Fantastic Fest 2014: Review Wrap-Up; 10 Years of Madness, Mayhem, and Movies

If there was ever an unofficial theme for the films that played the tenth anniversary of Fantastic Fest, it would be “dead animals.” An odd way to kick off an article recapping the greatest genre fest in the world, but Fantastic Fest is anything but ordinary.

For eight days hundreds of people crammed into the newly reopened Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin, Texas, to witness some of the best genre film from around the world while shoveling endless cups of queso and pints of beer down their gullets.

While some films did indeed feature our unfortunate feline and canine friends receiving an untimely demise at the hands of feral children, Russian mobsters, immortal beings, and everything in between, they were easily offset by documentaries on fungi, Japanese rap musicals, and apparently a two-hour drama told through sign language without the benefit of subtitles. Toss in killer karaoke, filmmakers debating the merits of found footage and then punching each other in the head, a raucous game show, and a killer closing party featuring free tattoos and mohawks, “slap shots,” and a God damned donkey show, and the theme invariably becomes “chaos.

But chaos abounds at Fantastic Fest every year and always in the best possible way. It reared its head early this year, causing insurmountable stress caused by numerous failed attempts at making a halfway decent schedule to ensure the chance to see every horror offering. While horror is typically well represented, this year saw it and the thriller genres take over, offering a wide variety of festival hits and under-the-radar indies alike. As such, making a schedule become one of the more daunting tasks an attendee must endure; within the first day or two the lineup begins to evolve, press screenings are added, and the specter of sleep begins to haunt your every waking hour. This results in films being missed, slept through, or skipped in favor of recharging the body’s batteries. Also beer.

Fantastic Fest is an exceedingly frustrating festival for that very reason. There is so much to see and do, so many wonderful people to engage in conversation with, and so much to simply experience that one will inevitably walk away with a lingering sense of failure. “How could I miss X film?!” is a common refrain following the fest’s closing night party, wherein everyone discusses what they liked and disliked in a drunken stupor. But this is a good thing. The fact that you can walk away after eight days of movies and parties and feel like you didn’t see enough is a testament to just how impeccably programmed the festival is. This extends beyond films and into the parties and special events. There was something to do every night, forcing many to make the tough decision of seeing a midnight screening or attending a party such as Chaos Reigns Karaoke (named so after Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist  and yet another reminder of the fest’s recurring theme) or the Fantastic Debates (see my 2013 appearance and beat down here). Given that most midnight screenings fall under the banner of horror or thriller, you can imagine the frustration this would cause.

As a regular attendee of multiple genre fests throughout the year, I was blessed enough to view a number of the films that screened this year. Festival darlings such as Housebound (review), The Babadook (review), and Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (review) were all seen in late April at the Stanley Film Fest, thus freeing me up for the lesser known titles, as well as the non-horror offerings like Keanu Reeves’ John Wick, which is without a doubt one of the most insanely awesome action films I have seen in recent memory. Lean, tight, and efficient, it’s a bare bones story propelled by some of the best on screen violence and action you’ll ever see. It should be called Head Shot: The Movie. Another non-horror film that blew me away is Blind, a slow but engaging Norwegian drama about a blind woman who becomes lost in her thoughts and imagination.

Buzz for some films aside, the wildly diverse opinions on horror keeps things interesting throughout the duration of the festival. Most films screen twice, with the reactions from the first screenings serving as a major factor in schedule changes. One such example is It Follows, the first screening of which I skipped for reasons I can’t recall but ultimately saw due to the overwhelming praise. Dubbed smart, original, and outright scary, I was one of the few people who found it to be mostly “okay,” which drew the ire of those who felt it to be not just the best horror film of the fest, but the best film overall. (For more on this, read Peter Hall’s wonderful write-up on Movies.com here). The same can be said for Cub (review), the Belgian thriller about a group of cub scouts who run afoul of a feral child in the woods. Exemplifying the fest’s unofficial theme, I found it to be a well-made and extremely fun thriller, even if the themes became a little muddied toward the end.

Conversely, a number of films were subjected to overwhelmingly bad word-of-mouth, including Horsehead (review), my most anticipated film of the festival. I settled in on Day 2 of the fest for what I hope to be a harrowing journey through the world of sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming, two subjects I hold very near and dear to my heart. What I got was an hour and a half of style over substance and an overwhelming desire to simply give up and walk out. In retrospect, I wish I had. It was easily one of the worst of the fest, earning a place alongside the Eli Roth-produced The Stranger (review), which felt like a made-for-TV movie, and the teen-centric The Hive (review).

Despite many films serving as an endurance test, I’m better for having experienced them. While celebrating the films you love with others (like Spring (review)) is enjoyable, it’s weirdly fun to engage in heated discussion with those who enjoyed something you truly hated. You have to take the good with the bad at Fantastic Fest; yet, even when something is bad, it’s not hard to discover the good it inspires.

I could sit here and discuss each and every horror film that played the fest, but to do so would be a Herculean task and this piece is long enough as it is. As such, I’ll just leave you with these parting words: Fantastic Fest is more than just a film festival; it’s a celebration. A celebration of film and how it binds us all together. A celebration of friends new and old. A celebration of chaos. Let it reign.

Brad’s Top 5 (films seen outside of the fest, like The Babadook, are not included)

Spring (TIFF review)
Closer to God (review)
When Animals Dream
Ich Seh Ich Seh (review)
Shrew’s Nest (review)

Brad’s Bottom 5

Horsehead
The Stranger
The Hive
The Incident
Realiti (not horror, but so bad it deserves a spot on this list)

Other Fantastic Fest Reviews

The Editor (review)

Whispers Behind the Wall (review)

Everly (review)

Over Your Dead Body (review)

It Follows (review)

From the Dark (review)

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (review)

V/H/S/ Viral (review)

The ABCs of Death 2 (review)

Fantastic Fest 2014

 

 

 

 

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Brad McHargue

Brad is a digital marketing specialist and screenwriter based in Denver, CO. He serves as programmer and host of the Telluride Horror Show, a 3-day genre festival in Colorado.

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