Cast: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner
Director E. L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills is an incredibly timely and unexpectedly thrilling dark comedy which goes to places that you never expect. An astute and wicked journey, it’s shot with a keen eye for the absurd and the grotesque.
The script by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga centres on a family man named Craig (Pat Healy putting in an exceptional performance). On the day Craig finds an eviction notice on his front door, and is determined to ask for a raise at work in order to cover his family’s costs, he finds himself made redundant. Desolate and desperate, he goes to a bar to have a drink as he can’t bring himself to face his wife and their newborn child. By luck, he runs into his old friend Vince (Ethan Embry on top form). They are soon approached by a strange couple who buys them a round of drinks – Colin and Violet who are out celebrating Violet’s birthday. Over an increasingly strange night, the two will put Craig and Vince through a series of dares that will test the friends’ desperate need for money with progressively odder challenges.
Fitting snugly within the current social climate, Cheap Thrills acts as both social commentary and black comedy without ever becoming preachy. The tight set-up allows Katz to pile on the tension as the evening keeps taking ever stranger turns, and because the characters are so well defined, he’s able to elicit responses from the audience that otherwise would not be possible.
The opposing characters of Craig and Vince create a tension throughout the night that undoubtedly plays with the moral expectations of the audience: while the two start off as fairly wide archetypes, the script throws in hints throughout the film to suggest that the moral core of these characters might not be what the audience expects. Craig’s role as a failed author is reminiscent of James Mason’s hidden personality in Bigger Than Life; the blame may be attributed to the experimental drugs his character is given, there is the cruel suggestion that all the drugs have done is release some subconscious personality traits. Vince, on the other hand, might start the film of as typical alpha male but grows at the film goes along, becoming much more interesting.
Although Sara Paxton’s Violet is largely silent throughout the movie, letting the fast-talking, charmer with a glint in his eye Colin (played by David Koechner) dominate, she still manages to bring a depth to the character which builds throughout. Through gestures, looks and lines delivered with sly knowing, it’s obvious that Violet is as involved and in control as Colin – never an unwilling participant or forced audience member but both manipulator and thrill-seeker.
The dares within the film work well – rather than being gross and grotesque for the sake of shocking the audience, each one fits within the frame of the story in pushing our duo further into weird moral territory. There is a moment in the second act on which hangs a very delicate balance and it’s to the credit of the four leads that this climax works rather than playing out as cheap and sleazy.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of the evening comes from watching the tight, taut script handled with such expertise by Katz. What could have been a straight thriller or just a mumble-core drama straddles a razor sharp line between satire, black comedy and thriller building up to a climax and a final image that will be impossible for the audience to get out of their heads.
An incredible achievement, Cheap Thrills is the sort of film that makes you want to applaud as soon as it ends – filled with great lines, terrific acting and the sort of cheap thrills you never thought you’d see , it is a must for anyone with a penchant for the darker side of cinema.
Writers: Dennis Paoli, William Norris, Stuart Gordon
Based on thestory by: H.P. Lovecraft
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale
Being an impressionable teenager with a love of horror movies during the 80s was a glorious thing; VHS had revolutionized the consumption of and access to films, leading to an explosion of genre filmmaking that pushed the envelope in terms of graphic gore, nudity and outré laughs, which adolescents such as myself lapped up on a daily basis. While 70s horror had been brutish, nasty and, largely, grimly realistic, 80s horror, fittingly for a decade synonymous with gaudy excess, revelled in slapstick terror, outlandish amounts of adrenaline-fuelled, blood-splattered violence. The likes of The Evil Dead, The Return of the Living Dead, Basket Case, Bad Taste and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator all injected an energy, dark wit and invention into the genre that the more conventional slashers of the era sorely lacked.
In addition to the DVD limited edition and two-disc Blu-ray steelbook, Re-Animator is also available to download from 19 May and via VOD from 26 May 2014.
Gordon’s movie also breathed new life, excuse the pun, into the work of H. P. Lovecraft. The director’s loose, successful adaptation of Lovecraft’s serialized short story from 1922, ‘Herbert West–Reanimator’, led to a subsequent raft of generally forgettable movies based on the novels and short stories of the American author, who died in poverty before posthumously coming to be regarded as a seminal figure in the evolution of horror fiction. Since Re-Animator’s release almost 30 (!) years ago, Gordon himself went on to direct four more Lovecraft adaptations (with varying degrees of success): From Beyond, Castle Freak, Dagon and Dreams in the Witch-House, the latter as part of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series.
Having revisited Re-Animator for the first time in many years, I’m glad to say that it still pushes all the right buttons and remains a hugely entertaining, frequently outrageous riot, from its scene-setting pre-credit sequence to its final shot of the lurid, green reagent being injected into a lifeless corpse. The gorgeous opening credits (kaleidoscopic neon diagrams of the human body) and Richard Band’s upbeat soundtrack, variously described as ‘inspired by’ or ‘ripped off from’ Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho, aligned with the cast’s fully committed performances and Gordon’s evident who-gives-a-shit sense of fun, make Re-Animator an absolute blast to watch. In a performance that made him a cast-iron fan favourite, Jeffrey Coombs memorably stars as Herbert West, the gifted, arrogant and driven medical student who has discovered a potion that can restore life to the recently deceased. As West’s Frankenstein-like experiments spiral out of control in ever more outrageous ways, Coombs is ably supported by Bruce Abbott as Dan, West’s straight-laced student colleague at the medical school they both attend; Barbara Crampton as Dan’s girlfriend Megan, daughter of the school’s dean; and the late David Gale as West’s vain nemesis, Dr Carl Hill.
Listen to Alex Fitch’s interview with Re-animator producer Brian Yuzna.
Gordon’s movie is a joyously anarchic experience, as funny as it is grisly. Dead cats, shotgun-blast victims, entrails, limbs with lives of their own and headless corpses wreak bloody havoc after being subjected to West’s reagent, the side effects of which make the reanimated dangerously violent. To say any more regarding the plot would spoil the fun for the uninitiated, but if decapitations, eviscerations and a censor-baiting sprinkling of reverse necrophilia are your thing, then Re-Animator is a film you really need to have in your collection. As with many other 80s horror movies, Re-Animator is also testament to the fact that CGI effects are a poor substitute for practical ones. The tangible, messy and ingenious effects on display here are far more entertaining to watch than any computer generated image ever could be.
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Gene Jones
Why would a Christian commune, dedicated to the creation of a Heaven on Earth in homage to the pacifist principles of Jesus Christ, require armed guards? As we discover during the creepy slow burn of Ti West‘s new thriller The Sacrament, the name of the game in Eden Parish is secrecy, which, as with all religious cults, is what keeps them powerful. Indoctrination, coercion, exploitation, deception and brainwashing are kind of helpful too. Patrick (Kentucker Audley), whose sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), has fallen in with the cult, journeys to an undisclosed island on foreign soil to investigate her whereabouts and wellbeing, accompanied by Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg), two pals/colleagues from a major online multimedia news outlet.
The Sacrament is released on DVD in the UK on 7 July 2014.
Armed only with cameras, the three men are initially freaked out by the surly and burly machine-gun-toting guards who guide them into the compound. But as they explore the inner workings of the camp – populated with those like Caroline who lost their way in the world through various addictions and were guided back to what appears to be a clean and green life – it begins to seem like Eden Parish is not without merit.
Ahead of its UK release, The Sacrament opens in cinemas across Canada via VSC (Video Services Corp) and in the USA via Magnet Releasing on 6 June 2014.
The silver lining, however, is just that. Tranquility in the parish is only skin deep. As they slowly begin to notice an alarming number of aberrations, they fear for their own lives as well as those of the people who are not quite fitting in with the extremist views of the charismatic cult leader, Father (Gene Jones). In addition to being charming, persuasive and highly intelligent, Father, an oft-cool-shades-adorned fleshy orator with definite fascist undertones, is a downright creep – a skillfully malevolent manipulator and exploiter.
This is one chilling, scary-ass movie that grabs you very early in the proceedings and doesn’t let up, steadily mounting in its intensity until a climax that will have you begging for mercy. There are no cheap shocks and the violence is always muted, roiling just below the surface. I doubt Mr West is a student of the late, great Val Lewton (most young contemporary filmmakers have yet to make his acquaintance), but if he is, I would not be surprised, and if he isn’t, he should be, since he still has a few tricks to learn from a real master. (God knows, Scorsese, Friedkin and many other greats continue to acknowledge their debt to Lewton.) With this film and his previous effort, the fun and scary paranormal thriller The Innkeepers, West is proving to be a potential master of finding chills, thrills and evil in dark, yet unlikely corners, and, like Lewton, his genre indulgences are so much more than the simple, but effective, narrative coat hangers on which he drapes his explorations of humanity.
One element doesn’t quite hold up in the movie: there are inconsistencies with respect to the film within the film – the documentary that the trio is making on Eden Parish. Most of the time, the sheer force of West’s fine direction carries us along, but occasionally, we’re ripped out of the proceedings by some of the intrusive title cards that remind us we’re watching a finished product that’s already gone viral. It occasionally takes us a bit of time to get back into the otherwise riveting trajectory of the tale. It also suggests that someone will escape the evil, though in fairness, we’re never sure who and just how many are getting out.
This is a bit of a drag, because the movie has a kind of paranoia-infused 70s sensibility that suggests we might be cascading into a completely hope-bereft conclusion. That we’re treated to a tiny taste of hope so early and so consistently doesn’t quite fit the form. I even wondered if, at any point during the post-production process, West and his team tried to mute the film-within-the-film stuff, toss the title cards and use the actions of the characters and the more obvious doc-styled footage ‘naturally’ within the narrative, rather than the manner in which they are employed. Part of me thinks, based upon the coverage that appears on screen, that this might have been a worthy pursuit. Then again, I wasn’t sitting in the fucking edit suite, so what the fuck do I know? Maybe it was a consideration and didn’t work, but I do hate to think it wasn’t at least tried.
My only other quarrel with the picture is that it’s full of babes and there’s a fair bit of talk and suggestion of boink-o-rama activity in Eden Parish. No offence, but the issue of sex within the compound is brought up, and that we get nary a flash of said activity is a bit like introducing a loaded gun into a scene and not firing it. Let’s not forget the immortal nude harvest dance in the original 1970s The Wicker Man – totally creepy and hubba-hubba-sexy.
But, I digress.
Happily, the performances from all the leads in The Sacrament are top of the line, and it’s to West’s undying credit that the picture features the finest use of extras and background performers I’ve seen in any recent movie. If, however, there is anything resembling justice, Jesus and/or the God of Abraham on Planet Hollywood, Gene Jones as Father deserves as many supporting actor accolades as it is possible to bestow upon someone, including an Oscar nomination. This is no chew-the-scenery nonsense that so many more established stars will barf up when they play a villain: Jones is malevolence-incarnate because his performance is brilliantly muted. The camera loves the guy, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off him whenever he’s on screen. This is not just the hallmark of any charismatic cult leader; he brings a depth of intelligence and understanding to the character that makes us (almost) like him. He also infuses the performance with an element of tragedy. Father is no mere manipulator, but rather, a man who has come to believe so strongly in his beliefs that he’s managed to convince even himself that his might is right. It’s that very element of self-faith and self-love that Jones steadfastly nails to a cross that shows us why such individuals are alternately on top of the world just as clearly as they’re on a fast track to destruction.
You might remember Gene Jones from the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men during the famous coin-toss scene, which, for me, was the performance in that movie that set the bar and proved the old adage: ‘There are no small parts…’ Here, though, West has given Gene Jones the role of a lifetime. I sincerely hope Jones’s work in The Sacrament is recognized, acknowledged and propulsive. The world needs more character actors of his caliber and I demand that he become as gloriously ubiquitous as Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore, Walter Huston, Charles Durning, Ned Beatty, Hume Cronyn, Paul Giamatti and every other great actor who more than propped up their fair share of pictures, but also created a myriad of living, breathing human beings who somehow, with their very appearance, gave their own work and that of everyone else a bit of that old silver screen immortality.
All in all, The Sacrament is a terrific little thriller and I’m looking forward to seeing it again. Maybe that will be enough to change my curmudgeonly nattering about the film-within-the-film elements and the lack of sex. Probably not, but it won’t matter. I like the picture – a lot!!!
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