Fantastic Fest Embraces the Virtual Chaos

Online celebration salvages a lost year for genre-film fans

I joined the Fantastic Fest fan group on Facebook years ago. I am a Fantastic Fiend. It’s hard not to pull for the scrappy, chaotic film festival in Austin, Texas, put on by the Alamo Drafthouse every September, despite some of its major fuckups.

From March to June of this year, the occasional, “Is it going to get canceled?” post would go up on the fan group. People who plan their year’s PTO around 9 days of genre film premieres and insane parties waited for any glimmer of hope that there might still be a fest, pandemic be damned. Then the hammer fell in July. The fest put out a cancellation post, and it seemed that was that.

It would be a respite for those of us who attend every year, I thought. A nice rest before coming back full force in 2021, hopefully. Besides, there’s no way to capture the spirit of Fantastic Fest without being in person, I told myself. Well, it’s a good thing I’m not a film fest organizer.

Hope Renewed

On September 1st, the Fantastic Fest Twitter account put out a cryptic tweet teasing some sort of something during the original planned dates of the fest from Sept. 24 to Oct. 1. Nine days later, an announcement and press release made Celebration of Fantastic Fest official.

The fest would stream live a reduced slate of world and North American premieres, using a combination of the Drafthouse’s streaming service Alamo on Demand and the Scener browser plugin for synchronized remote movie viewing and chat. Unlike the typical in-person fest, there’d be no choice of films in various timeslots. Everyone would experience the same film, complete with familiar Alamo Drafthouse preshow content and Zoom Q&As with filmmakers.

Despite the expected technical hurdles that come with the territory of video conferencing software, opening night felt like a return to form, albeit digital. Thanks to the Scener chat feature many attendees reconnected with fest buddies of past and proceeded to riff on the opening night film Teddy. (Fest organizers would later ask that attendees refrain from using the chat during the live film screenings out of respect to filmmakers and adherence to the Drafthouse’s longstanding no talking or texting policy.)

And just like that, Fantastic Fest was back. The fest that goes out of its way to schedule a werewolf film on the night of a full moon had found a way. One of the programmers introducing the opening night film quipped that the fest is trying to earn its reputation as “the little Telluride.” Here’s what the tiny Texas Telluride had on offer this year

The Old Man Movie

 

The indisputable darling of the festival this year was the Estonian stop-motion animated film The Old Man Movie. Think Wallace and Gromit meets the most foul-mouthed argumentative children parts of early South Park and that’s pretty close to the vibe. It’s crass and zany, but I really can’t remember the last time I laughed so consistently through an animated film since Shaun the Sheep, so that’s pretty good company to keep.

Action USA

This year’s secret screening was a rediscovery of a 1989 action flick made by and featuring stunt professionals. Action USA takes explosions and then explodes those explosions. It’s the very best of late 80s trash action. Expect dumb one-liners leading to people dramatically falling from buildings and helicopters. Alamo will re-release the film in theaters this November if you dare.

The Queen of Black Magic

 

An extremely loose remake of the 1981 Queen of Black Magic comes by way of Indonesia. If you’re a fan of The Raid movies, you have a sense of how insanely gruesome and violent films out of Jakarta can be. This one pulls no punches and actually made me–a champion of Green Room and The Perfection –squirm. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but everything else about this one is worth the time if you like slow burns and creepy crawly body horror.

The Stylist

 

In 2016, director Jill Gevargizian premiered her Kickstarter-funded short film The Stylist at Fantastic Fest. Only fitting that her Kickstarter-funded feature-length adaptation of the same name should world premiere at the same fest. While a bit predictable, this anthem for the lonely and awkward about a young hairstylist who preys on her clientele, collecting scalps, was a crowd pleaser.

The Events

Fantastic Fest

Celebration of Fantastic Fest did its best to offer up opportunities for distanced debauchery. Mainstays of the festival like Fantastic Feud were streamed, while reserved spots were offered for various renowned virtual escape rooms, as well as a crazy zoom party game of Bowling Night. The general consensus from attendees was gratitude for any opportunity to reconnect with other festgoers they typically only get to pal around with for one week out of the year.

There’s certainly no substitute for in-person attendance for a festival that trades on the unpredictable like Fantastic Fest does, but Celebration of Fantastic Fest pulled together something pretty special, given the circumstances.

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Pablo Gallaga

Pablo Gallaga is a former video blogger and recapper for Television Without Pity (RIP). You can probably find him at an Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. He will thwart your alien invasion by uploading a rudimentary computer virus to your mothership using a 1996 Apple Powerbook and no Wi-Fi.

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