What would you do for $250,000? Such provocative questions have invited much scope for fun and psychological interest in the genre, as human morals are measured and tested against the want for financial reward. Would You Rather? is one of the recent ventures to have hopped aboard this concept and here, in his directorial debut, E.L. Katz examines this dark theme in this black comedy horror.
When middle-aged new father Craig wakes up one morning to find an eviction notice stapled to his door and is let go from his job later that day, he hits a dead end. His financial worries for his wife and newborn are unfaceable as he watches the weight of the world sit unfairly on his shoulders from a tacky bar down town. So when he bumps into an old friend who starts getting friendly with rich couple Colin and Violet, Craig wilfully joins in and thinks he’s struck gold when the couple start giving them money to down their shots. But things turn violent and start reaching absurd extremities when the ‘game’ is resumed at their mansion and money begins to be bet in its thousands.
The one night that comprises the plot’s framework starts out like a more mature Hangover with drinking dares, goofy behaviour and laddish bets eliciting random boozy intimacy. Though this provokes a few sleazy sniggers, its familiarity will cause a few to sneer at its tediousness. But the interest is quick to pick up when the tipsy trio and an unconscious Craig head back to the mansion, and when its initial turning point sees a domineering Vince persuade Craig to turn the tables and put the power in their hands. From then onwards the situation walks an intriguing line and this soon to be overused concept heads down a more ambitious and fulfilling path. Friendships are tested and the primal desperation for money takes a back seat to competition, greediness and revenge. Personalities unravel and switch places, while the point of no return fades into the bleak distance as the two friends battle it out for Colin’s cash.
Exactly what it says on the tin, the cheap thrills are plentiful with its sheer, trenchant brutality (some that deserve a ‘don’t try this at home’ forewarning label), while its contrasting overt dark undertones are well handled to bring more depth and substance to the predicament of Katz’s characters. The theory that ‘money makes people do mad things, just as people do mad things for money’ couldn’t be better envisaged, as Katz gives Cheap Thrills the edge by interestingly perceiving both angles from the rich and powerful members of society to the working class. Katz really knows how to throw an unconventional party and it’s certainly one you wouldn’t decline an invitation for a back row seat. But even when things get out of hand and the party really peaks, the decisions of every character retain their reasonability and we stay surprised at their next move again and again.
Healy (The Innkeepers, Compliance) really does shine as a family man in despair that pushes his own limits to the point of frenzy, while Embry makes for a satisfying mismatch for the underdog. Koechner tones down his characteristic brashness but is as eccentric and dominant as ever, as his manipulative character gets his kicks from destroying the lives of others. And, while Paxton has a more subtle role than she’s been used to in Last House in the Left (2009), The Innkeepers (2011) and, more recently, Static (2013), she plays her part as Colin’s spoilt, inconspicuously twisted trophy girlfriend.
Its hybridity of genres provides an entertaining and well-balanced flick, naturally playing off serious elements with a comic value – a trait which was no doubt an influence from his former involvement in the genre and working relationship with Adam Wingard (having written and produced Home Sick and co-written Pop Skull, among several other credits.) Toying with black humour and calamity until the bitter (and it’s a very bitter) end, the final scene ends it the only way it could have – with one cruel, inappropriate yet fitting chuckle.
VERDICT: A smart and damn right fun flick- a good time to be had by all. Having already been acquired to direct a segment of anthology ABCs of Death 2, which is set to be released next year, it wouldn’t be surprising if Katz became a household name in horror.