Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"There’s some beautiful framing in this film, which looks as if it was made on a much bigger budget than was really the case." | Photo: courtesy of Frightfest

There has always been a strand within horror cinema fascinated by, for want of a better term, the wages of sin – by seeing people punished for committing acts deemed immoral, even when very similar acts have probably been committed by at least half of the people in the audience. Just what counts as immoral has evolved over the years, and some films, like Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, have pointed out that there’s no limit to how petty a killer’s approach can get when all that’s really desired is an excuse. Latterly, though – perhaps prompted by the polarisation of society at large – a conversation has begun to emerge about just where the harm in particular choices lies. On the surface, Cheat may look like a conventional supernatural thriller in which sexual betrayal is punished by death, but underneath it’s something quite a bit smarter.

It begins with a flashback scene in which a young woman is carried into a barn where a grisly fate awaits her – explaining the curse which local teenagers will refer to later, and making it clear that writers/directors Kevin Ignatius and Nick Psinakis are not going to hold back when it comes to violence or gore. This also seems to root us in a particular tradition of moral judgement, though it will eventually emerge that the truth is more complicated. At any rate, it speaks to the influence of 18th Century values on 21st Century life.

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Everything feels very different when we join Maeve (Corin Clay), a transfer student moving into a family home in the little Pennsylvania town of Silver Creek. She may have a complicated life, with a boyfriend in prison whom she can’t quite bring herself to finally break up with, but she’s a pragmatic and resourceful young woman who isn’t easily daunted. The room she moves into used to belong to a girl called Abby, who died a year ago. Abby’s mother is currently away, receiving treatment, so the only person there is the bereaved father, Charlie (Michael Thyer). As they support one another – he seems relieved just to have someone to talk to about day to day matters – an attraction develops between them. This is handled in an unusually grown-up way for the genre. Despite the aforementioned dogmatic moral framework to which the film makes frequent reference, the story and characters are full of nuance, real people existing in an artificially distorted world.

Cheat uses a cheesy title font and a synth-based score designed to evoke the slasher classics of the Eighties, but it’s a much more mature thriller, with shades of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. This interweaving of styles keeps it interesting, in part because it chips away at viewers’ confidence in how events will unfold. Maeve wants to focus on her study of art, but she’s distracted by repeated glimpses of a young woman dressed in old fashioned clothes, whom she comes to feel increasingly threatened by. She hangs out with Abby’s former best friend, Lydia (Danielle Grotsky), but real friendship only begins to develop when she discusses her transgressions and reveals something of who she really is. As her vulnerability also becomes apparent, Lydia tries to help, but finding a solution may be tougher – or much simpler – than it seems.

There’s some beautiful framing in this film, which looks as if it was made on a much bigger budget than was really the case. This works in part due to the directors’ willingness to break with the stylistic codes of the genre and slow it right down. At one point they linger on Clay’s face as she looks out of a window on a snowy night, trusting her to keep viewers engaged, and she does, delivering one of the most affecting moments of the whole film. This is followed by a drone shot on the town laid out like a map, which we’ve seen a lot of in recent years as directors have played around with new technology, but here it’s to a purpose, the snow separating the houses an emphasising their isolation, adding to that sense of vulnerability in a crowd which runs throughout the film.

The overall impression created by this film, whose wonderfully fluid final sequence recalls the darker thrillers of the Seventies, is that Ignatius and Psinakis aimed to make a cheesy horror film but missed. The result is something which still delivers on shocks and gore but is much more character-driven and creepy. It’s a fine contribution to Frightfest 2023, and fitting for an era in which ill-considered judgement is one again prominent in the real world.

Reviewed on: 25 Aug 2023
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On the surface it's believed to be another urban legend - a supernatural being from the afterlife is violently killing anyone who cheats on their significant other in the small college town of Silvercreek, Pennsylvania. But the town's unusually high suicide rate is finally convincing both locals and college students that a deadly curse is closing in.

Director: Nick Psinakis, Kevin Ignatius

Writer: Nick Psinakis, Kevin Ignatius

Starring: Corin Clay, Mick Thayer, Danielle Grotsky, April Clark

Year: 2023

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: US


Frightfest 2023

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