Fantastic Fest and its home base, the Alamo Drafthouse, have only gotten bigger, but its heart – pure and pulpy – stays the same
By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 24, 2010
– Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse CEO/Fantastic Fest co-founder
"After I went to the first Fantastic Fest, I returned back to Spain and I was like a prophet, you know? I was like, 'There is a place in the heart of Texas called the Alamo Drafthouse that if you go there, you are not going to believe it!'"
– Eugenio Mira, director (The Birthday Party, Agnosia)
Thirteen years after its first incarnation at 409 Colorado in Downtown Austin, Texas, Tim and Karrie League's Alamo Drafthouse Cinema(s) have unforeseeably but perhaps inevitably taken over a vast fanboy- and fangrrrl-filled swath of the pop cultural spectrum, and thank goodness for that. Within Austin's boundaries – which, given the blogosphere, are in fact no longer actually within Austin's boundaries – the shorthanded "Alamo" is so omnipresent in our daily lives that we might as well raze that rickety old San Antonio mission and replace it with a far more profitable Drafthouse drive-in.
Following Tim League's return to CEO status last year, the Alamo and its various permutations, offshoots, and side projects – the HighBall, Mondo Tees, the American Genre Film Archive, a plethora of impending Drafthouse groundbreakings – has become, like its namesake, inescapable. You know you've become a cine-hip cultural arbiter when Alan Ladd's granddaughter sports your logo across her chest (see Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof) or when – in five sudden years – you're suddenly playing host and co-creator (alongside that other geek culture godhead, Harry "Ain't It Cool News" Knowles) to one of the most reliably exciting international film festivals in the country. Let's call it The Year of the Alamo.
Which brings us to Fantastic Fest 2010. As previous years' attendees know, FF provides a relentless barrage of the crème de le sang of genre films, stars, and directors (notably, lifetime achievement award winners Roger Corman and wife/co-producer/co-conspirator Julie Corman, plus HK martial arts director and choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping); extremely questionable yet undeniably cool surprise events (among them this year: fun with handguns and crucified ungulates); an orgy of gaming and parties (oh, God, so many parties); and, lest we forget, more righteously kickass filmmaking than you will ever have time to watch. (Believe us, we've tried, and our eyeballs exploded just 18 films in.)
Teutonic zombie hellscapes? Check! Filipino dictators directing yanqui cash flow? Hell yeah! Brazen use of karaoke rooms for purposes other than singing the theme from Cannibal Holocaust off-key? Ohmyfuckyes! Fantastic Fest 2010: Let the revel commence.
Fantastic Fest badges are long sold out, but individual tickets for movies are available the day of the show. Visit www.fantasticfest.com for all the info.
A Wild Ride: Roger Corman
C'mon, do we really need to write an intro for Roger friggin' Corman, the man behind X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, all the best American International Pictures pictures, The Little Shop of Horrors, and The Wild Angels? Who jump-started the careers of Jack Nicholson, Joe Dante, and John Sayles? Who ran New World Pictures and then New Horizons Pictures and produced Piranha, Dinocroc, Supergator, and – making its theatrical premiere at Fantastic Fest 2010 – the bitey, sucky, oozy horror that is Sharktopus?
Didn't think so.
Austin Chronicle: You're 84 years old and arriving in Austin with the already legendary Sharktopus! To what do you attribute your ceaseless cinematic activity?
Roger Corman: Simply, I love making motion pictures. It's just that. I've loved it from the beginning, and I'll never retire. As long as I can do it, I'll keep doing it.
AC: Looking back at a career that spans over an astonishing, nay fantastic, 450 pictures that you either directed or produced, what's been the most consistently engaging part of the motion-picture process for you?
RC: Probably coming up with the original idea. Coming up with the concept, the germ of the story, and the development of the story. Everything, in my opinion, stems from that initial decision, that story.
AC: Speaking of great stories, I first fell in love with your work when the Edgar Allan Poe series you directed for Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson's American International Pictures hit television syndication in the Seventies. Sadly, it looks as though the days of contemporary and iconic horror film stars such as Vincent Price are long behind us in today's Hollyweird world. Why do you think that is?
RC: I think there are a number of reasons. The primary one is that most medium-budget horror films – which is what the Poe films were, they were neither inexpensive nor expensive – do not play theatrical release anymore. They go straight to DVD. Back then, you had time to build a star such as Vincent Price – or, earlier, Boris Karloff or, later, Christopher Lee – through a series of pictures that played in theatres. They became stars for that reason. And that's not done anymore.
