What would you do for $500? For $15,000? For $250,000? That's the engine behind "Cheap Thrills," which begins as a simple "guy walks into a bar" story and snowballs into a mind-blowing little horror show.
Directed with screw-tightening efficiency by E.L. Katz, from a savvy, wildly twisted script by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo, this nervy morality tale finds cautious, financially strapped family man Craig (Pat Healy) running into a former high school friend, the sketchy Vince (Ethan Embry), at a local watering hole on one of those dark nights of the soul.
Here, Craig and Vince are befriended by brash party guy Colin (David Koechner), who's celebrating his sexy young wife Violet's (Sara Paxton) birthday. In short order, the cocaine- and tequila-fueled Colin is daring Craig and Vince to do some minor pranks for major money — and the games begin.
The quartet moves on to a strip club and then to Colin and Violet's upscale home, where the dares — and the stakes — exponentially escalate (in ultra-gruesome, at times unwatchable fashion), until a hair-raising point of no return.
Intriguingly, Craig and Vince relitigate past differences as Colin pits them against each other for life-changing financial gain. Too bad a similar unraveling doesn't play out between Colin and Violet, whom we learn little about save that they're clearly a pair of rich, sadistic freaks.
If the way things wind up for Craig and Vince is perhaps inevitable, how they get there is not. As for the movie's audacious final shot, it's nothing short of iconic.
Healy and Embry commit to their enervating roles with a heady mix of desperation and gusto, while Koechner is cleverly modulated as the evening's madman emcee. But Paxton, as the complicit yet impassive Violet, remains mostly a shiny accessory.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
Playing: At the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, Los Angeles.