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How I Survived My First Fantastic Fest

Updated on September 30, 2017
This was the big display in the lobby of Alamo Drafthouse for Fantastic Fest 2017. An animated version also played before each film.
This was the big display in the lobby of Alamo Drafthouse for Fantastic Fest 2017. An animated version also played before each film.

About five years ago, I had planned on attending Fantastic Fest. Sleeping accommodations were all but finalized and a carpooling situation would have solidified transportation since my car at the time spent more time in the shop than actually serving its purpose of getting me from one destination to another. Unfortunately though, the herniated disc in my back was at its worst forcing me to walk in an S-shape just to alleviate pain. The following year I would have surgery for some sort of relief, but I eventually had to back out of attending that year since sitting for long periods of time likely would have irritated an already miserable situation.

Fast forward to this year and everything finally fell into place; press credentials were secured, I took my car into the shop beforehand to make sure I’d get to Austin and back in one piece, and I was able to take my vacation from work to have the time off to attend. The back situation is something I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life, but it’s at least at a point where it’s manageable. Despite seeing some of the films that were shown during previous Houston Cinema Arts Festivals, Fantastic Fest 2017 was literally the first film festival I ever truly felt apart of and was actually able to go to from beginning to end.

Writer and director Angela Robinson (right) during the introduction for "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women."
Writer and director Angela Robinson (right) during the introduction for "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women."

This was the first time I’d ever stayed at an Airbnb. One other member of the Houston Film Critics Society stayed there as well, but every other person was otherwise a stranger going in. That’s a little intimidating since I had a similar experience in college where I was paired up with somebody I’d never met to share an apartment with for over two years. Thankfully this wasn’t like that. Excitement and anticipation is already at a certain level as you get within days and eventually hours before something like this starts. Sharing living quarters with something like 14 other people who are just as hungry as you are for something this massive to get underway only makes the experience more enjoyable. It’s as if your combined enthusiasm joins together like The Planeteers summoning Captain Planet or giant robot lions connecting to form Voltron and yes, in the long run, Fantastic Fest is basically a Voltron-sized film festival.

I’ve had some experience going to anime and comic conventions in the past and Fantastic Fest is like that kind of atmosphere except it revolves around movies that haven’t been released yet. Some of these films will go on to be released this year or get distribution in the coming months, but discovering a film or group of films that are really incredible that don’t have future release plans or have yet to be acquired by anyone is something that should be appealing to every movie fan. Sometimes films shown here don’t get released for months afterward and word of mouth and buzz from Fantastic Fest are what triggers the interest from studios. The cool thing about conventions is that the majority of the people attending seem honest and kindhearted. Everyone treats each other with respect since we’re all there to have a good time and enjoy similar interests. Fantastic Fest is the same way; you’re going to run into certain exceptions but we have to spend eight days together and they might as well be as enjoyable as possible.

Leonard Maltin (left) and his daughter Jessie (right) recording their podcast Maltin On Movies with guest Gilbert Gottfried (middle).
Leonard Maltin (left) and his daughter Jessie (right) recording their podcast Maltin On Movies with guest Gilbert Gottfried (middle).

For anyone who has never been to something like this, most of the titles shown at Fantastic Fest are films that have yet to debut in the United States with a few films often being world premieres and the remaining few either within weeks of theatrical or streaming release. All of the films are shown at one location, the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, while Drafthouse staff (usually programmers) introduces each film. Cast and crew from the films being shown take part in Q&A sessions held after each film, which provide a deeper level of insight that doesn’t come with simply viewing the film. Guests this year included Vince Vaughn, Gilbert Gottfried, Elijah Wood (who attends every year), Frank Grillo, and Tom Jane among many others. Fantastic Fest titles typically cater to the horror and sci-fi genres with many falling into a WTF or bizarre category. There are more artsy titles featured and there are usually a few titles that are more mainstream, but a lot of films shown are likely aren’t going to be seen anywhere else. Cult classics are also shown in 4K and/or 35mm with Ichi the Killer and The Gate being this year's lucky recipients of those treatments. Anime and animation is also a big part of it while shorts (averaging between 4-20 minutes in length) also pump blood into the veins of the festival; some are paired up with films that are similar in style or subject matter but are also lumped together and shown as their own feature.