AC: Let's talk about the digital filmmaking revolution of the past decade or so. It's now possible for anyone with modest means and the wherewithal to become a "filmmaker." And this is nowhere more noticeable than in the realm of genre filmmaking, where the direct-to-video store shelves and video-on-demand streams are overflowing with hastily and often poorly shot product that is as much an argument for the slower pace of shooting on actual film as it is an incitement for a new generation of homemade auteurs to get out there and just do it. Thoughts?
RC: I'm very much in favor of digital cameras, and I think the whole transition to digital is wonderful. We still shoot some of our films – I keep calling them films when I should really call them "pictures" – on film, but we shoot, I'd say, half of them digitally and half on film. ... [O]ver the next year or two we will probably phase out of film completely. Shooting on digital cameras provide[s] so many great advantages: They're easier to hold, they're less expensive, and you also save on film and lab. Just about anybody can make a film today, and you're completely correct in what you say: Most of these films are no good. But a number of them are, and I think it gives a great opportunity for sort of a winnowing-out. Out of 100 of these digital films, 99 are going to be bad, but somebody will emerge from nowhere that nobody's ever heard of and become an important filmmaker through this process.
Sharktopus will have its world premiere at the Paramount Theatre Friday, Sept. 24, 11:55pm. Roger and Julie Corman will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award just prior to the screening.
They will also be in attendance for Machete Maidens Unleashed!, a documentary about Seventies-era exploitation films shot in the Philippines (featuring interviews with Roger Corman). Machete Maidens Unleashed! screens Friday, Sept. 24, 10pm, at the Paramount Theatre. See austinchronicle.com/pip for an interview with Machete Maidens Unleashed! director Mark Hartley.
X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes screens Sat, Sept. 25, 3:55pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse South.
Machete Maidens Unleashed! screens again Monday, Sept. 27, 9:45pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse South.
Zombies Reconnecting With Their Roots: Howard J. Ford and 'The Dead'
You say you've seen your share of zombie flicks. You were weaned on George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead? You can quote chapter and verse from The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue? Maybe the revenant form is so overexposed, you're possibly feeling just a tad zombified yourself? Not to worry. British directing duo (and siblings) Howard J. Ford and Jonathan Ford are about to blow what little remains of your curds 'n' whey out the back of your previously semisolid noggin. Their film The Dead returns the zombie mythos to its East African roots – to the war-torn killing fields of Sierra Leone, specifically – and looks, sounds, and feels like a breath of fresh, rotting, sun-dappled human meat pie. Eat up.
Austin Chronicle: Can you remember the first zombie movie that you saw – when, where, and how it affected you?
Howard Ford: The first zombie movie I ever saw was George Romero's Dawn of the Dead.I must have been 12, I think, at the time, and it had an incredible impact on me.I vividly recall going home afterward so terrified that we literally walked in the center of the road because we felt like at any moment we could be grabbed by a zombie. It just felt like the horror was all around us.I've never forgotten that.
AC: Was Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie an influence on The Dead? Virtually all of your zombies look and move like undead kin to Darby Jones' titular revenant in Tourneur's film.
HF: Actually, I don't think either one of us has ever seen that film, although it came up in discussion while my brother and I were writing the script.
AC: I think it's a stroke of genius to return the zombie mythos to its birthplace in Africa.
HF: One of the very first zombie legends comes out of Benin, in French-speaking West Africa, in fact.
AC: The Dead was shot entirely on location in one of the poorest and most dangerous regions in the world. That had to be a challenge.
HF:It's really hard for me to put into words how tough it was trying to get this movie in the can and out of Africa. We didn't just take the safe route or the relatively safe route even. We went into the middle of nowhere.We shot in locations where people from the Western world have quite literally never been before, let alone actually shot a movie there.
AC: How'd that work out for you?
HF: How much space do you have? I was mugged at knifepoint on day one. I had a huge hunting knife put to my chest and another small knife put up to my ribs. All my cash and cards were taken, including my driving license.And then they tried to put me in jail for driving without a license. So we were constantly paying off armed police. We'd encounter a whole number of guys with AK-47 machine guns while driving through the middle of Africa. We were stopped at gunpoint probably on average every other day, in our time in Africa. Money was extorted from us.Some people call it corruption; some people call it doing whatever is necessary to put food on your family's table in a poor country.Whichever way you look at it, it's very frustrating when you're trying to get a movie in the can.
AC: Are you sure Werner Herzog wasn't orchestrating all this from afar?
