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rochefort [Celluloid 03.19.13] thriller comic

Just about everybody has at some point or another been propositioned "I'll give you (insert some amount of money) to do (something bizarre, or most likely disgusting)", and it's a good life lesson, really; it teaches us the true value of money. I mean, what difference does it make if you have fifty extra dollars if you also have a fresh case of dysentery or a concussion? But, if you're a married man with a new baby, an unemployed wife and an eviction notice on your door, you perhaps can't afford to be as picky. "Cheap Thrills", the debut feature from director E. L. Katz, is a fantastic new comedic thriller that takes the idea of the disgusting dare to some pretty grueling extremes, and shows just how hard it is to make easy money.

Tight and minimal, the story follows Craig (a freakin' excellent Pat Healy), whose life as a poor, married man in a single income home would be bad enough, but today he's just lost his job as a mechanic and has no idea what to do next. He hits the local bar and runs into his old high school chum Vince (Ethan Embry), and the two of them compare notes as to just how different they've become over the last five years. Craig is so desperate at this point that he asks Vince, who hurts people for money, if there's an opening in his decidedly seedy line of work, but Vince tells him he's just not made of the right stuff. Enter Colin (David Koechner) and his wife Violet (Sara Paxton), a couple so rich that they bet on just about everything, and when they invite Craig and Vince to hang with them immediately offer them money to slam shots. When the four of them retire to Colin's apartment to keep the party going, the dares steadily escalate, going from funny to creepy to lethal.

This is one of those movies that's put together so well, written so tightly, that a reviewer has to make every effort to pimp the achievement while remaining spoiler-free, and with a pic like this the surprises really do help to make the movie. Contained and very much like a stage play in scope, "Thrills" stakes everything on two key elements, its plot and the cast, and both are phenomenal. All four leads are recognizable faces, perhaps comedian Koechner most of all, and the script gives them a chance to both play to their strengths and really stretch their dramatic legs.

Healy, a character actor who can do the put-upon everyman like nobody's business, has started to really pick up some accolades since his work in "The Innkeepers" along with co-star Paxton, and the two of them end up in vastly different territory this time, Paxton in particular clearly relishing the chance to play an aloof vamp. Embry, who really impressed me as the tortured cop in "Brotherhood", is so effective as a scary good ole boy that it actually took quite a few minutes to recognize him, and I hope he continues to explore much darker material from here on out as he's got a knack for it that I never could have predicted. And Koechner, holy crap. While his role as the boisterous ringmaster gives him plenty of opportunities to goof off much like he does in pretty much every Will Ferrell movie, there's a sinister undercurrent, a sociopathic streak that makes this one of his most memorable roles to date. Everybody's really turning on the darkness with this one, and there's not a weak link in the bunch.

Essentially a two-location show, "Cheap Thrills" channels the kind of energy that distinguishes such stage-to-screen adaptations as "Wait Until Dark" and "Deathtrap", and like those films milks its premise by steadily ratcheting up the stakes and tension. "Thrills" is an original work, as far as I know, and it would be really interesting to see a stage version result; it's that good, and could be an annual showcase for a new roster of actors ready to show their stuff.

Most of all, Cheap Thrills is exactly the sort of film that film festivals crave, a low-budget gem that turns its limitations into assets and tells its story so well that we can remember almost every moment, but still want to see it again. A dark, canny little b-movie masterpiece.

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