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Fantastic Fest Is Here To Bash Your Brains In

Shock, schlock, and awe at America's premier genre fest

By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 21, 2012

<i>The American Scream</i>
The American Scream

I have a recurring dream in which Fantastic Fest co-founder Tim League is giggling maniacally while chopping his way through my bathroom door with a fire axe. The joke's on him – it's a sliding door, sucka! – but when the Alamo Drafthouse CEO finally obliterates enough of the cheap pressed wood to stick his face in, à la Jack Nicholson in The Shining, he calmly tells me I'm late to Fantastic Fest and if I hurry up and get dressed, he'll give me a ride. On his magic dalmatian-unicorn. "Don't worry, it's a hybrid," he says.

I have no idea what that means. I'm not even sure if it's a nightmare or a Fantastic Fest bumper. What I do know is that 2005, the festival's Year One, seems to me like it happened a scant eight months ago, not eight years. I still have the poster, untold aeons before Mondo as we know it existed. I remember Eli Roth and Hostel, Eugenio Mira and The Birthday, and Takashi Shimizu's Marebito.

I have a fuzzy-cool memory of an alcohol-accentuated screening of Steve De Jarnatt's ridiculous/sublime/classic Miracle Mile, during which I might have hollered out "John Agar ruuulez!" at one point, but that may have just been John Agar's restless, plastered spirit. That first year was the first time I saw No Blade of Grass, which is looking more and more like a documentary with every passing moment.

Anyway, the whole shebang, cooked up by League, Harry Knowles, Paul Alvarado-Dykstra, and Tim McCanlies, seemingly on a dare, went off like a firecracker in a drunken donkey's ass, which is to say memorably, with much hilarity and good cheer, but precious little sleep, and with a sore rear end and accompanying hangover.

Back then, I thought it could not have been more fantastic. Now, eight years later and kicking off Fantastic Fest 2012, I'm stone cold psyched to be able to say, "Hey, is that Bill Murray behind you?" Ha! Sucka! It's Brian Doyle-Murray. With machine-gun eyeballs! Goddamn, that's too freaking cool. Chaos reigns!

When NBCUniversal subsidiary Chiller Network contacted Best Worst Movie director Michael Stephenson about making a documentary on the phenomenon of "home haunting" – wherein otherwise normal suburbanites transform their houses and yards into the very essences of interactive, DIY, Halloween spooktaculars – they probably didn't expect the result to be The Ameri­can Scream.

"I think their initial expectation was that we'd give them something flashier," says the film's producer (and longtime Alamo Draft­house Terror Tuesday programmer) Zack Carlson. "They were thinking of something with a nu-metal soundtrack that would show how intense and insane these pants-shitting haunts are. And Michael's filmmaking is very much the opposite of that, which is better for the world and better for the project."

No kidding. The American Scream is a heartfelt, charming, emotionally moving, and true-grue portrait of three East Coast families and their All Hallows labors of love (and death). It's as American as Norman Bates' mom, pumpkin pie, and Don Post monster masks, an affectionate portrait of where the modern nuclear family and the ancient rituals of October 31 collide with giddy, gory, glorious results.

<i>I Declare War </i>
I Declare War

After putting out an online call for potential home haunts to visit – netting over 600 responses – Carlson and Stephenson flew to Boston and then worked their way down to Washington, D.C. In the process, they winnowed the weirdness down to a lucky thirteen, and from there to three representative house-haunters, all of whom share a year-round passion for what the late Ray Bradbury called "the October country."

Stephenson: "With all the home haunters we met, it all began with them having really great memories of their childhood Halloweens. In the case of Victor [Bariteau], he never had those memories so it's almost like he's been making up for lost time by creating new Halloween memories for others. Which is pretty amazing. What makes documentaries like this special is that [the subjects] are ordinary people, for the most part, doing kind of extraordinary things. And they're going to be celebrated on the big screen in a theatre full of movie lovers. That's priceless to me."

Even more priceless? American Scream subject Manny Souza will be flying in from Fairhaven, Mass., to do his own full-scale haunt in the space next to the Alamo South Lamar, following the film's premiere, at 11:30pm, Sunday, Sept. 23.

"And that's not just for people who see the film," adds Carlson. "It's for anyone who wants to go to a free haunted house. It's going to be a really crazy haunt with live monsters and everything."

Hey, what more could a kid ask for?

