FF2012: The Good, The Bad, And the Weird of Fantastic Fest

Surviving the liver-crunching, spine tingling, head-expanding fest

The Alamo South Lamar gets 'Frankenweenied' for Fantastic Fest (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

So, it's been a week, and it's pretty clear: We all basically survived Fantastic Fest 2012.

It was a close-run thing. Eight days of heavy, heavy film consumption (amongst other things, especially if you were Doug Benson, who took a [purely medicinal] bong hit rather than the traditional beer drain for every win at the award ceremony.) That'll take it out of you.

In some ways, it was the year Fantastic Fest went Hollywood. The opening night Frankenweenie gala (five screens, no waiting) was such a huge deal that Disney repainted the whole front of the Alamo South Lamar. Just to put this in context, the big film of 2009 was arguably Antichrist, and 2010 it was the sadly under-seen Buried. Tim Burton's new film will undoubtedly be one of the big releases of the last quarter of the year, so snagging this was a huge coup. If there was a downside, it did seem that the opening weekend was crazier and more frantic than ever, as reflected by some technical glitches on the ticket ordering system,

But for anyone fearful that FF would lose its indie-gore-alt-weird spirit, it seemed like that all stayed in tact. Burton's crew hung out at the Highball bowling after the screening, and no-one was hanging around being all, "Oo, Mr, Landau!" Same with the Wachowski siblings, who revealed one of the two secret screenings to be a long-rumored sneak of Cloud Atlas. Post-showing they just hung out, with no more pizzazz than you got from the people behind The Exorcist in the 21st Century.

That conviviality and community is a big part of what makes FF fun: Knowing that, at any instant, you might get dry humped by the festival's own imp of the perverse, Nacho Vigalondo, or rub shoulders with Elijah Wood at the bar. Alas, both were otherwise detained this year, but there's little doubt that new additions to the family like Jen and Sylvia Soska of American Mary, and gregarious Looper star Noah Segan made themselves popular just by being there and being themselves.

And, of course, it wouldn't be Fantastic Fest unless there was the trademark ridiculousness. Yes, even more ridiculous than people getting prison tattoos at the Red Dawn closing night party. Noboru Iguchi may have thought that it was a good idea to get into an extreme sushi competition for his new bizarrodditorium Dead Sushi, but even he looked shaken by the ghost chili sauce. Drafthouse kitchen master John Bullingdon created a concoction so vile that I could smell it seeping from the pores of the poor sap sat next to me. But, hey, personal pain is part of the process.

And speaking of personal pain, there's the 10,000 pound gorilla in the middle of the room. The most controversial moment of the festival wasn't a movie, but the Fantastic Debate fight between Devin Faraci of BadAssDigest and film maker Joe Swanberg. Put simply, Swanberg wailed on Faraci for years of bad-mouthing Mumblecore. The result was a foregone conclusion: Swanberg is bigger, tougher and in better shape. Some people (and I'm sure as hell not taking sides here) thought Faraci got his comeuppance. Others thought Swanberg was out of line. Weirdly, I've heard more writers defending Swanberg and more actors sticking up for Faraci. Read into that what you will.

If there's one coda, it's that several female attendees I spoke to said they wished the festival was a little more female friendly. They're not talking about adding doilies to everything: These are hardcore horror and experimental cinema fans here, people who love Fantastic Fest. But I heard the term "sausage fest" a few times. With high profile incidents of misogynistic trolling of female gamers, and the whole Readercon furore, it seems like geekdom and fandom is having some soul searching about gender politics, and that's all for the better.

Of course, it all comes down to the films. The big surprise may be that there was no one clear consensus favorite. A lot of people loved Holy Motors, and a lot of people hated it: Berberian Sound Studio was incredibly divisive, but has found some major supporters for its tone, if not its narrative. At the other end of the commercial scale, Cloud Atlas was equally off-putting to some. It's undoubtedly ambitious, but while some people raved, for me it was the new Babel or (sorry) Crash, its "we're all connected" message drowned in prosthetics and syrup.

Oddly, the best received films may have been the least expected. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning should have been a marginal addition to a burned-out action franchise. Instead it was a surprisingly hardcore sci-fi thriller, with some serious noir nods and an overtly Apocalypse Now-inspired sequence that was neither cheesy not dopey. The secret screening of Ben Wheatley's new black comedy Sightseers was just as much of a pleasant surprise, and prove that Wheatley is a lot more than a purveyor of depressing (if brilliantly shot) shocks.

There's a little note of sadness. When FF returns in 2013, it will be a different beast. With Lamar Square scheduled for demolition and reconstruction starting Nov. 17, the new look Alamo Lamar will have to be up and running fast. It'll be a different feel: No separate Highball, no South Austin Gym for the debates, and many of the surrounding businesses have already either closed or relocated.

The festival announced next year's dates today ( September 19th-26th) and badges go on sale at 4pm on Monday, Oct. 8 here. If it's the same scale as this year, then they'll have few chances for teething problems with the redesigned and refurbed buildings. We'll sure as hell be there to absorb it all.

And so, in conclusion, here are a few of our favorite moments:

The 'Dead Sushi' extreme sushi-off: Ghost peppers and bull penis and balut, oh my! (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Home haunting, 'The American Scream' style (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Doug Benson regrets his lifestyle choices (briefly) at the Fantastic Fest award ceremony (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Tristan Risk, Jen and Sylvia Soska,and Katherine Isabelle: The 'American Mary' team are our new best Fantastic Fest friends (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Tim League: Still waiting for Dethklok to call at the Norwegian Black Metal party (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

"Burzum walks into a bar." The black metal comedy stylings of Azeroth aka Alamo booker turned film producer Zack Carlson (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

The red carpet rolls up and the sign comes down at Fantastic Fest 2012 (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

The Korean flag flies high over the Fantastic Fest 2012 closing night party (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Fake prison tattoos at the Fantastic Fest 2012 closing party. Wait, what do you mean, they're not fake? (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

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Fantastic Fest, Alamo Drafthouse, ff2012, The American Scream, American Mary, Tim League, Zack Carlson, Black Metal, Frankenweenie, Fantastic Fest 2012

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