Why You Need to Select the Perfect Theater to Enjoy the Bloody Mayhem of ‘Cheap Thrills’

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Why You Need to Select the Perfect Theater to Enjoy the Bloody Mayhem of 'Cheap Thrills’

It’s so much better than video on demand. 

By Matt Patches

Because we live in the future where movies pre-empt their releases by popping up on Time Warner Cable or Comcast's “On Demand” platforms, I, like many others, was able to watch Cheap Thrills from the comfort of my own home. I regret the decision.

Cheap Thrills is the aggressive, provocative, and wickedly comic debut from E.L. Katz, a writer-producer who made a name for himself with genre-bending films like Autopsy, A Horrible Way to Die, and The Aggression Scale. The film spirals a simple idea into every imaginable direction: After reuniting by happenstance at a bar, strapped-for-cash family man Craig (Pat Healy) and townie burnout Vince (Ethan Embry) find themselves competing for cash in a series of ridiculous, violent stunts orchestrated by married couple Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton). It's Violet's birthday, and all she wants from Colin is to watch two grown men destroy themselves in a fit of greed. Colin's happy to oblige, starting small (whoever kicks back a shot of tequila first wins!) and escalating to horrific extremes (how much would it cost for you to cut off your pinky finger?).

And that's really it. Katz methodically plots each turn, slowly cranking up the dial to make each dare more and more excruciating and irresistible. The audience is part of the game. Would you do this? Would you do that? 

There's a chance of checking out of Cheap Thrills. If one's tolerance for twisted torture is low, a scene where Craig takes a dump on Colin's neighbor's kitchen floor will be an early breaking point. If you're watching Katz's film at home, which expands from Cable VOD to iTunes, Amazon, YouTube and the like on March 21, someone with a distaste for the madness can easily walk away. Or worse, half-watch while futzing on a laptop, not considering the film until the screeching screams of the two lead characters demands attention. VOD allows us to enjoy movies without the risk of an awful theatrical experience. It also discourages what I think makes a movie like Cheap Thrills work: A rowdy, carefree, drunk-off-their-ass audience ready to gaze upon humanity's dark side.

A movie is shaped by its audience. If the first time you saw Eternal Sunshine was alone, weeks after a traumatic breakup, it's going to play a little differently than Thursday night after work with a crowd of 20 local cinephiles. I thank my lucky stars I saw The Sixth Sense opening weekend in a packed house — you weren't hearing gasps like that months later on home video, no matter who was watching it for the first time. Likewise, Cheap Thrills is a film that demands community. 

I felt a void watching the movie at home with my girlfriend; the thriller/psychological horror/comedy/whatever-the-hell-this-beast-can-be-called blew the minds of audiences at the 2013 South by Southwest. Festivals nurture collective enthusiasm – it's easy to imagine Cheap Thrills' sick sense of humor shocking one audience member and the rest fell like dominoes. The fact that SXSW's theaters serve up beer with their premieres didn't hurt. Cheap Thrills played games with their expectations. “Maybe the stranger to my right would punch me in the nose for $100?” That's an exhilarating notion. Rave SXSW reviews emerged from folks with a whetted appetite for “anything goes” entertainment. A night in watching the latest VOD rental has a decidedly different atmosphere.

Consumers and culture critics alike have signaled the death knell of the theatrical experience. “Why go to the theater when there’s VOD/Netflix/iTunes/bit torrent/bootleg copies you bought on the subway?” entertainment philosophers ponder. What's missing is a proactive consideration for the movie theaters in a given area. There are great ones in every town — even if that means an hour drive. Cheap Thrills is the movie you travel for. Independent theaters or chains that see movie-going as an experience (Landmark, Alamo Drafthouse) foster crowds ready to hand themselves over to the provocations of  Katz's demented dare movie. If it's playing a midnight screenings, the percent chance of an enjoyably raucous crowd skyrocket. Hell, it's possible to pull-off at home: A horde of friends, a few six-packs, enough pillows — seriously, when was the last time you had movie night?

Cheap Thrills isn't high art, nor is it a movie everyone can stomach. But it's a ride worth taking, and one I'm looking forward to taking again with unsuspecting comrades. 

Image via Film School Rejects