Screens at CIFF: 10/15 & 10/17 & 10/20
World premiere: 8 March, 2013, South by Southwest

Winner of the Gold Hugo for Best After Dark Film

Any doubt that Cheap Thrills, E.L. Katz's directorial debut (after writing several screenplays director Adam Wingard, major player in the somewhat incestuous indie horror boom going on right now), would love to be thought of in the same breath as Michael Haneke's thriller-cum-moralistic lecture Funny Games are quite eradicated at the end, when the film's title card finally shows up. For it is not so much "similar to" but "a carbon copy of" the title card of the 1997 film, in a way that you'd have to be blind not to notice, unless you've never seen the older picture. And it's hard to imagine much of Cheap Thrills's target audience not having seen it, or at least its identical 2007 remake.

This isn't a complaint, mind you: merely an acknowledgement of what kind of sandbox the movie desires to play in, and a confirmation that the niggling feeling one gets throughout Katz's film that this is all very familiar is hardly an accident. As Funny Games knock-offs go, Cheap Thrills is actually quite a good one, with rather more to say and a rather more clever way of putting than Funny Games U.S. certainly. It's maybe a little... unyielding, let us say, in its pursuit of political satire, making a point once, then making it again, and again, and as we wait patiently for it to do anything else, it reaches the end of its 85 minutes without having ever gone farther than "the very rich regard the very poor as sub-human playthings, there to degrade themselves constantly for whatever insubstantial sums of money the very rich deem worthy".

In 2013, that's not at all a hard theme to agree with, and yet you don't see most movie scenarios go for such populism with such gusto as Trent Haaga & David Chirchirillo display here (aye, though Katz is an established screenwriter, he didn't write his own directorial debut. This seems strange, but I do in fact regard it as admirable, also). Or so viscerally. The particular subject of Cheap Thrills, you see, is a series of dares that start out kind of odd then become actively gross, then freakishly violent. The movie opens on the day that stressed-out sad sack Craig (Pat Healy) is fired from his crappy job in a garage and receives a seven-day notice that he and his family are about to be evicted from their crappy apartment. Looking to soak his miseries in a dive bar, he bumps into Vince (Ethan Embry), a high school friend he hasn't spoken to in five years, and their unbelievably awkward reunion is relieved by the invitation to join the table of a most odd couple indeed. Colin (David Koechner) is a fast talker, eager to flash huge wads of money all over to celebrate his far younger wife's birthday, and she, Violet (Sara Paxton) says close to nothing at all, but simply watches with a frighteningly keen intensity as her husband offers sums of $50 and $100 for the two unemployed men to do little embarrassing things: slap a waitress on her ass, for example.

The party soon retires to Colin and Violet's home (the biggest production lapse in the movie: that a couple rich enough to talk about $250,000 like it was beer money would live in a tastefully appointed but "only" upper-middle-class house), where the dares start to grow more, well, daring. Not in the ways you'd expect, necessarily - some of the best gags in the film come from Colin's appalled reactions to the other men's speculation that he wants them do go through the usual gross-out movie steps - but the longer the men stay in that house, the darker things get, the higher the sums become, and the more willing they are to dance like monkeys.

There's insight here: the fact that Craig and Vince become more greedy and resentful of each other the more money they win is spot-on, for one. And there's also a surprising amount of comedy, mostly owing to Koechner's impeccable timing at every stage and Paxton's great reaction shots. I do wonder - scratch that, I don't even wonder if the film isn't so eager to be shocking and outrageous that it starts to become a cavalcade of grotesqueries and freakishness (there's one moment in particular where the film irrevocably crosses the line into being just gross for the sake of it - it involves devouring meat, and I'll say no more), abandoning the nervy thrills that have made it an effective genre movie in favor of just punching the audience in the face until we're woozy. Which is about what happens with the satire, at that; it pulverises rather than insinuates.

That's certainly not the way I'd have preferred things to turn out, but for all its gaudiness and feel-bad gestures, Cheap Thrills works like gangbusters: it wants to get reactions, and it gets them (it was the first movie I've ever attended where an audience member had to rush out to be sick). Katz has a fine eye and a tremendous sense of pace, and the actors fall into an excellent rhythm early on that never stops until the last twisty joke. It could be more than what it is, sure, but even here, it's such a giddy blast of twisted, sick energy that it's hard not to admire how committed the filmmakers are to their nastiness and black humor.