Getting Real Weird at Fantastic Fest
Two gems from the Weird Wednesday archive connect the genre fest to the Alamo Drafthouse’s history
Before Fantastic Fest and the American Genre Film Archive, there was Weird Wednesday. A weekly late-night dive into the 35mm vaults of the Alamo Drafthouse, the forgotten children of cinema. Exploitation, sexploitation, blaxploitation, nunsploitation, forgotten family films, adding up to a film school for those that had already burned through the cult canon. Now two of the wildest titles will spin through the projector again as part of this year's Fantastic Fest programming (Sept. 23-30).
AFS Cinema booker Lars Nilsen, aka the Weird Wednesday Hunk, was the first booker for the series after Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League ran the show for a while. Or, as Nilsen described it, "I was a noodge about certain things, like, 'Wow, that really didn't work out. People didn't really enjoy Shadey that much, did they, Tim?' And I would harangue him so much that finally he would ask me for advice."
Initially paid in pizza and free tickets, Nilsen used the Wednesday late-night screenings to bust through the whole "so bad it's good" claptrap to highlight hidden classics, unpolished gems, and even some hot garbage that was, in its own way, fascinating. Fellow former Drafthouse booker and film historian Kier-La Janisse said, "Certain films and certain directors would get a fanbase based on their screenings at Weird Wednesday, from people who were just coming for a free movie."
The weekly series is on in-person hiatus during the pandemic (although screenings are now streaming via Alamo on Demand), making the festival showings both a return to cinemas and also a teaser for the upcoming release of Warped and Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive, a coffeetable (and coffee table-sized) anthology authored by Nilsen and edited by Janisse, collecting and contextualizing the Alamo guide blurbs for the over 700 (and counting) films shown since underwater Nazi zombie shocker Shockwaves stormed the first ever Weird Wednesday (Feb. 21, 2001).
The original bookers split duties for the fest, and League's selection is The Visitor, a deranged Italian rip-off of The Omen that takes a sudden and wild turn into New Age science fiction bizarreness, which stars Franco Nero, Sam Peckinpah, Shelley Winters, a young Lance Henriksen, and John Huston "as a cosmic child pimp for the lord." When it screened on Dec. 7, 2005, Nilsen praised director Michael J. Paradise for "refusing to compromise their vision for anybody," even if that vision was "intense, bizarre, and very nearly incomprehensible."
Nilsen admitted that, had he been able to fill both spots, he'd nominate Confessions of a Young American Housewife, Weird Wednesday hall-of-famer Joe Sarno's swinging sex comedy. (From the September 2003 Alamo guide, "Bring a date, a raincoat, or both.") However, he's still bringing Snakes to the party. The sole directorial effort by Art Names (a go-to sound guy for anyone making movies for the Southern drive-in circuit), it stars veteran radio actor Les Tremayne as Snakey Bender, a deranged fan of slithering reptiles and the march music of John Philip Sousa. It played twice in 2003 (Feb. 26 and Aug. 13), then slithered back June 20, 2007, for a Best of Weird Wednesday. Nilsen's original blurb calls it "an exceedingly odd rural snake-revenge movie" but the emphatic opening line of "Total Madness!" is probably more spot on. Of course it would be Nilsen's pick: "Everything aesthetically is so unusual, and so perfect for Weird Wednesday."
Snakes, Wednesday, Sept. 29, 10:30pm at the Alamo South Lamar.The Visitor, Thursday, Sept. 23, 9:30pm at the Alamo South Lamar.
Warped and Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive will be released by Mondo in November, and is available for preorder now at mondoshop.com.
Fantastic Fest runs Sept. 23-30 at Alamo Drafthouse venues around Austin. Badges and info at fantasticfest.com, and follow all our reviews, news, and interviews at austinchronicle.com/fantastic-fest.