I was bummed close to midnight of the opening night of SXSW. I had just sat through the debacle that was the Evil Dead remake (I refuse to use Fede Alvarez’s pet phrase “re-birth”). Granted, I was fortunate enough to watch the masterful Bruce Campbell completely steal the show from his ED contemporary thespians during an extra long-running Q&A. After that was E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills, starring the adorable duo from Ti West’s The Innkeepers, Patrick Healy and Sara Paxton.
And I’m definitely glad I made time for it.
Cheap Thrills is the antithesis of the Evil Dead remake. First, it’s all about the characters. Second, what minimal special effects exist in the film far outshine those of their big budget counterpart for one simple reason — you give a fuck about the characters. Copious gallons of Karo syrup pale in comparison to the intensity on display in Cheap Thrills because everyone involved has insisted that you make an emotional investment into each one of the characters, even if they are despicable. Third, Cheap Thrills makes you think about the horrendous choices we would all be willing (or not willing) to make to provide for our families. Evil Dead inspires you to cheer a raping tree.
Here’s the set up. Healy plays Craig, a nice guy with a beautiful wife (Red White & Blue‘s Amanda Fuller) and a new baby. On this particular day, however, Craig’s seemingly perfect life hits the skids in a big way. First, as he heads out to work he finds an eviction notice taped to his apartment door that informs him he only has seven days to pay his back rent. Second, Craig loses his job at an oil change shop, but instead of heading home to his wife and child, Craig opts for the nearby watering hole. As he attempts to figure out how to tell his wife about his devastating misfortune, he runs into an old high school acquaintance, Vince (Ethan Embrey), who, though jovial and ready for a good time, is also down on his luck and seems to have been involved in some unsavory business. Vince thinks Craig is living the dream. Eventually, Craig breaks down and tells Vince about his series of unfortunate events. Suddenly, the two are a pair again.
Meanwhile, back in the corner of the dimly lit bar, a beautiful, mysterious blonde woman named Violet (Paxton) snaps smartphone photos of the boys downing shots of booze. They are intrigued by her undeniable beauty. This opens the door for Violet’s husband, Colin (David Koechner), to entertain the two young men. His idea of a fun time is throwing around hundred dollar bills for whomever will debase himself or other patrons in the bar. These exchanges border on the riotous and the film begins to resemble a dingier The Hangover. Well, at least the good parts (AKA the debauchery) of that film.
The deeper we head into the movie, however, the darker and more twisted Colin’s bets become. Without giving anything else away, the night turns into day and the depths that Craig and Vince are willing to descend to earn money for their families (or themselves) is harrowing, yet all too believable.
This is the kind of horror that I prefer. Soul-wrenching, honest brutality is so much more effective than the freakin’ jump scares and loud soundtrack booms that permeate the Evil Dead remake. And the reason the brutality in Cheap Thrills truly effects the viewer, even though it is not even in the same ballpark gore-wise, is because of four diverse characters who are completely likable, even in their most despicable moments. Indeed, you want to hang out with these characters, even if for only one night. And when they feel pain, you feel pain.
Cheap Thrills is the film that should be gracing 2,500 screens this spring, not Evil Dead. The reason why is simple — its horrors are all too real and not some over-hyped fabrication of noise, blood, and demon-eyed contact lenses. It’s horrific because it puts you, the viewer, into a potential compromising situation where you are not quite sure just how far you would go to survive. Or, are you the one pulling the puppet strings and eager to see humans suffer for your own personal enjoyment? Whichever role as a viewer you subscribe to, or as a human being, you will experience more than just a simple vicarious thrill. You will question much of your inner core. That is the furthest thing from a cheap thrill one can experience in a movie.
*Stay tuned for interviews with director E.L. Katz and stars Pat Healy and Sara Paxton.
Corey Mitchell writes best-selling true crime books, watches and writes about horror movies, and listens to and writes about heavy metal. He is also the co-founder and director of the Housecore Horror Film Festival and co-author of Philip Anselmo’s upcoming autobiography.