- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
There is but one place to see aliens invading the Earth, cops and criminals in Mumbai and the most dangerous floating orb in all of cinema: the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar from Sept. 22-29.
It’s Fantastic Fest, the annual gathering of the genre-fanatic tribe wherein the devout devour cutting-edge horror, science fiction, thrillers and documentaries from around the globe.
The founder of the fest is, of course, Alamo Drafthouse head honcho Tim League. But in this, the fest’s 12th year, League will finally be able to enjoy a few movies at exactly the same time (more or less) that everyone else does — he has turned much of the festival programming over to others.
“This is one of the first years I don’t feel like the dictator of the festival and have seen almost everything,” League says. “Turning most of it over to (festival programming head) Evrim Ersoy allows me to enjoy it rather than working so much.”
In the next week, Fantastic Fest will screen more than 110 features, documentaries and shorts, from high-profile genre pictures such as Tim Burton’s “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” to a few films that you will likely only see at Fantastic Fest before they hit the video on demand circuit (and a few you won’t be able to see there, either).
It turns out that League still gets a little nervous around his heroes. South Korean superstar director Park Chan-Wook (“Oldboy,” “Stoker”) will attend the festival for the first time to present the U.S. premiere of his erotic drama “The Handmaiden.”
“Park Chan-Wook’s 2002 movie ‘A Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’ was a film that made me want to start Fantastic Fest,” League says. “It’s a perfect film. It’s really dark and strong and funny and completely devastating, and it made me want to start a festival for movies like that.”
Another special event that League is excited about? Wu-Tang producer the RZA performing a live re-scoring of Lau Kar-leung’s martial arts classic “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,” a film that proved massively influential on the Wu in general and RZA in particular.
“I’ve been working a really long time on that one,” League says. “Anytime we can do live score events makes for a really special event.”
Much in the way that Turkish cinema was emphasized last year, it’s Bollywood that comes to the fore this year with a block of new and repertory South Asian features, including director Anurag Kashyareap’s cut of his eye-poppingly violent 2016 picture “Psycho Raman,” the centuries-spanning epic “Magadheera” and the stylish Bollywood gangster film “Khalnayak.”
League says international themes spring, to some extent, from what is on offer. “Much like Turkey,” League said, “India has a great poster culture, a great film culture and a great food culture.”
As with every Fantastic Fest, there are events and experiences one is unlikely to have anywhere else.
Witness, for example, the Satanic Panic Escape Room, a puzzle room or mystery room with, as one might imagine, a satanic theme. For those too young or too otherwise occupied to remember 1980s moral manias, “Satanic Panic” refers to the widespread belief that waves of satanic ritual abuse alighted throughout our fair nation. Anyone who attended a church youth group during the Reagan administration can tell you all about it.
Given Fantastic Fest’s interests, it’s no surprise that players will be cloaked in ritual garb, blindfolded, led to a dimly lit chamber, shackled and given 45 minutes to solve a series of puzzles.
Fantastic Fest is also diving into virtual reality, partnering with Los Angeles VR studio Dark Corner for the world premiere of Guy Shelmerdine’s VR film “Mule,” his follow-up to “Catatonic,” which will also screen. Look for Justin Denton’s two-part horror piece “Burlap,” which is both a two-dimensional short film and an immersive VR experience. Audiences can watch the short film, then step inside the story with “Burlap: Reflections,” where they will experience the killer’s obsession firsthand.
These are the sort of experiences that are likely to stay in Austin. League has franchised the Drafthouse all over the country, but don’t expect a franchised Fantastic Fest in other cities.
“I think we can boost the programming that we live stream to other theaters,” League says, “but a festival is about a place and a community. And filmmakers are very particular about how much exposure a film gets at a particular time. The right concentration of press and industry is hard to duplicate in multiple markets.”
But one suspects we all know why many people come back to Fantastic Fest year after year. It’s not the movies, it’s not the nerd-culture camaraderie, it’s not even the inevitable day drinking — it’s to see people get in the square circle with League during the Fantastic Debates, a showcase of verbal and physical combat.
“I have competed in the debates every year,” League says. “And they are more me getting punched than actually punching anyone. But I am getting to be an old man, and I do have twin daughters.”
He pauses. “But I can be talked into just about anything.”