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Is 'Cheap Thrills' a Horror Movie? Director E.L. Katz Isn't Sure, Talks Viscera-Splattered Gore, Tonal Mutants (TRAILER)

Photo of Ryan Lattanzio By Ryan Lattanzio | TOH! March 20, 2014 at 4:09PM

Director E.L. Katz wanted to make a party movie with shades of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." With his debut feature "Cheap Thrills"--think Michael Haneke's class critique "Funny Games" by way of a meat grinder-- he has done just that, and then some.
Pat Healy and Ethan Embry in 'Cheap Thrills'
Pat Healy and Ethan Embry in 'Cheap Thrills'

So this was your first feature as a director?

I directed a movie-inside-a-movie in Adam Wingard's "Pop Skull." That was my directorial debut. It's a fake vampire movie. My contribution was fucking ridiculous. Adam Wingard plays a vampire hunter in the movie. His name is Raymond and the vampire he's hunting has a ridiculous name. Like Ramsay.

You've written many shorts. What's different about directing for you?

As a writer, for the most part, you can take your time. When you're on set, all those question and problems that need to be solved, if they don't get solved quickly, everything falls apart. [Directing]'s so much less pliable. You have room to play around, depending on the budget, but your multitasking needs to be cranked up to a high degree.

Without spoiling much, how did you achieve some of the really gory scenes in the film -- such as Pat Healy cutting off his finger? Some of these dares are just horrifying.

No worries about spoilers because our trailer tells the entire movie [laughs]. I do like gore. It's fucking great. But sometimes my favorite violence is in a De Palma or David Lynch movie, where there's not tons of violence, but the one or two violent moments are incredibly shocking. The goal wasn't to have tons of violence but when it does happen, let's make it count. It can all become a bunch of plastic gooey mush that washes over you. But in this movie we had to pick and choose our moments.

What directors and films were in your head while making this movie?

It was a weird mixture of crazy influences. I love Scandinavian crime movies -- Nicolas Refn, and Lars von Trier -- and a lot of European filmmakers. And then you bring it down to American guys like Tobe Hooper. How do you do a party/conversation movie but underneath it, the Texas chainsaw massacre is happening? Tracy Letts' "Bug" and "Killer Joe " were influences. Even Ben Wheatley. He's one of those guys who's managed to be really funny but also incredibly horrific, sometimes in the same scene. People who can be tonal mutants [rather than] just one thing.

Do you think it's the responsibility of emerging filmmakers, particularly working in genre, to acknowledge cinema history in their films?

I think we should know it. There's no rule, but if you want to fuck around and try different things, it's nice to know what has come before you, to be aware of the tradition of film and it's a fucking pleasure to embrace it and enjoy these movies and learn. I think that chefs should take classic cooking lessons before they should try and jump in and break all the rules or whatever-the-fuck. It's a craft. But that's just me.

Lately I've been disheartened about the state of horror movies. What's your take?

We're getting a mixture of weird thriller stuff, like "Big Bad Wolves," Jeremy Saulnier's "Blue Ruin," and I think Jim Mickle is doing exciting things. Their movies maybe don't sit 100% in the horror space but they're definitely made by horror fans. Of course I love horror films but I don't even know how to classify ["Cheap Thrills"]. I've had some people tell me it's not really a horror film. I couldn't fucking tell you. What does that matter? It's hard for me to write a normal horror film because it can feel so singular. That's just one muscle and if you're focusing only on that, it can be limiting.

This article is related to: Cheap Thrills, Interviews, E.L. Katz, Drafthouse Films, Alamo Drafthouse

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.