How about a kids-eye-view of close-quarter combat, complete with life and death stakes, hyper-imaginative weaponry, blood, betrayal, and one badass babe? That would be filmmakers Robert Wilson and Jason Lapeyre's I Declare War, a movie that takes the games of war we all played as youngsters – prior to the Xbox, that is – and renders them real in a way that evokes the all-or-nothing, do-or-die, highest-of-high-stakes adolescent mindset with an honesty and clarity we've never seen so perfectly portrayed before.

This isn't The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, or even Lord of the Flies – although it does owe a sizable debt to the latter. Instead, it's a vivid realization of exactly what was going through our tweenage mind's eyes while we crouched in a forest glade waiting for "the enemy" to make a move on our flag. Sorry, Charlie Co., today's laser tag and first-person-shooters can't hold a light – careful, three on a match is bad luck! – to actually running amok in the woods.

"Jason [Lapeyre] is an army brat," explains co-director Wilson (phoning from a hospital where his wife has recently given birth to twins). "He wrote the script 10 years ago while he was in Japan, and he wanted to write about the intensity of what it was like to be 12 years old. Because at 12, everything is life or death, you know? If the girl doesn't like you, it's the end of the world. And he figured [playing] war would be a really good way to frame that."

Praise your pals and pass the imaginary ammunition, so to speak? Certainly leads Michael Friend (think Full Metal Jacket's Pvt. Pyle as a seething youth), Gage Munroe (the film's nominal moral compass and pragmatic general), and Mackenzie Munro (innocent "girl" or – gulp – worse) are dead-bang real.

<i>Crave</i>
Crave

Wilson: "There's a little Leone here, a little Full Metal Jacket there, but we took off from the idea that these kids have seen most of these movies. So if they're imagining stuff, they're imagining these images that they've seen. It was not meant as a statement on war. It was not meant as a statement on bullying. That was never the intention. We wanted to make a movie about being 12."

Which, of course, means blood 'n' guts, love and death, innocence lost, and, perhaps, a brief semblance of adulthood – peril and power both – found. War is hell, but it's also a helluva lot of fun when you're 12.

If you've watched any DVD extras in the last decade, chances are you've seen Charles de Lauzirika's name. He's produced or directed supplemental materials for DVDs ranging from Thelma & Louise to Alien, and he got his start with Ridley and the late Tony Scott.

His debut feature, Crave, is a study in collapse – specifically, the mental disintegration of crime scene photographer Aiden, played by Australian actor Josh Lawson. Tortured by what he's seen as much as by what he's not felt, Aiden falls hard for next door neighbor Virginia (the terrific Emma Lung), and things go from bad to possibly not-so-bad, to really, horrifically, beyond bad in short order. His only friend Pete (the always welcome Ron Perlman), a cop and fellow Friend of Bill W., may be as emotionally splattered as Aiden, but at least he's holding it together, somehow, while trying to soothe the restless demons within his Weegee-esque friend. Guys like this don't communicate well, but, really, how do you communicate bottomless despair?

"For me, all those years doing documentaries was kind of a side trip," says Lauzirika. "Ever since I was 7 years old and saw Jaws, I've wanted to direct movies. But getting that directing career going is tough; as any young filmmaker learns, it's not easy. So my path forward was doing a lot of internships, one of which was for Ridley and Tony Scott. In '97 or '98 DVDs started to hit and I was the only one in their organization who was a DVD geek. I briefed [Ridley] on it, just before he was going out to do Gladiator, and he basically just turned to me and said, 'Do you want to be in charge [of the DVD]?' And so I basically just learned on the job. That was 14 years ago."

So why debut with a small indie film about a shutterbug's lone descent into madness? Hard sell, no?

"Not really," explains Lauzirika. "For the last few years I've been attached to direct and write an adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story ["I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon"], and the estate suggested that I first do a smaller film before we try to get [the Philip K. Dick] story off the ground. It turned out that Robert Lawton was my neighbor at the time. I asked him if he had anything that we could do very quickly, and he came to me with this idea of Walter Mitty meets Travis Bickle. And that was what eventually became Crave."

Lauzirika's debut is a gritty, artfully urban noir, a sorrowful meditation on forlorn alienation, and a critique of societal disconnection masquerading as a gallows-grim horror film. It succeeds on all levels, empathically drawing the audience into Aiden's harrowed psyche and then daring us to not care when the abyss swallows him whole.

