(Sorry for the massive brick of text. I’m having problems uploading photos. As soon as I get that fixed, I’ll prettify this sucker with posters and images from this year’s Fantastic Fest films)

If Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse chain is the film lover’s Mecca (and it is), then Fantastic Fest must be our Hajj, the time when every able bodied geek makes the pilgrimage to sit in a darkened theater, eat delicious food and commune with the movies we love so much. I believe that every one of you reading this owes yourself a trip to Fantastic Fest before you die, and hopefully much sooner than that. Like next year.

I write this with the fervor of a recent convert because I quite simply am one. Fantastic Fest 2008 has been over for about three days but I’m still vibrating with the sheer excitement of the whole event. I’ve been to film festivals before but never one as amazing, exciting and ultimately movie lover-affirming as this one.

What makes Fantastic Fest special isn’t the film line-up, although that’s pretty great. Out of all the movies I saw there last week, I only really disliked one. That’s a rare batting average for any festival. And as much as I love it, the Drafthouse’s great food and beer selection also doesn’t put Fantastic Fest over the top. What makes this the greatest film festival in the world, and the only one I would strenuously try to sell to ‘civilians’ (ie, people who aren’t sitting in dark theaters for 12 hours a day for work) is the atmosphere and the people behind it all. The experience of Fantastic Fest is just as much about the socializing as it is about the movies.

And I don’t mean parties. That’s part of what makes Sundance less of a film festival and more of a ‘scene.’ The socializing at Fantastic Fest tends to be looser, much of it centered around the ‘smoking patio’ where folks tend to congregate in between films. It’s where you’ll get the buzz on the films that are blowing people away at the festival this year, and where you’ll probably find yourself in conversations with film fans, journalists and filmmakers alike. The atmosphere is easygoing and casual, and everybody is incredibly friendly.

That’s when they’re sober. Fantastic Fest is a place where the beer flows freely, especially at the special events, where 40s of Miller High Life – the Champagne of Beers! – is the preferred booze. At the Fantastic Fest Awards ceremony everybody got a champagne glass to toast the final winner, and of course it was filled with High Life. The winners, by the way, had to chug Miller High Life out of their awards, which were engraved steins.

I missed the early days of the festival, being stuck in London for James Bond stuff, so I missed some of the wackier events – like the World Air Sex Championships – but I did make it in time for karaoke at the Drafthouse, an event that saw festgoers drinking and singing until 6am. Along for every minute of that ride was Tim League, the man behind the Alamo and Fantastic Fest, and an indefatiguable champion of film. I think a large part of the festival’s charm and spirit comes directly from League, a guy who is endlessly friendly even when obviously frazzled and exhausted beyond belief, and a guy whose film knowledge is scary. There are a lot of Tim League stories to tell (some of them even printable), but the one that I feel like sums the guy up is this one:

It was the closing night party, which took place a mile and a half underground in the Longhorn Caverns, about 90 minutes outside of Austin. It was a huge event, sponsored by Fox-Walden’s City of Ember (the closing night movie), and Bill Murray showed up for it. Tim had been run ragged by this time, and as the movie let out and the crowds started forming for the buses, it became apparent that the fest had been shorted two buses – a pretty huge deal. Tim and his incredible staff dealt with the hassles and went on to the party; a couple of hours later I was sitting in a bus ready to go back home. Just before the bus took off, Tim bounded aboard with a huge smile and started handing out chicken wraps and chips to the drunk partygoers. As he left the bus he made sure the driver showed us a DVD containing clips of some of cinema’s best kills. Riding home, eating my chicken wrap, I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the scene from Nekromantik where a guy guts himself while ejaculating. Fantastic Fest is like summer camp for film nerds, and Tim is the head counselor.

But it’s not all Tim. There’s Matt Kiernan, a guy I’ve known for years who just recently joined the festival team. When we played Fantastic Feud (think Family Feud with horror themed questions), everybody wanted Matt on their team, since he’s an incredible depository of genre movie trivia. He knows the release date of every film over the last thirty years. Try and stump him. And don’t be fooled by Matt’s mild-mannered, seemingly very straight appearance. He’s harboring a wonderful love for the most twisted films imaginable.

Lars Nilsen looks like a big, hairy hippie (when I first met him I flashed to Dave ‘Gruber’ Allen’s character in Freaks and Geeks, Jeff Rosso), but under all that hair lurks a brain as sick as any I have yet met. Lars is a film genius (this is pretty much par for the course with the Fantastic Fest guys), and he’s the programmer behind Alamo’s Weird Wednesday free screenings. When I found out that Lars was the guy behind this year’s Japanese smutty pink film retrospective I was exactly zero percent suprised. When I need a recommendation for future CHUDsploitation columns, I’m emailing Lars.

