Fantastic Fest is an experience like no other. I say that not to shill, just to state a simple fact. This was my first time attending the now-storied genre film festival, hosted by the famous Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, and it’s safe to describe the event as “something else.” Over the course of eight days I saw over 30 films—primarily new releases but also repertory screenings of Turkish pop-cinema, Shaw Brothers classics, 80s horror, and two secret screenings—and attended karaoke performances, video game demonstrations, and a Wild West-themed party. I missed some of the night-time shenanigans either because of exhaustion or conflict with screenings, but I do know that the hardest question in the Fantastic Feud game was (to me) a no-brainer concerning the aliens in Earth Girls Are Easy. I made friends with locals and critics while waiting for my films to start. I ate a decidedly inappropriate amount of fried food. I danced the chicken dance along with Alamo director Tim League. I watched DJs in animal costumes rap about reincarnation. I learned all about the “Satanic Panic” of the 80s and 90s from authors who were connected to it. I bumped elbows with festival attendees, Kumail Nanjiani, and Karyn Kusama (but was too shy to talk to any of them). I had, for lack of a better word, a fantastic time.
Throughout the week I saw almost everything I wanted see, including recent festival hits like The Lobster, The Witch, and Victoria, as well as new efforts from filmmakers I admire such as Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, and Mamoru Hosoda’s The Boy and the Beast. From the documentary Remake, Remix, Rip-Off, I learned about the remarkably resourceful filmmakers working in Turkey during the 1970s-80s, who took advantage of the country’s lax copyright laws and created hundreds of weird, pastiche remakes. And while I missed The Man Who Saves the World (aka “Turkish Star Wars”), I did catch The Deathless Devil, a highly enjoyable caper that combines elements of superhero serials, James Bond, and killer robots—plus the star of the film was there to tell us silly behind-the-scenes stories. After joking that I wished the secret screening would be Crimson Peak, I was elated to discover it in fact WAS Crimson Peak and I just about lost it when pint glass and I’m still riding kind of high from the whole experience. The second secret screening was one of Drafthouse’s “unearthed” cult films, a haphazard action movie called Dangerous Men that doesn’t quite reach the enjoyably campy heights of personal favorites like Miami Connection or Hard Ticket to Hawaii, but certainly had its ridiculous moments. The most-hyped film was Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, which I saw only after hearing nearly every single fest attendee sing its praises, and while it is a very good, brutal thriller, it is, in fact, not the greatest thing ever, even if it does have Patrick Stewart as an eloquent villain. Only one movie made me cry (and cry a lot): Stand by for Tape Back-up, a feature-length performance art piece that places a spoken-word poem over a worn-out VHS tape the author had recorded off the television with his grandpa during the course of his childhood. As he plays and rewinds the tape’s clips of TV shows, commercials, and movies, he finds his entire life unfolding onscreen, and it becomes a shockingly poignant metaphor for grief, loss, and regret. Throughout the fest, I picked up on some common threads that linked many of the films I was seeing, namely animals, sibling relationships, whispery voices, and most especially, Satanism.walked out on stage! Everyone received a complimentary
The fest is organized so that I was generally seeing 4-5 films a day, choosing my priorities the day before and crossing my fingers I would get into my first choices. I started around 11am and kept going until after midnight (though I did skip a few late-night showings, admittedly), eating most of my meals at the Alamo thanks to the truly impressive waitstaff, who unobtrusively dart out into the theater to take orders and serve food and drinks during each showing. The path to the theaters was lined with fantastic Turkish movie posters to go along with the general theme of the fest, plus one hallway of Olly Moss posters. Prior to each screening we were treated to a delightfully bizarre pre-show video program curated by Laird Jimenez, featuring everything from Bollywood musical numbers and 80s heavy metal videos to kung-fu fight sequences and experimental animation. The wait was generally as fun as the movie, as I took in all the eclectic clips and made friends with my neighbors. Because the fest is set up by individual priorities, it can be hard to get into the same screenings and theaters as a friend who’s there with you, so the norm seems to be that all the single-seaters are just new friends waiting to happen. The openness and sense of community was immediately felt, and since we’re all there to see these wacky genre films, there’s an assumed level of knowledge and interest going into any conversation. Before my screening of February I was able to explain the connections I found between The Lobster and The Apple to a receptive stranger, and I got into an enjoyable debate about ’s best film (I contend it’s A Field in England, but was met with Kill List and Sightseers as counterarguments) prior to seeing his latest, High-Rise. Before seeing the new film I found myself in a deep discussion comparing and ’s features in respect to their filmmakers’ public personae. Everywhere I went I heard cinematic discussions, and whether funny or serious or downright misinformed, it didn’t matter.
This shared film nerdery encircled us all like a big fuzzy blanket, as we took comfort in our mutual passion for bloody dismemberment, kinky sexual fantasies, Satanic rituals, sword fights, seedy mysteries, talking animals, vengeful ghosts, warring assassins, and whatever other weirdness the movies want to throw at us. Because ultimately the sheer joy of Fantastic Fest comes down to the sheer joy of the films themselves, and with it the theater experience. Though I was only there for a short time I felt almost immediately at home at the Alamo, seated in the dark, surrounded by a bunch of dorks just like me, watching a bunch of screwed-up films, for days on end. That’s probably someone’s idea of heaven.