FrightFest 2023: The Mind is an Echo-Chamber of Guilt in Cheat

Image Courtesy of Four Eighteen Films

If you ask the internet for statistics on college kids who cheat on their partners, you may be surprised to learn how insanely common it is. The first post that appears in a Google search is a HuffPost article from 2012 that suggests it’s between 65 and 75% of college students, with more recent data hinting at it being a slightly higher 68 to 75%. In the HuffPost article, Barry McCarthy, a psychologist and professor at American University in Washington, says, “The most common way that dating couples end a relationship is by starting another.” Enter Nick Psinakis and Kevin Ignatius. The directing duo that brought us last year’s The Long Dark Trail is back with a story to scare the pants back on unfaithful couples with their latest effort, Cheat. A film about the consequences of hiding an affair.  

The poster image from Cheat shows a woman entering a small town
Image Courtesy of Four Eighteen Films

Cheat begins with Maeve (Corin Clay) who’s moving to a rural Pennsylvanian college town to start her first semester. Instead of living it up in the college dorms, she’s decided to share the home of her scholarship’s benefactor Charlie (Michael Thyer). Charlie is charismatic and gracious but perhaps a bit too vulnerable. After losing their daughter to suicide, his wife was institutionalized, leaving Charlie in the empty home to care for the college coed whose scholarship started in the wake of his daughter’s tragedy. It isn’t long before the two share an intimate night together, both forgetting their significant others for a night of passion. Not long after, both Charlie and Maeve begin seeing a ghostly figure that no one else can and believe she may be the proof of an urban legend that comes for cheaters.  

The small town of Silvercreek isn’t without its secrets, harboring an unusually high suicide rate, but that begins to make more sense for Maeve and her college friends Elijah (Kyle Corbin) and Lydia (Danielle Grotsky) as they bicker about the merits of their community’s curse. Decades earlier, Clara Miller (April Clark) caught her father cheating on her mother and took matters into her own hands when he wouldn’t confess. Murdered by her angry father, Clara now haunts those disloyal to their beaus before killing them in a manner that makes it look like they’ve done it to themselves.  

Off the bat, I give the creative writer-director duo a lot of credit. Nick Psinakis and Kevin Ignatius are really onto something here, taking the sin of adultery and making a monster out of it. The story alone got me excited to step into this world, hoping for sex, murder, and guilt. Cheat, from its synopsis, had the makings of being an outlandish folktale by way of a ‘90s adult thriller. Like say, if It Follows and Fatal Attraction had a baby. The story alone was enough to want to check out the movie.  

Maeve and Charlie look around in the darkness
Image Courtesy of Four Eighteen Films

Almost immediately, viewers will be captured by Connor Smyers’ cinematography. Cheat’s flyover shots are smooth and ominous, adding a lot to the atmosphere of the film, as does the film’s synth-heavy score. The acting is well done, and the characters are well-balanced enough in a meta way that helps them move away from some horror tropes and into trying new ideas.

However, Cheat just feels rocky. The movie hits all the right beats, it just doesn’t always flow naturally, moving from a Scream-esque scene where Elijah, playing the Randy, spills the story of the town’s history on the quad of the college Maeve is attending with the rest of their friends huddled around. All while being opposite a man holding a sign that contends none of the recent rash of suicides are actually suicides. After this scene, the audience is never brought back to the college, and two of the friends who are introduced here are never seen in the movie again. My gripe here is that there is a whole town for Psinakis and Ignatius to use as their sandbox, and yet Cheat doesn’t really stray away from its main characters.  

Maeve and Lydia walk along the shadowed sidewalk on a sunny fall day in Cheat
Image Courtesy of Four Eighteen Films

Thematically, Psinakis and Ignatius attempt to get out under your skin with a story about guilt. Taking elements from The Ring, Cheat becomes more of an investigatory thriller with a ticking clock attached as the offending parties desperately search for a way out of their situation. As I imagine it probably is for many cheaters, finding a way to keep a secret hidden from their significant others is probably difficult, given both the internal and external dilemmas of the situation. The audience watches Maeve struggle with the moral burden, told she’s a good person by Lydia, but is largely guilt-ridden as Clara’s ghost becomes a looming metaphor for the shame she carries.  

Speaking with Nick Psinakis about the film ahead of the festival, I asked about the film’s moral severity, to which he replied: 

There maybe isn’t a right answer. In a weird way, We kind of talked about our antagonist. You know, is there a moral code she’s adhering to? Is she an anti-hero in a way? Is there some justified actions? I don’t know, I hate to say one way or another. But I think, and I hope a lot of people kind of deal with the morality of their decisions. Especially when it comes to relationships, some people think you can cheat emotionally, and other people think it’s just physical. […] That’s a tough one for me to give like a black or white kind of answer. Yes, I do think I have a moral compass, and think everyone does to a certain degree. And, hopefully, that plays with people’s emotions on what that means and where they line up with themselves even a little bit.

Cheat may find resonance in audiences who might not be ready for the psychological baggage, and it certainly has a couple of deftly cued shocks to scare them along. In that, the movie has its entertaining qualities, but, despite its excellent concept, Cheat doesn’t fully satisfy. The film has its world premiere at FrightFest tonight, August 24, at 10:55 on the festival’s main screen in Leicester Square. 

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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