It was a bizarre and, literally, cheeky case of life imitating art.

Every year in late September, cinephiles who take their weird movies seriously flock to Austin, TX, for Fantastic Fest, the balls-out, incomparable celebration of horror/sci-fi/action cinema from all over the world. Overseen by Alamo Drafthouse founder and raucous ringleader Tim League, Fantastic Fest is the kind of event where audience members aren’t just spectators—they’re willing, fearless participants in the madness right alongside the programmers, filmmakers, and actors in attendance.

One attendee last September, in fact, left Fantastic Fest with a permanent reminder of one particularly crazy film.

After premiering, and winning the Audience Award, at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival in March, director E.L. Katz’s debut feature, Cheap Thrills, made its way to Fantastic Fest, by that time having been acquired for distribution by League’s Drafthouse Films company. The film’s premise begged for something outlandish at Fantastic Fest. It’s about a blue-collar guy named Craig (Pat Healy) who, one shitty day, loses his job and finds an eviction notice on the door to the apartment he shares with his wife and their newborn son. Stopping by a local watering hole for a few sorrow-spiked drinks that night, Craig bumps into an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry). Their otherwise innocent catch-up time gets interrupted by two much wealthier bar patrons, Colin (David Koechner) and his wife, Violet (Sara Paxton), who are looking for a good time during Violet’s birthday night. Their plan: they’ll pay Craig and Vince straight-up cash to perform a few stupid but funny dares, like getting a female stranger to slap them in the face or smacking a stripper’s derriere. As the night progresses, though, all four of them head back to Colin’s swanky loft, where the challenges intensify—as in, bodily dismemberment, infidelity, destruction of private property, and, ultimately, murder.

Saving the homicide for what’s on the big screen, Tim League and his Fantastic Fest team opted to involve the Cheap Thrills audience in a lighter way. With Katz, Healy, Embry, and Koechner all in the theater, League dared one brave audience member to get a free tattoo. The catch, though: he or she couldn’t pick where on their body or what the tat says. And, since Fantastic Fest attracts the coolest and craziest movie lovers, one guy accepted, pulled down his pants in front of everyone there, and left the Alamo Drafthouse with “Cheap Thrills” tatted on his left butt cheek.

“We’ll never have another screening quite like that one,” says Katz six months later while discussing Cheap Thrills before its theatrical release tomorrow (it’s also currently available on VOD). “That guy must have really liked our film.”

That’s not surprising. An intelligent and unpredictable genre subversion, Cheap Thrills is unlike any other movie you’ll see this year, if not any other year. Not quite a comedy, not quite a psychological horror study, and not quite a drama, Katz’s impressive first film is all of those things at once, boldly executed by an ace cast of recognizable character actors and directed with a dangerous, lively energy that wastes none of the film’s compact, filler-free 85-minute duration.

The cast is clearly proud of what they and Katz have accomplished, too. Further tapping into that Fantastic Fest spirit, the Drafthouse Films crew announced their “Share to Dare” campaign last month, in honor of Cheap Thrills’ release. Because enough fans on Twitter shared the movie’s official website using the hashtag #CheapThrills, star Pat Healy gamely dropped trough and posed nude next to a bearskin rug, a la Burt Reynolds back in the day, while Ethan Embry recorded an impersonation of his Can’t Hardly Wait character on camera. You can watch the awkward but endearing results here. And, if you’re up for it, here’s Healy’s in-the-buff moment.

Although he’s yet to publicly embarrass himself to prove it, E.L. Katz couldn’t be happier about the film’s reception. “It’s a little overwhelming, to be honest,” he says, “but it’s also really gratifying. A few years ago, if you would have told me I’d direct a movie, let alone one that people actually like, I would’ve laughed at you.”

Here, Katz reflects on the long and unwieldy road that brought him from being a wayward rap junkie to the director of what’s sure to be one of 2014’s most memorable films come December 31.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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