You don’t hear a lot of people singing the praises of VHS without irony, but that’s Zack Carlson for you. Some people have hedge mazes, but Zack has a VHS maze; he boasts of owning thousands of VHS tapes, with a special emphasis on horror. Zack was the MC at the 100 Best Kills and he was ceaselessly hilarious, which is his usual state of being. But he’s also incredibly passionate about movies, especially the most disreputable ones out there. I love him even though he harbors an irrational hatred of Jack White.

And these are just some of the people who made my Fantastic Fest experience amazing, and if any of them came to your town and programmed and introduced movies they would be the best programmers and hosts you had ever seen – and all of that power is centralized right in Austin. There are so many other people who make Fantastic Fest such a juggernaut, most especially Jill Lewis, the guest coordinator, was just wonderful to me at every possible opportunity (Tim, give her a big raise!), but also every employee and server at the Alamo was friendly, welcoming and cool to simply bullshit with. If I was better at this I would have a list of names here, because everyone was just that great. There wasn’t a single moment of shitty attitude, and any festival patron will know how rare that is.

But as cool as everybody was (and as great as all the events were, including a trip to Smithy’s, Texas’ oldest BBQ joint), Fantastic Fest is all about movies. I didn’t get to see as many as I would have liked (which is always the lament at the end of every festival), but I did take home some screeners, so I’ll be making up for lost time. Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of all the films I saw, in order, with quick thoughts on each. Most of these films will be getting full reviews in the days ahead.

Late Bloomer (Japan, 2004) – Shot in digital black and white, this movie about a crippled, spastic mute serial killer stars a crippled, spastic mute. Not as creepy as I might have liked, but probably too creepy for normal audiences.

Not Quite Hollywood (Australia, 2008) – A thrilling documentary about Australian exploitation cinema that left me with a whole new slate of films to seek out. Pull quote: Not Quite Hollywood will change your life. Or at least your Netflix queue.

JCVD (Belgium, 2008) – The long awaited ‘serious’ Jean Claude Van Damme film, JCVD is well made but ultimately disappointing in that it never figures out what it wants to be.

The Man From Hong Kong (Australia, 1975) – After learning about Aussie exploitation cinema in Not Quite Hollywood, I had to check out the real thing. So glad I did. This is a thrilling action film filed with violence and racism. Loved it.

I Think We’re Alone Now (USA, 2008) – This documentary about two people who stalk 80s pop singer Tiffany is funny, sad and scary all at once. Rough around the edges but probably the best documentary I have seen in some time. Loved it.

Santos (Chile, 2008) – A huge, colorful, popcult superhero movie from Chile, Santos is too long and too sprawling but is also full of energy and a surprising amount of heart.

The Good The Bad And The Weird (Korea, 2008) – This Korean western is insane without being so over the top as to be surreal for the sake of being surreal. Winner of the Audience Award, it’s a complete crowd-pleaser, even at over two hours.

Estomago: A Gastronomic Story (Brazil, 2008) – A great slow burn film about a great cook in prison. How did he learn to cook so well? Why is he in jail? All is revealed in what I might describe as absolute food porn. If not for the ending this would be a shoe-in for the Food Channel.

Let The Right One In (Sweden, 2008) – Not just the best film I saw at Fantastic Fest, this romance between a 12 year old and his new vampire neighbor is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. This decade. It’s a masterpiece.

Astropia (Iceland, 2008) – A complete piece of shit. Rich girl has to take a job at a comic book store and gets into role playing games; beyond the boring Anna Farris-ready set up (that’s not my line, but everyone at the fest was saying it), the film relies on simply making geek references to get laughs.

The Burrowers (USA, 2008) – So close to a really good movie. It’s The Searchers meets Tremors, and while director/writer JT Petty suffers serious second act problems, his film is so beautiful it should be seen on the big screen. Of course Lionsgate is putting it direct to video.

A Lonely Cow Weeps At Dawn (Japan, 2003) – My first pink film. It plays like a family drama with near-explicit sex thrown in every seven minutes. It opens with a senile old farmer milking his naked daughter-in-law, who he thinks is a cow. Strange and beautiful and filthy.

S&M Hunter (Japan, 1986) – My second pink film! This one was just incredible. S&M Hunter is a rope bondage superhero who has to rescue a gay guy from the girl gang that’s been raping him for days. Along the way he teaches the girls the joys of discipline and submission. Total sick, totally hilarious.