This year was a weird year to attend Fantastic Fest for the first time with the Devin Faraci sexual assault allegations and secret rehiring by Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League caused many attendees to pull out and Fox Searchlight to pull Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (along with director Martin McDonagh and actor Sam Rockwell from appearing) altogether. Then in the middle of Fantastic Fest, similar allegations were made towards Harry Knowles from Ain’t It Cool News. Knowles is also the co-founder of Fantastic Fest, so it was disheartening for anyone who was familiar with anything behind the scenes. I’m not familiar with these critics or their work, so it didn’t really affect me personally. However there was this palpable discomfort in the air. While it caused a noticeable stir that had everyone talking it didn’t affect the overall enjoyment of the next eight days or the strong line-up of films Fantastic Fest had to offer.

Fantastic Fest 2017 celebrated Indian cinema. The walls were decorated with Indian posters of American and foreign films.
Fantastic Fest 2017 celebrated Indian cinema. The walls were decorated with Indian posters of American and foreign films.

Secret screenings included Ed Wood’s final directorial effort where he had full creative control Take It Out In Trade and Armando Iannucci’s period comedy drama The Death of Stalin. I walked out of Take It Out In Trade after about 20 minutes since it was basically poorly edited pornography with no storyline. Watching porn with a theater full of strangers is profoundly awkward and not entertaining in the slightest. Meanwhile I also walked out of The Death of Stalin, but only missed the last 15-20 minutes. The film just wasn’t for me, but was generally loved by everyone else while Take It Out In Trade seemed to be hated by just about everybody. As far as crowd favorites go, the zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse and the rap battle infused Bodied were the most talked about and had the most positive reactions.

I had access to the press screening room and I was able to see 11 films before Fantastic Fest began. I also went to press screenings at 8am every day that they were held, which was each day of Fantastic Fest other than the final day. This is a miracle in itself since this festival is known for its lack of sleep and practically inevitable fatigue/sickness known as Fantastic Flu (which I luckily avoided). Overall I saw 44 films over the course of eight days and that doesn’t include the three films (Take It Out In Trade, The Death of Stalin, and Mom and Dad) that I walked out of. Highlights involved being able to see Firstborn in an empty theater and the reaction of the audience made the rape and revenge horror film Revenge totally worthwhile and a must-see despite being the only film that froze over a week long theatrical movie binge.

The poster art for crowd favorite and zombie musical, "Anna and the Apocalypse."
The poster art for crowd favorite and zombie musical, "Anna and the Apocalypse."

Fantastic Fest is an incredible experience I hope to return to as often as I’m allowed to. By the last day you are completely wiped out and getting to that last film feels like an accomplishment in itself. On day 8, you are overcome with this overabundance of emotions. You desperately want to sleep in your own bed and a part of you can’t wait for your life to go back to normal. You are anxious and exhausted, but also are sad to see it end and don’t ever want it to be over at the same time. You have the same spectrum of emotions pulsing through you after something like Comicpalooza or going to Disneyland. Fantastic Fest is a cinematic adventure that everyone should invest in, but the kicker is you’ll want to come back again and again and every year won’t feel complete without it. Fantastic Fest is like grindhouse ecstasy and you’re a future addict needing your fix. Chaos reigns supreme at Fantastic Fest and you are ecstatic to enlist in its hypnotic wave of destruction.

Here are my favorite films along with a few honorable mentions of Fantastic Fest 2017:

  1. Blade of the Immortal
  2. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  3. Mon Mon Mon Monsters
  4. Jupiter's Moon
  5. Mary and the Witch's Flower
  6. The Endless
  7. Tigers Are Not Afraid
  8. Wheelman
  9. Junk Head
  10. Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse

Honorable Mentions: World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, Bodied, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Super Dark Times, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, The Merciless, 3ft Ball and Souls, Revenge, Downsizing

© 2017 Chris Sawin


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