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Fantastic Fest 2012: The Best Jury Duty Ever

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by on September 18, 2012

Five dollars a day, hours seated in a generic room watching boilerplate instructional videos, any possible number of days in which to fall behind on your work and lose money… that’s what jury duty sounds like to most people. Well, I’ve always known I wasn’t like most people, and come Thursday, my days of jury duty will begin, entailing a trip to Austin, Texas, amazing themed parties, arcade gaming, karaoke, debates that turn into boxing matches, and all the horror/sci-fi/fantasy/miscellaneous movies I can watch. It’s good to be a juror for Fantastic Fest, the annual Alamo Drafthouse-hosted event that has become the premiere genre festival in the U.S. (though, as we’ll get into, the definition of “genre” is perhaps more flexible here than elsewhere).

I say this all not to brag, but to kick off our coverage – though I’m sworn to secrecy on the specific films I’m judging until after the fact, there’s plenty more to write about, and while the likes of Dredd 3D and Looper are not breathlessly depending upon my verdict, some of you who might be considering the purchase of advance tickets may be (sorry, Red Dawn fans, if there are any; my juror duties end before that remake closes things out). Come to think of it, movie critics and bloggers are not unlike Judge Dredd, rendering their verdicts on the spot and blasting away. We don’t get to carry out the sentence, exactly – just compose a few well-phrased ones if we’re lucky.

For those who will be attending, or just want to know what’s coming on the horizon, here’s a little preview for you, broken down by approximate category. Veteran Fantastic Fest attendees tell me that there are usually a good few surprises, so take into account that the coolest thing that happens may well come out of left field and not be anything written about herein. But let’s give it our best shot.

THE BIG: Dredd 3D, Looper, Frankenweenie, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning 3D, Red Dawn, and a work-in-progress screening of Paranormal Activity 4 are the marquee titles anchoring the rest. For the most part, these are enthusiastically awaited, with both Dredd and Looper having won fans and bloggers over with advance screenings already. Frankenweenie reaction may depend upon one’s feelings for Tim Burton, but it seems safe to say we have a good idea what to expect there either way. Similarly, Paranormal 4 in any form is something of a known quantity – if Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost can bring the same level of scares and smart mythology expansion they brought to part 3 (which they workprint-screened last year), I’ll be happy.

For Universal Soldier, featuring two of the stars of Expendables 2, I suspect the best we can hope for is the same degree of bad fun that Stallone and company brought. The only thing that will disappoint me is if the filmmakers don’t take advantage of JCVD-3D to do one of his signature triple-take roundhouse kicks coming at’cha. As for Red Dawn, its best hope may be if it turns out to be surprisingly tongue-in-cheek; it is, after all, a movie that suggests North Korea could successfully invade the U.S.

THE SEMI-KNOWN: When you look at some of the entries that aren’t as high-profile but still come with some sort of pedigree, the blurring of the genre boundaries comes into…um…focus? For example: Doug Benson’s second pothead parody of Morgan Spurlock, The Greatest Movie Ever Rolled, is certainly not horror (except maybe to anti-drug crusaders), sci-fi or action. Yet it’s here, on the presumably safe bet that audiences will eat it up like a stoner going through Cheetos. Equally unusual, but for different reasons, is Combat Girls, a German drama about neo-fascists that would feel at home at Sundance, Toronto, LAFF or anywhere else; there’s even talk it should be Germany’s Oscar submission. But beyond the “horror” of bigotry, is it a genre pic? Only in the loosest possible sense. There’s a lot to be said for expanding the horizons of an audience who trusts your programming, and that seems to be where Alamo is heading as a releasing company as well. We’ll see how well it takes.

No question but that The ABCs of Death belongs – a series of 26 short films each inspired by a letter of the alphabet to inflict depravity upon its character(s), with a line-up of directors that includes the likes of Ti West, Xavier Gens, Angela Bettis, Nacho Vigalondo and Ernesto Diaz Spinosa. Spinosa also contributes the Grand Theft Auto-inspired feature Bring Me the Head of Machine Gun Woman, while Bettis’ prior feature Roman has spun off the animated shorts “Mi Burro,” also showing (full disclosure: I acted in a small role in Roman, which did not make the final cut). Anthology films tend to tax the patience no matter how speedily paced, but at least following the plot will not be a huge issue.

