What is Fantastic?


This week marks the mid-point in Austin’s fourth annual Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the country. Over the next couple of days, I’ll be sharing some review and reflections on the carousel of the bizarre that represents this week in Austin history—but today, I’d like to talk about what, exactly, Fantastic Fest is.

Film Festivals are generally named either for their location and content—the Austin Jewish Film Festival, the  AGLIFF, etc. Fantastic Fest is different; it is called, simply, Fantastic, a tantalizing, cryptic adjective that, at first glance, gives you nothing.

But that’s the point. Because unlike the Jewish Film Festival, which screens Jewish themed movies; unlike the AGLIFF, which screens gay and lesbian themed movies; Fantastic Fest has no theme beyond the Fantastic. Which, according to the sentient robots over at Wikipedia, means:

(1) Existing in or constructed from fantasy; of or related to fantasy; fanciful. (2) Not believable; implausible; seemingly only possible in fantasy.

And this is the point of Fantastic Fest. It’s a week of screening films that are implausible, unbelievable, and exist only in your imagination. Specifically, the deepest, darkest corners of your imagination.

We have, for example, the Hong Kong epic kung-fu western 14 Blades; the noirish Argentine crime thriller  Carancho; the German zombie movie  Rammbock, in which boy tries to get back together with girl in a post-apocalyptic Berlin crawling with his flesh-eating former neighbors. There are gore-fest Korean gangster flicks  and Croatian slashers and  Filipino James Bond rip-offs starring badass secret agent midgets.

Vastly overrepresented are kung-fu movies (11), and zombie movies (5, debatably).

Some of these movies are big and expensive and will be, at some point in the next year, coming to a big-box multiplex near you. There’s Bunraku, the film noir-samurai-spaghetti Western with Josh Hartnett and Woody Harrelson. There’s John Malkovich and Helen Mirren as covert assassins in RED. Let Me In, the American re-make of Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In. Throughout its four year run, Fantastic Fest has screened a lot of these future blockbusters: it has presented the world premieres of, among others, Zombieland, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, and There Will Be Blood.

It’s worth remembering, as you read this list, that this festival takes place almost entirely at the Alamo Drafthouse, which is known for its lovingly idiosyncratic approach to running a movie theater. (Everything the Drafthouse shows, to take a random but representative example, open with a brief scene, taken from some long-forgotten exploitation movie, in which a minor character dies horribly—followed by an on-screen warning that if you talk during the movie, that will happen to you.) About half the movies at Fantastic look like the kinds of things the Drafthouse would find itself screening at 12 am on a work-night.

And all are entirely fantastic.