Role Models (USA, 2008) – I skipped about half the secret screenings at Fantastic Fest (I’d much rather see strange small films without distribution, like I Think We’re Alone Now) but went out of my way to catch the new one from David Wain. I have to say I was disappointed – it’s very mainstream, although it has a brilliant use of KISS.

How To Get Rid Of The Others (Denmark, 2007) – This black comedy about a genocide program designed to wipe out the members of society who give the least back (it’s a Republican wet dream) is good, but I don’t get why some of my colleagues flipped for it. I’m looking forward to writing more. This film won the Fantastic Film Award, pretty much the big one at the fest.

Spine Tingler – The William Castle Story (USA, 2007) – A must-see documentary on the life and career of the ultimate Hollywood showman, William Castle. He gave us buzzing seats and skeletons floating over the audience, but I never knew much about him. His story is kind of heartwarming and sweet.

The Tingler (USA, 1959) – Why do I love Fantastic Fest? Because after Spine Tingler they screened The Tingler, a film famous for its gimmick, which were seats rigged with big joy buzzers that would go off in tandem with scenes on screen. I never imagined I would be able to experience the full Tingler buzz, and I’m glad I did.

City of Ember (USA, 2008) – Gil Kenan (Monster House) makes his live action feature directorial debut with a movie that’s amazing to look at but is missing a sense of adventure, a fatal flaw for a kid’s film. Kenan’s eye is unmistakable, but I wonder if it isn’t better suited for moody adult films.

Zombie Girl: The Movie (USA, 2008) – This one feels a little incestuous, since it revolves around the Drafthouse and half the Fantastic Fest regulars are in it. This documentary follows the efforts of a 12 year old girl to make a feature length zombie movie, and it’s sweet and more than a little inspiring.

Only 18 films! I have more to see soon – like Korea’s The Chaser – but I also want to talk briefly about the short horror films at the festival. I was on the Horror Shorts jury (the picture above is me next to Tim League, presenting the winners of that category at the Fantastic Awards), and I saw some great short films, but four were very great indeed.

The Horribly Slow Murderer With the Extremely Inefficient Weapon is a very funny short that takes a one joke premises, beats it into the ground and then brings it back for more laughs. We gave Richard Gale’s short a Special Jury Prize For Sheer Enjoyability. Click here to learn more about the film – I hope Richard puts it online soon.

Senor Puppe came in third. It’s a darkly comic story about an old ventriloquist and his puppet, which may or may not be alive. I loved the film because of the gorgeous cinematography and because it doesn’t matter whether you take the short literally or as a psychological piece, it’s still moving and scary.

I Love You Sarah Jane, the runner up, posits a post-zombie apocalypse world where only kids are left. It then creates the story of one boy’s crush on a girl… and coats it in gore.

The big winner was Electric Fence, an edgy, dark and really, really gross short about a guy who gets his penis bitten off and discovers that his replacement member came from a pedophile and has a mind – and sexual preferences – of its own. This is the kind of short that will send most people screaming and vomiting from the theater (either because of the extreme gore or the extreme subject matter), but you know that this just makes me grin like a maniac. I’m proud to have presented this film with the big jury award.

There’s so much more to write about my experiences, some of which will make it into my video diaries (I’ve posted two. More coming!), but I’m already beginning to think about next year. I almost didn’t even come to Fantastic Fest – it was a phone call from Matt Kiernan about six weeks ago that roped me in – but I can’t imagine missing the 2009 edition. I recommend that you also block out some time next fall for this one, and start looking into booking flights. And don’t get hung up on the secret screenings – the real magic of Fantastic Fest are the films you’ll never get to see anywhere else, and the amazing and friendly people with whom you’ll be discussing them.

If there’s a heaven, I want it to be just like the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar during the week of Fantastic Fest.

Check out the Fantastic Fest blog for all the behind the scenes details and fun from this year’s fest. And keep an eye on the Fantastic Fest site for info about next year.

And I want to leave you with these two videos. First up, the Shakey Face video. Fantastic Fest recommended that attendees take their badge photo while shaking their faces violently. At the Fantastic Awards they showed a montage of the Shakey Face photos, and the winner received a six foot blanket with his Shakey Face photo printed on it. The Shakey Faces:

One of the fun things I did at the fest was take part in the Fantastic Debates, a series of debates inside a boxing ring. Audience cheers decided winners; ties were broken with fisticuffs. Here’s some of the goodness: