The questions usually come up during some sort of gathering like a slumber party, asking if you would be willing to eat something gross or perform an embarrassing stunt. If you say no, someone would bring up the hypothetical, “What if someone gave you a million dollars to do it?” Then eating a bug or running naked across a football field seems more tempting with the promise of great monetary payout.
The early 2000s are such an outrageous time capsule of American television. We saw the start of shows like Survivor, Big Brother, American Idol, The Simple Life with Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, and too many reality dating shows to count. Notorious stunt-competition show Fear Factor premiered on NBC in 2001. It’s initial run was 2001-2006, then it was revived from 2011-2012, then it was brought back once again by MTV from 2017-2018, for a grand total of 188 episodes. Contestants were put to physical tests that came out of a Hollywood stunt person’s playbook and gross-out tests that ranged from eating animal parts to sitting in boxes of snakes and worms. If contestants were brave enough, they could win the grand prize of $50,000, with a few special episodes offering $100,000 and $1 million dollar grand prizes. The show also did some celebrity competition episodes where the prize money would go to a charity of the celebrity’s choice and each charity would get at least $10,000, no matter how far the celebrity made it in the challenges.
There’s been versions of Fear Factor in 39 countries around the world. A Fear Factor contestant has actually died from injuries sustained during a stunt. In 2005, 22 year old Thai pop star Vaikoon Boonthanom was hit in the head with a 20kg barrel after failing a stunt where he was hanging from a crane and had to hold onto said barrel. Boonthanom later died from the massive brain injuries caused by the impact. The stunt was being filmed at the Bangkok International Trade and Exhibition centre and Police Colonel Satjapong Woranantrakul told reporters, “From the evidence obtained so far it looks like the accident was caused by the carelessness of the crane operator.”
In the early 2010s, the U.S. saw a bit of a trend in movies resembling the core of Fear Factor- Would You Rather, Cheap Thrills, and 13 Sins. All of these movies start off with the theme of “desperate times”; the full statement being, “desperate times call for desperate measures”. Medical expenses, losing a job, facing eviction, any sort of stressful financial uncertainty. Not having money to cover basic living needs can cause a person to feel shame, stress, and anxiety.
These are psychological horror black comedy thrillers that resonate with Fear Factor and the Saw franchise in asking their audiences, “What would you be willing to do?”
Would You Rather was directed by David Guy Levy and released in 2012. It stars Brittany Snow as Iris, who is left to take care of her younger brother, Raleigh, after the death of their parents. Raleigh has leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant and Iris is desperate for money to pay home and medical bills. During a meeting with Raleigh’s oncologist, Iris is introduced to Shepard Lambrick (Re-Animator’s Jefferey Combs), the wealthy creator of the Lambrick Foundation, who invites her to a dinner and night of parlour games where there’s the potential to have all of her financial troubles taken care of and a donor at-the-ready for her brother.
Upon arrival, we’re introduced to the other dinner guests, including Amy (Sasha Gray), John Heard (our dad from Home Alone) as recovering alcoholic Conway, war veteran Travis (Charlie Hofheimer), gamling addict Peter (Robb Wells), an elderly paralyzed woman (June Squibb), and Lambrick’s affluent son, Julian (Robin Lord Taylor).
For their fancy dinner, there’s an entree of steak and foie gras, which Iris politely pushes away and apologizes that she didn’t mention sooner that she was a vegetarian. Seeing a prime opportunity, Lambrick sets up an “appetizer” for the game to come and offers Iris $5,000 to eat the steak and foie gras. Iris doesn’t respond, bewildered by his offer. “I refuse to accept that you don’t have a price,” Lambrick continues, and offers her $10,000. Iris begins cutting up the steak and eats it as Lambrick laughs heartily, “A lifetime of discipline and a commitment to cause wiped away for a mere $10,000.” A mere $10,000 to Lambrick could be months of electric bills paid for Iris or it could take a chunk out of her brother’s medical bills.
Following dinner, each guest is given a glass of wine, which Conway refuses. A recovering alcoholic who is sixteen sixteen years sober, Lambrick offers him $10,000 to drink a glass of wine then the offer jumps to $50,000 for drinking an entire decanter of scotch. Lambrick eggs him on, saying, “A momentary lapse to change your life.” If you’re living with any sort of addiction or you’re on the path of recovering from an addiction, then you know that recovery is not linear and relapses are a part of recovery. A single glass of wine or a shitload of scotch would be a big setback for anyone turning to a sober life.
The game of the night is Would You Rather. “At its core, it’s just a children’s game,” Lambrick reminds his guests, being there’s books and websites dedicated to more “innocent” choices.