HF: I've never seen worse.Our lead actor, Rob Freeman, contracted malaria, collapsed on set shortly after we got going. He started convulsing and was rushed to hospital. He had full-blown malaria so much so that the doctor said he would have been dead within three days, possibly two days, but most certainly within three days had he not been treated immediately.He was on an IV drip for a total of two weeks at the shoot.
AC: Not exactly the kind of dead you were going for.
HF: Not really, no. And we actually met real cannibals.
HF: Yes! It was very strange; we were filming a scene when Murphy, the main character, is hiding in the corn fairly shortly after he gets to shore. And, um, a real cannibal passed by on a bicycle ...
AC: Okay, retract what I said about Herzog. This is obviously Alejandro Jodorowsky's doing.
HF: ... and our local translator revealed to us that this guy was, indeed, a local cannibal. He saw our white-eyed, flesh-eating zombies, and he was really excited about what we were up to. So our translator revealed to me that this guy eats people in his village when they die. Apparently he doesn't kill anyone, you know, as far as we are aware, he just eats the dead.Someone made a joke about, you know, had he tried some white meat? And the cannibal sort of laughed and looked at our thighs, kind of thing.Actually, we were kind of uneasy.
AC: What kind of difficulties did shooting in the heat of equatorial Africa present for the makeup effects? I imagine latex melts.
HF: Yeah, you're absolutely right, and that's exactly what happened.All the props outside of the costumes, the equipment, the generator, the lights, everything else was shipped in from the UK. Max Van De Banks was our special makeup effects artist, and, along with Dan Rickard, he created all the body parts. Everything from fake hands to fake limbs.And yes, they started to melt incredibly quickly. So sometimes they're just seen on the ground as a bit of mush.
The Dead screens Saturday, Sept. 25, 11:55pm, and Tuesday, Sept. 28, 9:30pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse South, with writer/directors Howard J. Ford and Jonathan Ford in attendance.
From Spain, Con Amor: Eugenio Mira and 'Agnosia'
Just as Germans love David Hasselhoff, Spaniards love Fantastic Fest, and none more so than Eugenio Mira, the self-professed "prophet" spreading the word of FF far and wide. His newest film is a dark and eerie tale of romantic treachery, mysterious malaises, and black balloons buffeted amidst a historical background. Utterly dissimilar from his debut feature The Birthday Party, Agnosia instead calls to mind the grim fairy tales of Guillermo del Toro and Juan Antonio Bayona. It's a poetic sort of horror, but no less scare-ific for its lyrical story and sublime, haunting images.
Austin Chronicle: What's the story behind Agnosia?
Eugenio Mira: You have to keep in mind that because in Spain there is a lack of a film industry, individuals like me, Nacho Vigalondo, Koldo Serra (who made The Backwoods), and [Buried director] Rodrigo Cortés, who all loved movies in high school, have gone on to become pieces of a machinery that didn't exist. In my case, for example, I always wanted to direct movies when I was a teenager, but finally you realize that you have to develop your own stuff, your own scripts, or go out and look for a producer. No producer is going to be looking for an author and a director to put together. At least, that's how it was in the Nineties in Spain. Let's say my generation, we've been forced to [do a little bit of everything]. But really, some of us just want to write movies, and others only want to direct movies.
The funny thing about Agnosia, and why it's so different from The Birthday, is that The Birthday came from my own private universe. With Agnosia, my particular way of seeing things [was combined with] a particular story [written by Antonio Trashorras, who also wrote The Devil's Backbone] that didn't necessarily come from myself. Don't get me wrong. I loved to be considered an author with The Birthday and whatnot, but I long to be taking care of a project exclusively from the director's chair.
I can honestly say now that I'm 32, I've been able not only to do my dream, but with Agnosia, do someone else's dream, and then take it to new and interesting places.
AC: Would it be fair to say that there's something of a renaissance going on in Spanish fantastic cinema?
EM: Well, in Spain, we were the guys who wanted to move from our hometowns, and we all collided in Madrid or in Barcelona in the mid-Nineties. It's definitely a unique generation of filmmakers who have come together to create an industry where there was none.
AC: Your directorial style on Agnosia is so unique. What were some of your influences growing up?
EM: I always say that I was a child of the Eighties. I wouldn't be where I am today if it were not for people like Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg, John Landis, that older generation that had a really, really strong passion for movies and who also had a great knowledge of the cinematic language. They were doing something that wasn't too respected because they were mainstream movies, but the cinematic quality of those movies are legendary. On top of that, in Spain, if you are 9 years old, you are allowed to go into the theatre to see a film like Blue Velvet or Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits or the Coen brothers – all filmmakers and artists with very strong, individual visions. They are like musicians in terms of camera placement and composing. That's what caught my attention when I was a kid and still does to this day.
