Fantastic Fest Is Here To Bash Your Brains In

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

<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.


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.

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Fantastic Fest, Tim League, The American Scream, Michael Stephenson, Zack Carlson, Robert Wilson, Jason Lapeyre, I Declare War, Charles de Lauzirika, Crave, Robert Lawton, Rodney Ascher, Room 237, The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, ff2012, Fantastic Fest 2012

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