By Karen Valby
Updated September 21, 2012 at 02:03 PM EDT
Credit: Jack Plunkett
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On Thursday night in Austin, Tex., Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League welcomed a most enthusiastic audience — “one big pile of nerds,” as the always-exuberant tuxedoed host put it — to the eighth annual Fantastic Fest. The largest genre festival in the United States is geek heaven for horror, sci-fi, and to-the-guts weird film lovers. “The nerds have conquered the universe,” declared League. “This is our world now!”

Fantastic Fest’s opening-night film was the world premiere of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, the wistful story of Victor, a grieving boy who figures out a way to bring his beloved dog back to life. The stop-motion animation 3-D film was simulcast in the Alamo Drafthouse Lamar’s five theaters, with one of them dedicated exclusively to dressed-to-the-nines locals and their similarly attired dogs. Alamo Drafthouse is famous for its delightfully rigid stance against talking, texting, and cellphone use during movies. Last night the theater premiered its first ever “Don’t Bark” PSA. Nerdy and adorable!

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

In the Q&A afterwards, Burton marveled how many people over the years have told him their dogs are enormous fans of his movies. (And it turns out that the dogs in theater 6 were remarkably well-behaved, so they apparently enjoyed his latest effort as well.) Burton described Frankenweenie as an attempt to honor that universal childhood experience of feeling “alone and separate” from the world around you. “I’m sure if you asked any kid they’d say they felt the same kind of loneliness and strangeness you did,” he said.

Winona Ryder, who gave voice to Victor’s sympathetic neighbor Elsa van Helsing, said that the production gifted her with her Elsa puppet after they wrapped. “I stare at it for hours,” she said.

Martin Landau, who plays Victor’s weird and alluring science teacher Mr. Rzykruski, said he too has developed a fascination with his puppet self. “I have Mr. Rzykruski in my bedroom,” he said. “And I stare at it too.” Yikes!

Landau gave the audience a bit of a scare when he first made his way to the stage for the Q&A. The 84-year-old actor appeared to miss a step and hit the deck hard. After he was helped to the stage and he shrugged with a smile. “Bad entrance,” he said with impeccable timing.

“Martin does that every time for every audience,” said Burton. Ryder and Burton went on to describe their first meeting during her Beetlejuice audition. “I had a crush on her at the time,” said Burton. “I was 27, she was 15. It was kind of against the law.”

Finally an audience member remarked upon the fact that the parents in Frankenweenie are rather benign, even helpful to their vulnerable son, which seemed a departure for Burton. Had he softened his view on parenthood now that he was a father himself? “I’m a very good parent,” said Burton, patting himself on the back for having a three-year-old whose favorite movie is War of the Gargantuas. The audience cheered for the little toddler nerd. And League, in a nice full-circle moment, declared the 1966 Japanese monster film the very first movie he showed when the Alamo Drafthouse first opened its downtown location in 1997.

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