Agnosia screens Sunday, Sept. 26, 5:10pm, and Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2:45pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse South, with director Eugenio Mira in attendance.
Reanimating Poe: Jeffrey Combs and 'Nevermore'
The once and future Herbert West: Reanimator brings the Texas debut of his live, one-man/one-madness live performance Nevermore ... An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe to Fantastic Fest this year. Given the genrehound audience, we'll forgive you for never having caught Hal Holbrook onstage incarnating Mark Twain (but we bet you've seen Shatner do Hamlet). Forget that Huckleberry jazz, though: Jeffrey Combs is channeling the other greatest American author ever, Edgar Allan Poe, he of the raven-black coif and the unquenchable thirst for Amontillado.
Austin Chronicle: Did you grow up reading Poe, like I did and everybody I know?
Jeffrey Combs: Sure. Every American in their adolescence is introduced to Poe.But I can't say that I went real deep into his work at all.The one-man show actually came out of left field in a way.I love history, and about five or six years ago I was looking around for a historical figure to play. I started reading different things with an eye towards finding someone in history that I could maybe portray.I came across a Poe biography, and I actually scoffed at reading it because I was looking to branch out and not be, quite frankly, once again thought of as only a horror actor, you know?
AC: Poe is certainly a plum role as far as American literary figures go.
JC: I thought it was almost too on the nose, but his life story is just so powerful and sad to not do. He's someone who had had so many misfortunes and died early and tragically, yet left behind such an incredible legacy of literature and poetry and science and science fiction. And he created the detective story. I mean, he had just an all-encompassing brilliance. He's like America's Van Gogh.
AC: You played Poe – a fictional variation thereof – in Stuart Gordon's "The Black Cat" episode of Masters of Horror.
JC: Right. The seed was planted! A year or so went by, and I finally went back to Stuart and we began creating a structure for the [theatrical show] and picking pieces that I was drawn to, just kind of finding a story that we could tell in an evening.
AC: How much research did you do, and what were some of the most surprising things that you discovered about Poe that you perhaps were unaware of going into this?
JC: At the beginning, I did not fully realize that there wouldn't be a Sherlock Holmes if it weren't for Poe. I was unaware that Arthur Conan Doyle got the inspiration for Holmes from reading Poe's stories. The type of detective who could deduce the trail of a crime with just the evidence in front of him.We take that for granted now. We've got Agatha Christie, and we've got Arthur Conan; we've got Sherlock Holmes;we've got Hercule Poirot; we've got, we've got Monk; we've got innumerable examples of that sort of detective. But Poe was the first to do that.
AC: And that's not the half of it.
JC: Oh yeah, they also credit him with writing the first science-fiction story. He got into metaphysics.He wrote a book called Eureka, which is very difficult to get through but it's all about the metaphysics of the universe.The guy's intellect was just endless.For a man who was supposedly a drunk, he was a prodigious writer. If he wasn't writing a story or a poem, he [was writing] a play or a book or he was writing literary criticism and essays.He was an editor. Poe wore so many hats, and he did them all exceptionally well. And in a short, short life.I'm awestruck.
AC: The cause of Poe's death is still very much in dispute. What do you think led to his ultimate demise?
JC: I think it was probably a combination of things.First and foremost, he was not in good health. His heart was having problems.My personal belief is that somehow, in some way, he got rolled, mugged, because he was found in somebody else's clothes, he was delirious, and I suspect he might have gotten beat up. A combination of an unfortunate encounter mixed with failing health.
AC: What's your favorite poem by Poe?
JC: I actually like one of his early poems called "Alone," because I think it encapsulates who he is.And the ... "forever the outsider" [idea].I mean, you know, [paraphrasing the poem]: "I don't see things as other people see them.I don't feel things the way people ... I see in a mountain or in a cloud, I ... you see a cloud, I see a demon.I see the threat."
I think that it was a brutally melancholy and honest poem. He wrote it when he was about 20, and I do it in the show.And it really just sings to me.Other people have their favorite, but I like that one.
Jeffrey Combs performs his one-man show Nevermore ... An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe Wednesday through Saturday, Sept. 29-Oct. 2, at the Alamo Drafthouse South. Director Stuart Gordon will also be in attendance at the Sept. 29 performance for a post-show Q&A.
For film recommendations, filmmaker interviews, red carpet coverage, and more, check out the Screens blog Picture in Picture at austinchronicle.com/pip.