Cheap Thrills tells the story of Craig (Healey) a down on his luck writer, facing his family's eviction from their small apartment, due to financial problems. Things go from bad to worse when he shows up to his day job, changing oil at a local auto shop, only to be laid off. On his way home, he stops by a bar to drown his sorrows, when he runs into an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry). The two of them start to catch up, and eventually drink the day away. Later that night, they run into a wealthy, eccentric couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton) who are out celebrating. The couple begins to dare Craig and Vince to do small-time pranks, enticing them with monetary reward. Craig is at first reluctant, but knowing how bad he needs the money, eventually plays along. Throughout the night, the dares go from mostly innocent to downright sadistic, each time upping the ante and payoff, pushing the limits of just how far Craig and Vince are willing to go for the allure of the almighty dollar.
You may think you've seen this movie before, and while it's true Cheap Thrills tells the kind of story that's been done before, it sets itself apart a bit by asking not only how far you're willing to go for money, but just how much you're willing to do to a friend for it. I continually asked myself if I'd be willing to do these things to a friend, old or new, for the money being offered. It's in this that Cheap Thrills not only manages to engage ,but ultimately becomes fairly disturbing toward it's climax.
The cast all perform admirably, with a couple of standout performances. Sara Paxton and David Koechner are believably odd together, as wealthy people tend to be. Cheap Thrills centers though, around the relationship between Craig and Vince, and Pat Healey and Ethan Embry bring their A-game. The two of them work extremely well together and really make you believe that at one point these two characters were close friends. Ethan Embry (Can't Hardly Wait) was particularly good, so good in fact that I almost didn't recognize him.
Cheap Thrills wins points for attempting to differentiate itself by successfully adding a human element to a formula in which films either ignore or sadly miss the mark normally. It at times plays as a dark comedy, but it's got a mean streak that really shows during the third act. There's not much in the way of gore, but if you're looking for disturbing, there's some of that to be found here, particularly the very last shot. It stuck with me for a couple days. Director E.L. Katz may be making his debut here, but he's proven that he's got some chops already, and his name is one I fully expect to be hear a lot more of in the future. Cheap Thrills is a must see.