So, over the weekend I got to spend some time with E.L. Katz and Pat Healy, who respectively directed and starred in the new film “Cheap Thrills,” and I learned a thing or two. I learned about Danish people. I learned about what really matters when you’re making a movie. I found out that some men can just rock a mustache. And I learned that sometimes light and dark can blend together beautifully.
And “Cheap Thrills” is dark, if it’s anything. Without giving too much about it away, two friends who are hard up for cash perform increasingly horrifying deeds for money from strangers. The comedy is black. The thrills are, um, thrilling. The nausea is well earned: As we arrived back at the screening, a couple was running out, one of them exclaiming, “I’m sorry but that was just too gross.”
Meeting two of the minds behind this madness, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Getting to sit down with them though, a few things quickly became apparent. First, they’re massive movie geeks. A good hour and a half was spent throwing around references to this film or that, enthusing about the Coen brothers and Alexander Payne and lamenting the downfall of the anarchic, chaotic, pure comedy.
“It seems like every comedy feels the need to suddenly turn into a drama in the third act,” Katz opined. “Like, Adam Sandler realizes what a jerk he’s been to the girl, and he makes up with her, and he learns how to swim, which he never knew how to do before, so good for him. But it’s not real.”
This concern with real people and real humanity in storytelling points to the other, major thing I learned about Katz and Healy, which was that they’re mostly just really sweet, caring guys. During a Q&A with the (still stunned) audience, Healy described filming a scene where he, worse for wear late in the movie and cradling his character’s baby, instinctively put his arm around the kid when he saw how scared he was, which wound up being the take they kept. Which is a really odd, beautiful spot of compassion to find in a film as dark as “Cheap Thrills.”
But it also underlines why exactly “Cheap Thrills” is such an extraordinary film. It’s not just a gory, horrific ride of a black comedy. It’s a gory, horrific ride of a black comedy with real thought and passion dripping from every frame. You can feel the genuine care that went into the film from the beginning to the bloody end.
Going into the film I was ready for something sort of gritty and “hard” and more typical of what most low-budget thriller-type films look and feel like these days. The film instead was something totally electric and alive. It set itself up quickly without the sense of any tedious “before we get to the good stuff” hand-wringing that a lot of movies fall into. It introduces us to a character the film clearly cares about as much as we come to, thanks mostly to a slow-burning, gradually intensifying performance from Healy.
It manages to be crazy dark without losing any sense of consequence or humanity. It manages to be disgusting without going too far over the top or jumping for any easy shock value—and it’s the first film in a long time to actually make me feel nauseous. At the same time it’s hilarious without trying to be more clever than its audience or showing off how smart it is or trying to maintain any ironic or detached distance between itself or the viewer. Instead, Katz and Healy open up their (self-described) “dark and twisted” worldview, and invite us in to play.
Plus “Cheap Thrills” just looks and sounds gorgeous (Katz’ secret? Working with the Danish). Which is kind of remarkable for a film that some people would dismiss as a “B-movie” or cheap thrills (see what I did there?) without having even seen it.
Talking about a shared, childhood level love of horror films, Katz and I both lit up when one of us mentioned “Halloween,” which we quickly declared a perfect film before he elaborated on his belief that (and I’m paraphrasing here) as long as the film is telling a real, human story, as long as the people making the film sincerely care about what they’re doing, and as long as fun is being had, then it’s gonna be great.
And “Cheap Thrills” is a testament to this fact. The film is hysterical, exhilarating and weirdly moving because of its director’s love for the material, and because its star created a real human being at the center of it. And it’s fantastic.
And thankfully people seem to be responding to it. So, find it on video on demand, petition for it in your theaters; see “Cheap Thrills.” See everything you can, love the good stuff, understand the bad stuff and keep caring about film.
Do you think film is nothing but a set of cheap thrills? Email Austin your opinion at firstname.lastname@example.org.