While we’re talking about spin-offs, sequels and familiar riffs, there are a few: Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage Beyond is a sequel to his wonderfully face-punchy yakuza flick Outrage, while The Collection follows the continued exploits of the bondage-masked home invader of Marcus Dunston and Patrick Melton’s underrated The Collector, and the makers of New Kids Turbo (which had the biggest opening ever in the Netherlands) have promised to go bigger, dumber and more offensive in the action-comedy followup New Kids Nitro. My Amityville Horror, mercifully, isn’t yet another installment of one of the most played-out franchises in horror history, but rather a documentary centering on Daniel Lutz, who actually lived in the house. Room 237 demonstrates that fans of The Shining can be as obsessive – or more! – as any other varieties of movie geek, as they espouses subtextual theories ranging from the Holocaust to Kubrick’s alleged confession of guilt in faking the moon landing. One fan named MSTRMND insists the movie should be watched forwards and backwards, and Fantastic Fest will oblige, showing the original movie, but with the-movie-in-reverse projected on top of it. And proving that remakes don’t always have to suck, the British re-do of Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn’s Pusher should win fans of its own while encouraging others to check out the original.

I missed the odd sci-fi/bluegrass movie The History of Future Folk at LAFF, but did catch The King of Pigs, which aside from a groan-inducingly terrible last line is an eye-catching look at bullying and its effects on later life. Wrong is director Quentin Dupieux’s equally weird follow-up to Rubber, with the tale of a lost dog serving as a springboard for a series of events in which human beings generally behave in exactly the opposite manner than one would expect. Leos Carax’s surreal Holy Motors, in which a man lives parallel lives…or something…comes with a ton of positive buzz, as does Sinister, the Ethan Hawke starrer cowritten by Ain’t It Cool News’ C. Robert “Massawyrm” Cargill. Other titles already gaining steam outside of festival circles include the sniper thriller Tower Block and the steampunk/martial arts fusion of Tai Chi 0.

THE REVIVALS: The long-lost Aussie exploitation film Wake in Fright, from the director of both First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s (yes, really), is often touted as a horror or thriller flick, but it isn’t, exactly – it’s the tale of a teacher in the Outback who loses all his travel money in a small desert town and starts hanging out with a group of total degenerate drunks, one of them a doctor played by Donald Pleasence. It’ll ring true for anyone who’s ever grown weary of party-hardy friends – and if you’re a kangaroo, it counts as a snuff film (footage from real hunts is included). 1987′s Miami Connection, which pits motorcycle ninjas against a martial-arts rock band, is the only movie ever directed by real-life grand master Y.K. Kim, who’ll be in attendance with the cast, bringing “the supreme synth-rock anti-ninja experience.” 1982′s The Entity, on the other hand, offers the supremely harrowing tale of Barbara Hershey being physically abused by a male ghost, in a supernatural allegory for wife-beating. Secret Ceremony, starring Elizabeth Taylor as a prostitute, is a bit of an off-the-wall choice, but again, blurring boundaries.

ONES TO WATCH: American Mary, from the “Twisted Twin” directors of Dead Hooker in the Trunk, is set in the underground world of extreme body modification, and includes cast members from that world. Antiviral marks the directorial debut of David Cronenberg’s son, and deals with fans who pay to deliberately catch diseases from their favorite celebrities (and we’re not talking just STDs here). Berberian Sound Studio casts Toby Jones as the sound mixer on a bizarre Italian horror movie. Cockneys vs. Zombies, presumably, sells itself in the title. Australian TV comedy Danger 5 sounds like a cross between Inglourious Basterds and Thunderbirds, if such a thing can be imagined. Dead Sushi pits your favorite Japanese menu items against humanity in an attack of zombie seafood. Doomsday Book, from Korean genre faves Kim Ji-Woon (I Saw the Devil) and Yim Pil-Sung (Hansel & Gretel) tells three different stories about the end of the world, one of which involves a Buddhist robot achieving enlightenment. The Final Member is a documentary about the competition between an aging Icelandic sex stud/explorer and a slightly nutball American egomaniac to determine which of them will submit the first human specimen to the world’s only penis museum. Errors of the Human Body is a thriller set in the realm of genetic manipulation. Fuck Up induces curiosity based on its title alone. Jackie Chan’s son Jaycee is the unlikely hero of Lee’s Adventure, about a gamer who sees the world in slow motion. I don’t really want to think about what Tebana Sankichi: Snot Rockets is about.

And that’s not even everything on offer. There are more features and shorts, karaoke nights, the Fantastic Debate, costume contests, a horror maze…if actual courts were like this, nobody would try to duck jury service. There’s no way I’ll see everything, but will do my best to report on everything I can.

For further information on everything discussed above and everything else, check out the official Fantastic Fest website. And if you’re in Austin this week, come say hi.