, Craig gets $500 for punching the bouncer, which results in him getting punched back and sporting a bloody face for the rest of the movie.

Eventually the quartet returns to Violet's place, which is just one of several homes owned by Colin. It's decorated with pictures of naked women, and amply supplied with booze -- including a $10,000 bottle of tequila -- and drugs. The dares slowly escalate. Craig and Vince begin competing with one another for the cash, and begin to get dirty about it. Eventually they learn that Colin has earmarked $250,000 for this game. But what will the men have to do to get it?

Katz keeps all this going with a confident touch, keeping information out of reach to heighten the mystery and the suspense, staying true to the characters, and using the space and time limit for maximum effect. He also keeps it light and fun, despite the grim, gory nature of the material; another director would have made this a depressing slog. But the movie's greatest strength is in its subtle examination of manhood as related to money. Craig must provide for his family, while Vince is a loner who sleeps around. Craig is also the less confident of the two, and so he has more to prove.

Many of the tests have the effect of reducing the two men to animalistic acts, negating their manhood. Meanwhile, Colin -- who is no more "manly" than the other two -- thanks to his money, gets to be a fully-formed man, capable of winning a beautiful bride and of providing for her. He gets to watch and stay clean throughout these dirty proceedings.

The question remains: even if Craig earns money for his family, does it matter how? Is the money tainted, or is his honor tainted, because he lowered himself to animal levels to earn money? Does he still get to play the role of provider for his wife? And, what about issues of empathy and brotherhood in this battle for dominance? The final shot is wonderfully ambiguous, and it proves that Katz -- whose first feature this is -- has a future in exciting, challenging "B" films.

Draft House released a cool new Blu-ray edition with a commentary track by director E.L. Katz and Pat Healy. There's a 40-minute making-of documentary that appears to be mostly talking heads, but many of them are casual and filmed on set, rather than in a studio. We also get a series of real-life "cheap thrills" at Fantastic Fest, and a whole bunch of trailers. The original movie has a grainy, low-budget quality, and the Blu-ray doesn't really show it off to brilliant effect, but if the movie catches on in a cult movie way, fans will want to have the top-shelf release.

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