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A nasty, nightmarish thrill ride from a master of gore, “The Price We Pay” is so much more delightfully wicked than expected.

The Price We Pay

Much like Barbarian, the biggest sleeper horror hit of 2022, the latest genre outing from the director of Midnight Meat Train is a wild ride best experienced while knowing as little as possible about the surprises that await you.

Ryûhei Kitamura’s The Price We Pay is a low-budget affair that gains some elevated clout from two of its always dependable leads, Stephen Dorff (Blade, True Detective) and Emile Hirsch (Devil’s Workshop, The Autopsy of Jane Doe).

Although I’m a fan of Dorff and Hirsch, I might have shuffled past this film had it not been for my love of Japanese filmmaker Kitamura. He never disappoints. The twisty, brutal Midnight Meat Train is a genre favorite, and I really loved his 2017 edge-of-your-seat, ultra-tense thriller Downrange. So, it wasn’t difficult to get me excited about his newest film.

Still, with an uninspired poster (banking on the star power of Dorff and Hirsch but offering very little intrigue or sizzle), a forgettable title, and an action-thriller label on IMDb (no mention of horror), this didn’t seem like the kind of film that would typically be in my wheelhouse.

Then there’s the film’s logline that (smartly) underplays its hand:

After a pawn shop robbery goes askew, two criminals take refuge at a remote farmhouse to try to let the heat die down but find something much more menacing.

It’s all a bit too easy to overlook, but I’m hoping to convince you not to be so quick to pass this one by. 

The film begins with a bang, giving off some solid horror vibes.

It’s a chilling scene involving a prostitute who finds herself stranded at night in the middle of nowhere, abandoned by her horribly misogynistic client. After a terrifying encounter in a truckstop bathroom with a man whose face we never see, her story ends abruptly as she is unconscious and dragged away by her feet.

It’s a powerful opening scene that quickly feels irrelevant to the story as we next meet our real central protagonist, a beautiful young woman named Grace (Gigi Zumbado, 9-1-1, Pitch Perfect 2). We meet her in the backroom of a pawn shop, where the shop’s owner — and Grace’s sleazy landlord — attempts to coerce Grace into paying her overdue rent with sexual favors. As he’s propositioning her, Grace watches a robbery attempt on the security cameras behind his head.

When the owner finally turns around and realizes what’s happening, he rushes out to confront the three armed robbers.

Things quickly turn sour, and Grace hides in a closet as a shop worker is murdered in front of her. When she finds an opening, she tries to escape. But she’s captured and taken hostage by the three men who have lost their getaway driver and need Grace to get them the hell out of Dodge.

One of the men, Shane (Tanner Zagarino), has been critically injured, shot in the leg during the robbery. He’s in urgent need of medical attention. His brother, Alex (Hirsch), is a sadistic, trigger-happy psychopath. He’s anxious to kill Grace, but he’s talked out of it by the level-headed Cody (Dorff), an ex-Army medic who seems far less enthusiastic about the darker side of his profession.

Unfortunately, Grace’s car breaks down far from town, and the four are forced to hike to a remote farmhouse late at night.

When they arrive, they find a nervous teen boy, Danny (Tyler Sanders), home alone while his grandpa is out. While Alex and Shane hide, Cody and Grace pretend to be a married couple with a broken-down vehicle who are just looking for shelter for a few hours while they wait for a ride.

They ask to squat temporarily in an empty farmhand house. Though it’s a convincing act, Danny is reluctant to let them stay, appearing incredibly ill at ease.

Eventually, however, he acquiesces and lets them stay. Grace and Cody return to the two brothers and make their way to the house, where Cody tends to Shane’s wounds in the most stomach-turning way possible while the group plans their next move.

Alex gets spooked when news of the robbery hits the airwaves, and Grace’s face is broadcast as the hostage. He worries Danny may try to call the cops, and he wants to take care of him. Cody makes him promise he won’t hurt Danny and threatens to kill Shane if Alex tries anything.

While Alex goes off to scare Danny, he discovers a secret door in the barn that leads to a large underground bunker with a long hallway of jail cells littered with disturbing artwork. Instead of being reasonably alarmed, Alex is titillated by the creepy atmosphere and delights in terrorizing Danny, who begs him to leave — for his own sake.

Soon, grandpa (Vernon Wells) returns, and it’s immediately apparent that the demented Alex isn’t the biggest threat to the group’s safety.

At this point, about 45 minutes in, the film shifts into its nightmarish second act and becomes something else entirely.

I don’t want to spoil what comes next, and I urge you to avoid reading too much or even watching the trailer if you genuinely want to be surprised.

But I will say that the film suddenly gets much darker and, though it’s not labeled a horror film, definitely lives up to its hard R rating and becomes the kind of film you might expect from the gore-loving Kitamura. The tension ramps up considerably with a heart-pounding score and some intense editing that heightens the anxiety and fear.

The setting is effectively unsettling, part underground dungeon and part abandoned mental hospital. It’s dark, atmospheric, and foreboding.

Dorff is reliably solid as the good-guy foil to Hirsch’s scoundrel, and Zumbado delivers a compelling performance as the intelligent, capable innocent with a haunted past. Meanwhile, Wells is delicious as the big bad, somewhat reminding me of Dr. Heiter in The Human Centipede — but perhaps slightly more grounded in his insanity.

Yet, it is the incredibly talented Hirsch who steals the show as the despicable thug you’ll love to hate.

He plays against type as a smug, scenery-chewing villain whose demise you’ll root for — even as you secretly hope he survives so you can keep relishing his campy nastiness. Unlike most vile characters who end up fighting for their lives in a horror film, Hirsch never becomes sympathetic or vulnerable. Even in the face of great danger, he remains cocky, belligerent, and utterly unlikable. And that only adds to his charm.

There’s also a scene where he has to convey abject terror with just his eyes, and it’s a master class. It’s a fantastically meaty role for Hirsch, and he seems to have a lot of fun with it.

If you wish to preserve a relatively pristine viewing experience, stop reading now and go watch this film.

But if you want to know more about what you’re getting yourself into, I’ll give you a bit more meat to chew on.

With grandpa’s arrival, it becomes clear he’s the same hulking, menacing monster from the film’s opening. We discover the importance of that opening scene, and we soon learn who this madman is and precisely what he wants. Needless to say, it does not bode well for our “heroes” who find themselves at the mercy of a barbarous vigilante hellbent on punishing people who don’t deserve the gifts they’ve been given.

In some ways, it feels very Saw-esque, minus the devious Rube Goldberg traps. Like Jigsaw, grandpa (aka The Doctor) believes he’s on the side of righteous justice, making sinners pay for their sins. How he does that is satisfyingly gruesome and gory. He’s also got a helper who is even more imposing and nightmare-inducing than the mad doctor.

There’s a fantastic scene in the ultra-tense, rapidly-paced final act that’s an absolute delight — a real Grand Guignol of action and visceral horror set over a powerful operatic score. And while it feels like a finale, things only get more unhinged from there in this manic rollercoaster ride.

The ending isn’t terribly surprising, but it impresses with its savage brutality. It reminded me a little of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is about the highest compliment I can pay.

I’m honestly surprised THE PRICE WE PAY isn’t being marketed as more of a horror film, as it’s pretty gnarly for much of its 90-minute runtime. 

Speaking of that runtime, it’s the perfect length and never once outstays its welcome, maintaining a quick and engaging pace throughout the film. By the time it hits the halfway mark, it’s absolutely relentless and will keep you on the edge of your seat.

It may not become a new genre classic, but it is a well-made, highly engaging film that will keep you entertained and more than satisfy your bloodlust.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 3.5
The Price We Pay opens in select theaters this Friday, January 13, 2023, and is now available on VOD from Lionsgate. Look for it on Blu-ray and DVD on February 21. 


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