"I was going through a bit of a rocky end of a relationship at the time and I really wanted to fuse that into the character," adds Lauzirika. "I wanted to give [the film] an almost Fight Club sensibility in terms of the humor and the darkness."

<i>Room 237 </i>
Room 237

So is there a touch of autobiographical detail in the film? Not that one part, certainly, not that awful thing that, you know, happens. But still ...

"Yeah, absolutely," the director admits. "In some ways, I think Aiden is split 50/50 between me and Rob Lawton. I don't want to say that Robert is angry at the world, but he has frustrations and wishes he could have this absolute black-and-white world, morally. And the part of Aiden that's more myself is probably the one who wants to have that perfect love and the perfect woman, but it's always going to be out of his reach, but he's grasping for that. So when he does have it in this film, and then he loses it, he doesn't start to think too clearly. In Aiden's case, he makes a tragic mistake. In my case I made a movie."

Everybody has a story of some kind, an attachment of some sort, or a speculative, unique theory regarding the true meaning of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. (Everyone who has seen it, anyway.) It's impossible to realize how deeply Kubrick's film has penetrated into the global psychological substrata until you start talking to others about it. And then the floodgates open wide – unlike the exsanguinating elevators in Kubrick's film, which never actually open, even as they disgorge thousands of gallons of bright vermilion shock. Love it or loathe it, Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King's bestseller has seeped into all manner of media fissures and pooled deep within. It's like a bad meme you can't wake up from.

"I've alway been a giant Kubrick fan and that first viewing of The Shining scarred me for life," explains Rodney Ascher, director of the hands-down hypnotic documentary Room 237. "Like a moth to flame, it's been something I keep returning to."

Room 237 dissects Kubrick's film in forensic detail that would do Quincy, M.E. proud. Ascher interviewed five disparate Shining fanatics, each of whom had their own pet notions about the film, and then married their wildly varying suppositions to a wealth of shots, scenes, and sequences from both Kubrick's movie and others. The result is one of the most compelling documentary experiments ever attempted. No hyperbole, that. The various voices in Room 237 posit, as Kubrick's real message, the genocide of the Native Ameri­cans, the Holocaust, Kubrick's alleged faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and on and on.

Ascher steps through parts of The Shin­ing frame-by-frame, and then backwards, all while the conspiratorial – and often disconcertingly convincing – commentators reveal the obvious to be both ominous and arcane. The effect is akin to watching a quintet of Shining scholars try to out-master each other with a Kubrick's Cube. It's tantalizing, exasperating, and wonderful, if brain-achey, fun.

"The genesis of the project happened when my friend Tim Kirk, who eventually became producer on the film, posted an online analysis of The Shining on my wall one day. And it just kind of blew the back of my skull off. I instantly knew I wanted to make a film around [Kirk's analysis]. As much as I liked reading it in prose, I wanted to see it put together with visuals that drove the whole thing home."

Ascher, who previously directed a short documentary – "The S from Hell" – about the sinister nature of the old Screen Gems logo, began researching, with Tim Kirk, as much Shining arcana as they could uncover.

"Initially," says Ascher, "we thought maybe there'd be three big theories about what The Shining was really about. We very quickly discovered that it was a bottomless pit.

"And if it looked like a bottomless pit at the beginning," Ascher continues, "somehow it continued to get deeper during the process. There was really something in the air where everybody was looking at and thinking about The Shining at the exact same time we were. And it's continuing! The Shining is being re-released theatrically in England next month, Stephen King is working on a sequel, there was an article that Warner Bros. might be producing a prequel. For whatever reason, it seems like The Shining was a time bomb set 33 years ago to explode now."

FANTASTIC FEST 2012

Fantastic Fest 2012 runs Thursday through Thursday, Sept. 20-27, at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (1120 S. Lamar). The fest features an eclectic mix of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, exploitation, and action films, kicking off with opening night film Frankenweenie and the Monsters' Ball afterparty across the way at the HighBall. The world premiere of Red Dawn will close out the fest, followed by a penitentiary-themed party at the American Legion Hall. Daytime-only badges are still on sale, and some day-of individual show tickets will be made available; check www.fantasticfest.com for daily updates.

But Wait, There's More!

For more of our FF 2012 preview, including an interview with Fantastic Fest co-founder Tim League, as well as our continuing coverage of all the premieres, parties, and Fantastic Arcade, see austinchronicle.com/fantastic-fest.

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