You know those kids who didn’t give a damn about fashion or football but piled onto beanbags in the basement every Friday to watch the freakiest low-budget camp horror comedies and psychedelic vintage animations on bootleg VHS procured via mail order from some dude they met at a rock show in Tennessee? Imagine those kids grew up, moved to Austin and started a film festival. Welcome to Fantastic Fest.
The Fantastic Fest faithful travel in a happy pack of weirdos, migrating from Montreal’s Fantasia Fest in June down to Austin in September, then off to Los Angeles for Beyond Fest in October. Each festival has its own flavor, though the programming largely overlaps. What’s special about Fantastic Fest is its connection to the Alamo Drafthouse and Drafthouse Films, the Austin theater and distributor whose support for these films doesn’t just stop after this single week in September. Last year, for instance, Karyn Kusama premiered her stellar slow-burn ensemble horror The Invitation, which Drafthouse then put out and promoted in 2016 to some big acclaim (it’s certainly on my top 10 list). Like everyone at these fests, the Drafthousers love movies, and they want to tell you about them. And now I’m going to tell you which ones I’m most excited to see this year, along with some other once-in-a-lifetime Fantastic events.
A genre festival might be one of the few places where people actually get psyched for documentaries. 24x36: A Movie About Posters maligns all the boring-ass staid key art churned out for contemporary films — Gotham typeface, I’m coming for you — giving the movie posters of yore and their artists much love and credit. Director Andreas Horvath’s Helmut Berger, Actor goes beyond typical intimacy with its subject, an Austrian film star in the ’60s and ’70s and muse to Italian auteurs. The aging thespian swills booze, throws tantrums, solicits Horvath for sex; he’s painfully vulnerable, but it’s never quite clear what’s performance and what’s truth. Another doc out of New Zealand, Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses, tackles a local exorcism gone awry, melding off-kilter reenactments with stranger-than-fiction interviews with the people who were present for the fateful ceremony, asking the question: Did a malevolent spirit do away with Janet, or did her well-meaning neighbors?
Repping the ladies, wasteland-obsessed Ana Lily Amirpour brings her Venice Film Fest laurels to Texas with The Bad Batch, a story about a girl just trying to make it in a cannibalistic man-eat-man world, where Jim Carrey happens to play an unrecognizable homeless man and Keanu Reeves is a cult leader. Director Julia Ducournau is also into man-eaters — her film Raw is so gruesome that viewers at the Toronto International Film Festival actually passed out in the theaters. In it, a vegetarian girl develops the taste for human flesh and loses her mind, but how bad could that be?
And maybe there’s something in the air women are breathing right now, because Agnieszka Smoczynska’s Polish vampire mermaid musical The Lure also goes hard tooth-to-skin, but it’s, you know, an immigrant love story too. And then there’s Maren Ade and Andrea Arnold, who stick with realistic contemporary setups, stretching the definition of “genre.” Toni Erdmann (Ade) turns the father-daughter-connection story on its ass when the father decides he wants to live as his alter ego Andy Kaufman–style, while American Honey (Arnold) revs up the lost-youth road movie with a Red-Bull-and-uppers-fueled Americana tour. (That one hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles next Friday.)
Even when the women aren’t writing and directing genre films, they also often get to be the stars, but we’ll save the long conversation about men being fascinated and terrified by women (OMG PERIODS!) for another date. Playground (Bartosz Kowalski) shows a middle-school class devolving into brutal violence after a girl tries to tell a boy she likes him, and Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (A.D. Calvo) gives a shy wallflower a new popular friend, and the two descend into darkness and dear god hopefully witchcraft?
If you’re looking for monsters, Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski’s The Void is like The Island of Dr. Moreau in a modern hospital, tempered with the grief of a brutal breakup. There are lots of practical effects in this one bound to please John Carpenter fans. Then there’s Sadako vs. Kayako (Koji Shiraishi), the showdown of villainous ghouls from The Ring and The Grudge series, Freddy vs. Jason–style — it’s everything you expect it to be. Jungle Trap (James Bryan) is a kitchen sink of B-movie brilliance shot on video in 1990 and unreleased until now. Described as a “horror masterpiece about a jungle hotel haunted by kill-crazy ghosts in loincloths,” the film wasn’t even edited or scored until the trash-horror champions at Bleeding Skull stepped in to finish it recently.
If you’re lucky enough to get to Fantastic Fest in the flesh someday, you’ll pay witness to their Fantastic Debates, which match living legends of the genre-film community for ridiculous disagreements, like Rocky vs. Christian Rock. These inevitably end in ill-prepared boxing bouts in which nerds attempt to exercise their muscles to knock out their opponents, while stars like Elijah Wood hang on the ropes, cheering and jeering. This year, they’re debuting a puzzle room, Satanic Panic, because I guess we’ve grown tired of karaoke bars and now must willingly endure the living torture of escaping rooms within a limited amount of time. But, hey, maybe you’ll run into Keanu Reeves, Tim Burton or the RZA in line — this is where people who DGAF go to let their freak flag fly.