Austin’s Fantastic Fest scares up a slate of great horror movies

The festival returns for its 18th year with some big premieres, secret screenings, and plenty more great genre programming.

By Breze Reyes & Wells DunbarSeptember 21, 2023 3:23 pm, ,

Austin may be best known for music, but this time each year, movies of the macabre take over the city in a festival called the biggest of its kind for fans of shock and horror.

This year is no exception, as Fantastic Fest returns for its 18th year, Sept. 21-28. And between the screenings, Austin’s bracing itself for some wild parties, podcast recordings and other macabre visitations to mark the occasion.

Festival director Lisa Dreyer joined the Standard with a look at the growth of the genre film festival, horror’s staying power, some festival picks and more. Listen to our Q&A above or read our transcript with more on the movies below.

This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity and concision.

Texas Standard: How do you describe this festival for folks who are unfamiliar? Because it seems like “genre” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here.

Lisa Dreyer: I feel like you summed it up perfectly. We are the largest genre film festival in the United States. We are powered by the Alamo Drafthouse. And basically by genre, we mean anything from horror movies, sci fi, fantasy, science fiction, black comedy – anything that’s really kind of weird, wild and cutting edge.

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Actor James Duval in a still from director Greg Araki's 1997 film "Nowhere." A 4K restoration of the cult classic screens at Fantastic Fest.

You think of Austin’s South by Southwest festival, and you often think of a place where a lot of filmmakers get that early recognition, that start. Do you sort of see yourself as serving in that function as well, or not so much?

Oh, 100%. We have been the world premiere to a lot of movies that have gone on to have great success. Last year, we world-premiered a first feature called “Smile.” And that was Parker Finn’s directorial debut that went on to have crazy box office; it just did so well in the theaters. So yes, Fantastic Fest is really known as kind of a launching pad for genre filmmakers.

Does that factor into your criteria when you’re picking the lineup? How do you go about deciding, ‘OK, this film we’re going to have this year; this one, maybe not so much’?

It’s such a fun process. But also, we have to make a lot of tough decisions. We like to give our audience a really broad range. And so we’re looking for films from tons of different countries, tons of different viewpoints, tons of different styles. We definitely love to support first-time filmmakers, and then we also love to support our alumni filmmakers. So there’s some filmmakers that we played their first movie years ago, and now we’re so fortunate to have them back to play their second or their third.

I think a lot of folks are focused on the labor action in Hollywood right now: the Screen Actors Guild, the WGA. How is that affecting – or is it affecting – Fantastic Fest this year?

Fantastic Fest is really lucky to always have tons of actors, directors, producers and writers attend the festival. And this year, because of the strike, unfortunately, the actors and writers who worked so hard on these films can’t attend. We will have directors in attendance for almost every one of our films.

But we really support our friends that have worked so hard on these movies, and we wish that they could be here with us at the festival. And so we hope there’s a resolution soon, so all of our wonderful actors and writers are getting compensated for the great work that they do.

» MORE: Why the writers’ and actors’ strikes are ‘unbelievably bad timing’ for the Texas film industry

What do you think it is about getting the boots scared off of you that that seems to appeal to so many people? That’s a big part of this festival for sure.

It definitely is. I think reality can be pretty scary, frustrating and depressing. And so sometimes it’s nice to go into a movie and a zombie is chasing you, or there’s a huge ant or something. It’s like, ‘Well, that won’t happen in my real life.’ Can we kinda forget about your real-life problems and just escape for a little bit?

I think some people would say don’t be so sure about that! Just being silly. But getting at the sort of zeitgeist – do you notice changes in the films that are on offer during times like these? Have you noticed any change in the past couple of years?

I will say that horror films have always been popular, but right now, especially at Alamo Drafthouse, we’re really seeing horror films do great numbers at the box office. And Fantastic Fest has always taken these types of movies very seriously and tried to elevate them.

And now we’re seeing, you know, the industry at large is really taking horror films seriously because, you know, they’re making people a lot of money. And money talks for some people, especially in this industry. But for us, you know, we’re just film lovers. We’ve always supported these movies, and we’re happy to see the general public catch up.

Well, let’s get to some of the movies this year. Are there some that are especially buzzworthy movies we’ll all be talking about a few months from now?

I’m really excited for our opening night movie: We’re world premiering “The Toxic Avenger,” and that’s directed by Macon Blair. So it’s super fun to have an Austin filmmaker kick off our festival. It’s a remake of the Troma 1980s films. Super fun.

It doesn’t have a theatrical date yet, so our audience is going to be the first to see it, then later it will be in theaters. We have so many great movies – over 95 feature films – and I’m really excited about our opening night in particular.

Give us give us another title or two, if you could.

This is so hard, because I do not like to play favorites! We do have a very popular horror anthology series called “V/H/S.” And we have the latest installment of that. We’ll have the world premiere of “V/H/S/85.” It’s directed by quite a few Fantastic Fest alumni. So it’s always fun to have them come back.

We have a movie called “The Fantastic Golem Affairs.” This is kind of a smaller, absurdist comedy film from Spain. I think it’s kind of a hidden gem, kind of under the radar.

We’ll have a beautiful restoration of “Nowhere” from director Gregg Araki. He is just a legend in the indie filmmaking space. And we’re going to be so lucky to have director Richard Linklater actually come and have a conversation with him after that film. So I think that’s going to be really awesome to hear two great directors just talking about their craft. That’s kind of a unique experience you won’t get anywhere else but Fantastic Fest.

There’s always a lot of talk about what happens when the lights go out. And by that I mean the lights in the theater – and when all the parties and things begin. Could you give us a bit of the behind-the-curtain scene at a festival like this?

Well, our team loves to have fun, and we love to provide a great experience for audiences. So we have planned a lot of parties this year. We’ll have Leonard Maltin here, the famous film critic. He will be having a conversation with Malcolm McDowell; we’re honoring the famous actor. It’s going to be such a privilege to have Malcolm here. And so a conversation between him and Leonard should be really exciting.

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