Compared to the Sundances of the world, Fantastic Fest may serve a niche crowd, but the latest installment still left a major dent. The Austin-based gathering’s sixth year included the largest media presence in its history and a typically boisterous crowd. The initial round of badges for admission sold out two months in advance; VIP badges went on sale at the festival’s midpoint and vanished within seconds. Genre fans clearly needed their fix.
Innumerable events charged the festival with a frantic spirit. Filmmakers, critics and movie stars debated off-the-wall topics and threw literal punches in a boxing ring. Horror fans engaged in a hardcore trivia contest. An entire midnight event comprised of excerpts from movies that together delivered the “100 Best Kills.” The ubiquitous presence of ridiculously hyperactive “Timecrimes” director Nacho Vigalondo, often accompanied by a sober-eyed Elijah Wood as his fellow juror for the “Next Wave” features, suggested an ideal comedy duo in the making. Iconic horror director Stuart Gordon walked the hallways of the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. Bill Pullman made a triumphant return and allowed the parody troupe Master Pancake Theater to mock his creative output to his face. Day to day, moment to moment, it was a memorable scene.
So what about the movies?
There were dozens of them, and many were quite good. While nothing rose to the level of popularity gained by last year’s memorable breakout hit, “The Human Centipede,” audiences buzzed about a huge crop of titles that either played into genre expectations or cleverly subverted them. “The artistic merits of genre films are quite important to me,” the festival’s co-founder, Tim League, told indieWIRE on Monday. “I believe very strongly about that. I don’t know if what we’re doing with all the craziness of the festival brings it closer to the ghetto or takes it out of that debate, but it doesn’t matter to me. We try to reinforce that message with our seriousness about the programming itself.”
Although not everything on the schedule was “new” by festival standards, many international offerings found a uniquely welcoming crowd. The Serbian drama “The Life and Death of a Porno Gang,” directed by Mladen Djordjevic, has been playing the circuit for months, but it continues to lack a U.S. distributor. Djordjevic’s dark, graphic and yet ultimately endearing chronicle of aspiring porn director Marko (Mihajlo Jovanovich) during the downfall of Milosevic’s rule in 2001 begins on a cheery note and then goes dour (as Serbian dramas tend to do).
Marko forms a pornographic theater troupe that travels through rural towns to “educate” villagers about political issues through outrageous, sex-filled satiric escapades. Radicalized by their art, they eventually go too far by accepting an offer to make snuff films. The suicidal subjects willing to endure on-camera deaths form a disquieting line-up of Serbia’s war-torn history, as all of them are veterans of a country with no apparent sympathy for their traumas.
When the killing begins, “Porno Gang” veers into bleak territory that molds it into a symbolic horror movie — much like “Undocumented,” a Fantastic Fest world premiere that fiercely engages with America’s latest immigration troubles. Director Chris Peckover’s bitter tale follows a naive documentarian whose immigration project falls apart when radical “patriots” kidnap them and take them into their shadowy lair, where hatred for anyone sympathetic to non-American citizens runs rampant. The proceedings grow increasingly morose and gory, resulting in a rough-around-the-edges but impressively tense shocker best described as “Hostel” goes west.
Nevertheless, I prefer a superior study of the west that actually came from Australia: first-time feature director Patrick Hughes’s “Red Hill.” A throwback to the best revenge westerns of 1970s lore, Hughes’s story also contains bits of “The Wicker Man” in its depiction of an innocent police officer (Ryan Kwanten of HBO’s “True Blood”) slowly realizing that the entire police force has turned against him. The first of a projected western trilogy Hughes hopes to direct (the sequels are tentatively called “White Mountain” and “Black Valley”), “Red Hill” gradually assembles its engagingly straightforward depiction of a small country town preparing for the arrival of a mysterious convict on a murderous rampage. The secret behind his motives cleverly redefines the movie’s moral compass. There’s also the inexplicable arrival of a panther late in the game, which takes Hughes’s creativity to an entirely new level of inspiration and bodes well for his promised follow-ups.
Speaking of secrets, Fantastic Fest had several of them: Surprise showings of the Korean revenge movie “I Saw the Devil,” Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go,” “Tokyo Gore Police” director Yoshihiro Nishimura’s “Hell Driver,” and a work-in-progress cut of the Norwegian mockumentary “Troll Hunter.” The reactions to these special events were all across the board, but that didn’t stop audiences from cheering wildly after each of them.
Personally, I was more excited by a trio of entries that won at the awards ceremony, partly because — full disclosure! — I sat on the jury for the “Fantastic Features” section. Along with my co-jurors Trevor Groth and Matt Dentler, I fell in love with the Swedish musical comedy “Sound of Noise,” while the “Horror” jury gave a well-deserved award to the Spanish home invasion thriller “Kidnapped.” Only the “Next Wave” winner — awarded by Wood and Vigalondo, among others — left many viewers scratching their heads, myself included. I did appreciate the ambition of “Norwegian Ninja” (it imagines Cold War spy Arne Treholt as an action hero) but it’s unquestionably the most lackluster grindhouse homage in recent years, and actually manages to feel boring against all odds. Fortunately, the audience award for the startling Korean drama “Bedevilled” made up for the one bad apple in the lot.
The Fantastic Fest awards did imply a certain focus to the festival lurking behind the constant party atmosphere. Even the instantly legendary “Chaos Reigns” karaoke party, in which Wood, RZA, Vigalondo, and director Eduwardo Meza joined League and Fantastic Fest programmer Michael Lerman onstage to sing a Black Eyed Peas song, had its roots in legitimate movie fandom. The title of the event referred to last year’s overnight success of “Antichrist,” which proved that Fantastic Fest can influence a movie’s popularity to great effect. “That whole viral ‘Chaos Reigns’ thing is now becoming an identity of the festival,” League said, referring to a dead fox’s now-famous line of dialogue from Lar Von Trier’s 2009 movie. “The way that the genre community responded to that film, whereas the response was a lot more anemic from the arthouse community, I think that drove the VOD success.”
League has distribution on his mind a lot these days. Just a few weeks ago, the Alamo Drafthouse founder announced the initiation of Drafthouse Films, a distribution company geared toward releasing movies on a selective basis (their first release will be Chris Morris’s British terrorist comedy “Four Lions,” which was well-received at Sundance). “We’re not going to be the most high profile distributor,” League said. “We know what we are. We can’t compete with Sony or even Magnet and IFC. It would be better for films to find a home there, but we’re going to help the lost orphans of the world.”
How that mission will tie into Fantastic Fest remains undetermined. “As new means of distribution become more profitable, the cost of entry into something like a festival might be perfect for a VOD-only type of title coming out of Fantastic Fest,” League said. “I’d love to see the brand grow in that way.” But that doesn’t mean he wants Fantastic Fest itself to keep on growing. “We don’t want to become too much larger because the sense of community is really important to what we’re trying to do,” League said. “If you triple the size of this festival, it’s going to feel a lot less intimate. I want to continue doing what we’re doing with the same mission.” Presumably, that means more rambunctious karaoke sessions next year — but more movies, too.