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Fantastic Fest special report: Delights, debates, and Dolph Lundgren

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Jack Plunkett

Shortly before the screening of The Greasy Strangler at Fantastic Fest’s opening night Thursday, a man walked in front of the screen to warn the audience members what they could expect.

“It’s filthy, and it’s atrocious, and it makes no f—ing sense,” he said. It could be argued that these are all legitimate criticisms of The Greasy Strangler, whose titular villain, played by Michael St. Michaels, kills his victims while covered in grease and entirely naked. But the man uttering those words was neither a critic, nor some offended protestor. He was Tim League, co-founder of Fantastic Fest and one of the film’s producers who, we should probably point out, also declared The Greasy Strangler to be “fantastic!”

League’s intro served as reassurance that, in its 11th year, this Austin-based showcase of genre movies remains a deliberately goofy and bizarre affair, the exact event you would expect from a city whose unofficial motto is “Keep Austin Weird.” And the scene in the foyer of the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, which hosts the event, had been certainly deserving of the W-word earlier that evening. By one wall, a goggles-wearing attendee sat in a coffin participating in a virtual reality experience despite a nearby disclaimer that warned viewers “must be willing to scream in public, and wet or s— your pants without holding Dark Corner LLC responsible.” Across the way, cineastes stood around discussing not the forthcoming Oscar race, as they might have been at Telluride or Toronto, but the nearby presence of a live — and massive — snake. Walking down a corridor to the theater’s screens, it was impossible not to notice a life-sized prosthetic of a naked, surgically mutilated woman whose condition was explained by the title of the film it was publicizing: The Autopsy of Jane Doe.

Anyone still under the illusion that Fantastic Fest is your average cinematic celebration would have their minds changed if, as they awaited the start of their movie, they perused the official programming guide and the list of helpful icons which accompanied each film’s description. These included “Lactation,” “Large organs,” “Lesbian,” “Lesbian vampire,” “Liposuction,” “Looks like a duck,” and “Low budget” — and that’s just the Ls. (For the record, the guide’s entry for The Greasy Strangler reconfirmed League’s assessment of the film by noting the movie features “Alternate worlds,” “Full frontal,” “Cheesy FX,” “Bad teeth,” “Dickhead,” and “Anarchy.”)

If the organizers are determined to make the festival-going experience as fun as possible, they are absolutely serious when it comes to the extensive and diverse lineup of movies. On the first afternoon of EW’s two-day visit to Austin, your writer watched the Russian film Zoology, about a lonely middle-aged woman who has a sexual awakening after growing a tail. The other films screened at the same time included the Amy Adams-starring sci-fi thriller Arrival and the 178-minute Tamil-language Aalavandhan, an action movie featuring what the programming guide described as “several drug-fueled murders often depicted onscreen in technicolor animations,” and was part of this year’s sidebar celebrating Indian genre cinema. Later in the evening, EW was delighted to catch Oldboy director Park Chan-wook’s new, erotically charged drama The Handmaiden, not least because the Korean filmmaker was on hand for a Q&A in which he diplomatically claimed not to have seen Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake (and to reveal he prefers Texas BBQ to Korean). Once again, however, there were numerous other viewing choices, including Safe Neighborhood — about “an unusual home invasion,” per the programming guide — along with Polish survival thriller The High Frontier, and the Scott Adkins-starring action sequel, Boyka: Undisputed.

Such a deep bench of delights helps explain why Fantastic Fest is widely regarded as America’s premiere genre festival by horror, sci-fi, thriller, and action fans. “I almost always see my favorite movie of the year at Fantastic Fest, and my least favorite movie of the year,” said Steven DeGennaro, a regular attendee and Austin-based filmmaker (the upcoming Found Footage 3D). “You never know what you’re going to get when you walk into an individual screening. It’s my favorite festival of the year, for sure. You can hang out and see directors you really admire. A lot of other festivals, it’s very segregated. Here everyone has a good time together.”

During EW’s time at the fest, there were often one or more people of cinematic note hanging around the Drafthouse’s entrance-cum-bar, from filmmaker Don Coscarelli (who was at the festival to screen both Phantasm: Remastered and Phantasm: Ravager) to actor and SpectreVision partner Elijah Wood (another of the Greasy Strangler producers) to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night director Ana Lily Amirpour. Amirpour was accompanying her new film The Bad Batch, a desert-set tale of love and cannibalism starring Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, and Keaunu Reeves, which she introduced on Friday night in a highly memorable fashion. “It’s weird to talk before a movie,” she said. “Like trying to explain the sex you’re going to have. Just have it!”

Arnold Wells

It was once again close to the witching hour by the time The Bad Batch was over. But the night’s shenanigans were really just beginning as buses transported attendees to South Austin Gym for the Fantastic Fest Debates. Partly a series of movie geek arguments, partly a lineup of actual fights, this traditional Fantastic Fest event features a succession of film-loving folks orally arguing about some aspect of cinema culture in a boxing ring, then putting on gloves for two rounds of actual fighting. This year’s participants included actresses Bree Essrig and Whitney Moore, who debated the proposition that “Zack Snyder is the most wrongly maligned cinematic visionary of the 21st century,” and film editor Josh Ethier and actor-director Jeremy Gardner, who came to blows over the statement, “Tremors is the best monster movie since… Tremors.”

Jack Plunkett

While it seemed a tad unfair for the event’s Master of Ceremonies, writer-director Owen Egerton, to describe that latter topic as “the most unimportant issue that any of us have ever discussed,” there’s no doubt that the most noteworthy bout took place between Fantastic Fest employees Greg MacLennan and Michael Wilchester, who debated the claim, “Rocky 4 is the single greatest boxing film of all time.” This was not because of the pair’s skills — either with their tongues or their fists — but because of the surprise appearance by action legend and actual Rocky IV actor Dolph Lundgren. In Austin to promote his action-horror-comedy Don’t Kill It, Lundgren did not participate in the physical portion of the debate, but did land a verbal blow on the Rocky IV-dissing Wilchester for his physique — “Where’s the abs?” — while also seeking to unnerve him by directly quoting his character from the boxing franchise, Ivan Drago.

“If he dies,” Lundgren intoned, “he dies.”

Like The Greasy Strangler, and so much else EW witnessed in Austin, the resulting in-ring mayhem was filthy, atrocious, and made no sense. It was also rather fantastic. 

Fantastic Fest continues until Thursday, Sept. 29. Details of screenings can be found at the festival’s official website.

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