When Lambrick is questioned about why he’s making them play a game rather than helping everyone in the room, because clearly he has the means, he responds with,
“As simple as the game is, it’s all about decision making in its rawest form and there’s no better window into a person’s character than the decisions that they make and how they make them and how one applies rationale and ethics and reason while under duress.” Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs) in Would You Rather
The game quickly escalates to blood and violence, with Conway being shot in the head as he attempts to escape and the first round involving electrocution. With Lambrick out of the room, Julian begins taunting the guests and tells them, ”You agreed to be here. You’re basically asking my family for a handout. The least you could do, pig, is show some fucking respect.” Average mindset of the 1% when the idea comes up of them helping others live, right? The one who argues back against him, Travis, gets targeted in the next round, where he receives lashes with a thick leather whip that eventually kills him. The nail who stuck out and stuck up for himself got hammered back down.
Iris and Lucas (Enver Gjokaj) become the last two contestants standing. For the final round, Lambrick gives Iris the option of both her and Lucas leaving with their lives but with no more money or she shoots Lucas and wins the game, getting all of the money and help she was promised for her and her brother. As Lucas attempts to plead with Iris and garner sympathy with his family struggles, she shoots him in the chest before he can get out more than a few sentences.
As Iris is leaving, Lambrick looks at her and says, “I believe a ‘thank you’ is in order.” After being electrocuted, stabbed, almost drowning, being sexually assaulted, and having to shoot someone, she is told she should be thankful for his help.
When Iris returns home, she find Raleigh dead, having committed suicide by overdose. Raleigh had been open with Iris that he had been having nightmares about himself on a sinking ship and how guilty he felt about being sick and that she was stuck taking care of him, thinking that she would rather be off living her own life. The tragedy of it all is that it was all for nothing and it’s a giant slap in the face to Iris.
Cheap Thrills is the directorial debut of E.L. Katz that premiered at South By Southwest in 2013, with a home video release following in 2014. The poster advertises, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you richer.”
Facing eviction with his wife and baby and getting fired from his job as a mechanic, Craig (Pat Healy) retreats to a bar where he runs into an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry from The Devil’s Candy). Vince asks him how his writing career is going and Craig admits to him that it wasn’t working out well so he became a mechanic and that he just got fired from said mechanic job.
While in the bathroom, Craig sees a rolled up $50 bill in a toilet bowl and he pauses, debating. It’s at the edge of the water and there’s nothing else in the toilet bowl but the clean water. We don’t see whether or not he grabs the money though.
Coming back out into the bar, Vince calls Craig over to a table, where he has made two new friends, husband and wife, Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton). Colin and Violet apparently have more money than they know what to do with and start dangling it in front of Craig and Vince, ordering a $300 bottle of tequila then offering $50 to the first person at the table to down a shot. Craig is befuddled and Vince takes the shot. Craig is still apprehensive but Vince is eager to see what the night has in store.
The four leave the bar and move on to a strip club. Vince “dares” one of them to smack a woman at a strip club on the ass for $200. Not exactly a humorous dare; more like an assault dare. Vince does it and the four run from the club. The bouncer catches up to them and targets Craig as the one who assaulted one of the dancers. From the safety of their car, Colin calls out to Craig that he’ll give him $500 to hit the bouncer first. Craig gives the best punch he can for someone who has obviously never punched someone before then gets knocked out in one hit from the bouncer.
When he wakes up, Craig finds himself at Colin and Violet’s house where the fun continues. Colin explains that their frivolous night had a plan all along,
“Like a reality game show, you know? The game shows when they gobble, like, animal dicks or, ya know, like, put their head in a bucket of snakes or eat bugs, ya know, shit like that. Except this isn’t tv, right? That, and there’s $250,000 tax-free dollars.”Colin (David Koechner) in Cheap Thrills
Vince makes it clear that, “no matter how much money is in there, I’m not sucking his dick.” Way to be homophobic because no one brought that up but you were quick on the draw to bring it up. How many times you see dude-bros wearing the shirt that says, “I’m not gay but $20 is $20”.
Once sex is brought into the mix, Colin offers Craig money to have sex with his wife because they’re in an open relationship. In fact, he offers him $4,500, the amount needed to pay off his back rent and avoid eviction, which Colin reminds him of because he looked in his wallet while he was still unconscious after being punched by the bouncer. Craig, very begrudgingly, cheats on his wife and has sex with Violet.
These two are throwing money into a wrestling ring and finding entertainment in watching these two guys fight over it. The final challenge of the night- kill your friend for $250,000. Craig and Vince are each told this in secret. As a slideshow plays, showing photos that Violet took with a digital camera throughout the evening, Vince sees a photo of him and Craig sitting up at the bar together before Colin and Violet called them over. When Vince tries to call Craig’s attention to this so they can get the hell out of there, Craig shoots and kills him.
