I’m sandwiched in a packed room full of sweaty, head-banging festival-goers amped up to the sound of a 32-person punk rock industrial marching band named Itchy-O. If that sentence seems like a lot to take in, believe me, so was the show. Lights and lasers are flashing everywhere through a thick fog, and the occasional dry ice stream blast through the air with a hiss — a blessed, merciful coolant in a room drowning in overheated bodies. Suddenly an unexpected pocket opens in the sardine-tight crowd. Turning around to see what’s up, I nearly stumble backward over a woman who’s crawling and writhing around on the floor.
That’s the moment that I realize I’m experiencing something special and out of the ordinary, and something that can probably happen here, in this space built to celebrate the bizarre and unusual with an unironic, unassuming affection. Then a stranger in a black mask walks by and pets my head, ruining any semblance of decency left to my hair (though the sweat and crowd flow had pretty well achieved that already), a kind gentleman behind me warns me that my backpack is starting to unzip from vigorously rocking the fuck out, and a glittering sequin-bedecked Chinese dragon wriggles by in my peripheral vision. I’m sweaty, I’m drunk, and in that moment, I couldn’t be happier. Welcome to FantasticFest.
A week’s worth of pure, unadulterated genre celebration, balls-out partying, and some damn good BBQ, Fantastic Fest takes place once a year at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. There, the team led by Drafthouse chief Tim League does a spectacular job creating a singular environment of slightly debauched fun, rampant silliness, and absolutely serious respect for the world’s finest action, fantasy, sci-fi and horror films. Sure, you can get your jollies by digging into a fake corpse (viral marketing for The Autopsy of Jane Doe) or chomping down on some fresh cooked rat (served at the premiere screening of Morgan Spurlock‘s Rats), but behind the adventures and insanity, there’s a commitment to scouring the industry for the best genre films and television the world over. You can watch an eating contest designed to make its contestants sick (aptly titled Puke and Explode), but you’re also probably going to watch your favorite movie of the year here.
This year’s festival — my first, though god-willing it will not be my last — featured a stacked line-up of screenings, from high-profile players like Denis Villeneuve’s intimate drama-cum-alien invasion pic Arrival and HBO’s “next Game of Thrones” Westworld, to obscure foreign entries like the Irish occult thriller A Dark Song and the Australian race riots comedy(!) Down Under, prestige picture contenders like Paul Veerhoven’s Elle (which was recently secured as France’s 2017 Foreign Picture selection) and J.A. Bayona’s grief fantasy A Monster Calls, and offbeat indies like The Eyes of My Mother and American Honey.
Even better are the films that fly under the radar and catch you completely off-guard — the Ugandan action thriller Bad Black, a no-budget Ugandan film that took home the audience award and the schlocky B-Movie VHS rescue Jungle Trap, James Bryan‘s unreleased film that was found and recut by a team of film resurrection enthusiasts. Other highlights included the gritty Italian superhero flick They Call me Jeeg Robot, the North American premiere of Shin Godzilla, the debut of Phantasm: Ravager and the touching post-screening Q&A that was all but unofficially dedicated to the memory of Angus Scrimm, the surprise appearance of M. Night Shyamalan and James McAvoy for the secret screening of Split, Nacho Vigalondo‘s Colossal, a triumph of a movie that somehow merges Kaiju, Alcoholism, Anne Hathaway and toxic masculinity to delightful effect, and Nacho Vigalondo himself, who sliced up a cake of his own face, dressed up like Fay Wray circa King Kong for the Q&A, and has an obvious unparalleled love for the fest.
Best of all, since the screenings are hosted within a single Drafthouse location, and because the Drafthouse famously serves food (and yes, booze) during their films, you can pack a schedule full of screenings in a single day. And that is the dance of Fantastic Fest — the balance between an exceptionally curated lineup and an unending party. It’s as much of an experience as it is a film festival. Every day at the Drafthouse brings new and unexpected treats. The most famous of these is probably the Fantastic Debates, which finds impassioned nerds and cinephiles trading verbal blows before stepping in the ring and trading blows for real. And just what are they punching each other in the face about? You know, the usual — Rocky IV, Tremors, and Zack Snyder.
This year also brought the Satanic Panic Escape Room, a 45-minute puzzle-box that finds the players shackled and dropped in a windowless room while they try to find their way out before the clock stops (and as with any good escape room, not many of them do). There was also a Virtual Reality partnership with Dark Corners that offered up some dark narrative spins on VR, including an immersive trip through the mental hospital from hell with ‘Catatonic’ and most disturbing,‘Mule’, for which you sit down in a coffin, experience death by heroin overdose and chose between seeing yourself buried or cremated.
This all sounds crazy. And it is. But there’s also something that’s surprisingly low-key about Fantastic Fest that’s hard to translate; a reflection of its devotees. Like any good horror event, you walk up through a cloud of smoke and see a legion of tatted-up, whisky-swilling attendees with shocks of unnaturally colored hair and unruly beards. The kind of folks who may look intimidating at first glance, but more often than not turn out to be the sweetest, most accepting bunch in the world. There’s an earnestness to the event, a lack of try-hard extremism. It’s the “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” of horror and partying. Sure, it’s the kind of place where you can get batshit hammered or line up for a free tattoo on closing night (or probably both), but it’s also the kind of place that welcomes newcomers like myself with open arms and a bottle of beer. Or where you can head to an offsite screening at a newly developed homeless community, Community First, where the Drafthouse helped build an outdoor theater and projection system.
I think the reception to Julia Ducournau’s beautiful cannibal film Raw sums up the Fantastic Fest vibe pretty succinctly. At TIFF the film earned a reputation as a sick-making scary movie that saw two weak-stomached moviegoers taken out in an ambulance — at Fantastic Fest, Raw was received as a beautiful coming of age film with relatively tame gore. But a Fantastic Fester wouldn’t necessarily make fun of the person passing out at Raw, they’d probably just look at them with a sort of quizzical wonder after making sure they were OK. For the record, if you watched Raw at Fantastic Fest, you had an option to enjoy an accompanying serving of beef tartare. It was delicious.