Fantastic Fest promises violent films and celebrity sightings

Alex Williams

Every September, Fantastic Fest brings some of the most offbeat, violent and generally oddball films of the year to the screens of the Alamo Drafthouse. The genre-centric film festival is displaced this year, with the new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Lakeline standing in for the South Lamar location, which is closed for renovations. Despite the change of location, the programming is as diverse and appropriately weird as ever, promising a memorable installment of one of Austin’s most exciting film festival.

The festival kicks off Thursday with “Machete Kills,” the new film from UT alumnus Robert Rodriguez. The sequel finds Machete (Danny Trejo), a former Mexican cop causing havoc north of the border, sent by The President (Carlos Estevez, better known as Charlie Sheen) to defeat the dangerous arms dealer Luther Voz (Mel Gibson). Rodriguez, