Each year, the Fantasia festival selects one film by a first-time director that stands out above the rest and offers them the New Flesh Award for Best First Feature. This year, that award went to E.L. Katz for Cheap Thrills. (They also made a special mention of Sebastian Hofmann’s Halley — you can read our review here.) Here’s what Alex Rose thought of Katz’s first effort:
There’s nothing more dispiriting than a bad black comedy. The alchemy of tone has to be perfect, or else you’re left with unpleasant, unfunny garbage that clogs up video store shelves or forces you to scroll through Netflix even longer. There are tons of movies just like Cheap Thrills that go unseen every year because they don’t have the magical elixir of elements that E.L. Katz brings to this twisted, perverse and hilarious debut feature.
Having recently been sacked from his job with an eviction notice looming over his head, Craig (Pat Healy) heads to a dive bar and reconnects with Vince (Ethan Embry), an old buddy from his wilder years. As they catch up, they also make the acquaintance of Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), a seemingly mismatched couple for whom money appears to be no object. As the night drunkenly runs its course, Colin and Violet begin offering Vince and Craig money in exchange for humiliating actions. It begins with slapping a stripper’s ass but soon makes its way to much darker territory as Craig’s money troubles become clearer to him.
Part of Cheap Thrills’ brilliance lies in its simplicity; it could’ve gone hundreds of ways and pulled out all the stops with twists, counter-twists and last-minute reveals. It’s rare that a movie with such a simple but brilliant premise actually sticks to it; Katz shocks you by taking it exactly where you expect it would (but hoped it wouldn’t) go. Healy makes for a terrific put-upon everyman, but everyone delivers performances of unexpected depth and comedic sharpness. Katz’s unobtrusive yet dynamic direction makes the most of what is basically a chamber piece and the film manages to ride the high from start to finish. It’s also particularly gross even within the parameters of a festival where I saw two movies about people decomposing while alive. ■