Cheap Thrills is a debut film for director E.L. Katz, who had previously written several of Adam Wingards films Home Sick (2007), Pop Skull (2007) and What Fun We Were Having (2011), as well as Adam Gieraschs Autopsy (2008). As has been observed elsewhere, much of 2010s genre filmmaking seems to have become a boys club dominated by a number of directors who collaborate closely together. Katz is an aspirant director among the group aside from his work writing for Adam Wingard, Katz has borrowed the two leads, Pat Healy and Sara Paxton, from Ti Wests The Innkeepers (2011). (Both Wingard and West core boys club members are thanked on the end credits). As a result of Cheap Thrills, Katz was selected to direct the A is for Amateur segment of ABCs of Death 2 (2014), another boys club gathering place of these directors.
As with many of these directors horror films, the directors like to push an audiences buttons and take things way over taboo lines. Cheap Thrills has that same kind of buzz to it. E.L. Katz crafts the film reasonably well for a first time director. The dialogue is naturalistic and he gets fantastic performances from all four of the principals Pat Healys milquetoast husband, Ethan Embrys rough-at-the-edges ex-con who reeks with a whiff of desperation not far beneath the surface and especially a wonderfully entertaining and gregarious performance from David Koechner, previously known as a stand-up comic and for bit parts in films that have given his face has an instant recognisability quotient even if you cant quite put a name to it.
On the other hand, you keep thinking that Cheap Thrills is a film that wants to dare us to see how far across taboo lines it will go but seems awfully tame about doing so. A perfect example is the visit to a strip bar where the strippers get no more undressed than their bikinis, which only leaves you thinking how restrained this is for a film that sets out to challenge taboos. This feeling continues as we watch Pat Healy and Ethan Embry breaking into a house to shit on the floor and you only think how a real balls-to-the-wall horror would have actually shown the act with no detail spared rather than bare butts squatting but cutting away before showing anything more. This is particular evident when it comes to the scene where married Pat Healy is bet $4500 to have sex with Sara Paxton. It is a scene where you can see Healy uncomfortably squirming at the proposition only for E.L Katz to then blow the scene. Healy is left lying on the floor while a completely clothed Sara Paxton rides him where it looks more like a ridiculous case of female-on-male rape it surely would have been a far more uncomfortable a scene if we had seen his anguish at having to get in the drivers seat and climb on top of her. Not to mention that it promptly becomes one of the least convincing sex scenes ever directed with Healy, Paxton and David Koechner masturbating on the sideline all managing to achieve orgasm at precisely the same time.
Nevertheless, despite ones initial misgivings, E.L. Katz soon goes for broke. The scene with the two men bidding over who will chop off their pinkie finger and the eventual playing out of the act is one of the most grotesquely funny scenes that one has sat through this year. This is capped a few minutes later by the nauseating scene where they are served up microwaved dog and compete to eat it, a scene that should not be watched on a full stomach. This too comes with rich lashings of black humour, all the more so when it comes to the tie-breaker. It is here that Cheap Thrills finally starts to become the film it promises to be at the outset and E.L. Katz delivers the darkly menacing, taboo-breaking film we expect of him.