The night comes to a close with Colin saying, “It’s been good partying with you,” and the audience learning that Colin and Violet had a bet over who would kill the other in the end, with Colin betting on Vince and Violet betting on Craig.
The movie does get cool points for using the Agent Orange song “Bloodstains” as a theme.
“Well, I know they know the way I think,
I know they always will,
But someday I’m gonna change my mind,
Sometimes I’d rather kill,
Blood stains, speed kills,
Fast cars, cheap thrills”
13 Sins is a 2014 remake of a movie made in Thailand that was released in 2006, 13 Beloved (13: Game Of Death or 13 game sayawng), based off of the 13th Quiz Show episode in the My Mania comic-book series by Eakasit Thairaat. The American version stars Mark Webber as Elliot, Devon Graye as Elliot’s brother, Michael; Tom Bower as their father, Rutina Wesley as Elliot’s fiancee, Shelby; and Ron Perlman as Detective Chilcoat. Some of the “games” are similar in the remake such as swatting and eating a fly, making a child cry, and even stringing up a wire across the road to decapitate motorcyclists. A few are different though, like eating a place of feces at a fancy restaurant.
The film opens in Perth, Australia, at a University of Perth dinner where Professor Solomon, opens with vulgar jokes at a fancy dinner then proceeds to cut off the finger off of the woman next to him. As he reaches for his ringing cell phone a cop shoots him, and the cell phone continues to play “Entry of the Gladiators” by Julius Fucik, the ringtone used by those playing the game and it’s quite the festive carnival tune.
We’re introduced to our main character Elliot as he’s leaving for his job at an insurance agency. He’s going in confident that he’s going to get a promotion when he’s actually getting fired. He stands by his decisions of selling an elderly woman a policy that was more in her price range, rather than the most expensive one, but he’s not bold enough to stand up to his boss and tell him off and his boss knows it, calling him out on his passive nature. Elliot can’t stand up to his boss nor can he stand up to his vindictive racist of a father, who is less than pleased that Elliot is engaged to a Black woman.
While stopped at a red light, and being annoyed by a fly in his car, Elliot receives a phone call giving him the opportunity to play a game with thirteen challenges with great monetary gain. Having just been fired and with a wedding and baby on the way, he plays along with the first challenge- swatting the fly that has been besting him for $1,000. The next challenge is for him to eat the fly he just killed and he is offered the exact amount that would pay off his fiancee’s credit card debt. The caller also reminds Elliot that he has student loans he’s still paying on and that his brother has outpatient medical bills that need to be paid. Upon seeing the money appear in his bank account, he agrees to play further and tells the mysterious caller, “I will dance with the golden toad.”
As the challenges progress, the public and the police catch on that there’s one (or more) persons causing mayhem throughout the day. The caller gives Elliot a heads up and tells him that if he wins, they will make all of these charges go away and that, “Losers, however, are on their own.” Elliot ends up being wanted for assault, arson, child abuse, grand theft, desecration of a corpse, and mayhem, and that’s before he’s even done with all thirteen challenges. These are all things people with power and money can get away with on a regular basis.
Elliot gets a taste of the “rich life” after cutting off the arm of his middle school bully and clocking that guy’s brother with a chair in a hospital waiting room then steals his car. Music up and windows down, driving fast in a fancy car and running red lights.
Detective Chilcoat is on the case, knowing that these recent cases of mayhem go deeper than just someone acting out. The film’s opening credits show points marked on a world map, tied together like a conspiracy theorist or cop’s investigation, with emphasis put on XIII. He tracks down a man who is paranoid about “the game” after his wife killed their dog and then herself. He tells Chilcoat that, “Anyone can be turned into a monster.”
This is further proven when we learn that there’s a generational loop within the game. As he approaches the end of the game, Elliot is led to his father’s apartment. As it turns out, Elliot’s brother has also been playing the game throughout the day, too, as his opponent and they have reached challenge 13 at the same time- kill a family member. Their father is well-aware as to why the two are there, as he confesses that the reason their mother is dead wasn’t because of a simple car accident but rather an intentional one that he caused to beat the 13th challenge and win the game. Their father slits his own throat to prevent them from winning, having guilt over his own actions and trying to spare them. Leaving the brothers standing there, they end up shooting and stabbing each other, crying and shouting as they’re doing it.
In the end, Elliot kills his brother and then kills Chilcoat, who has arrived at the scene with a can of gas and matches to clean up and cover up everything. In killing Chilcoat, Elliot has interfered with the game and thus loses all of the money that he has won. He calls his wife from a payphone to tell her he’s coming home and he slouches over on the bench, leaving us unsure if he’s relieved to see his wife again or if he’s slouching because he’s dead or dying from his injuries.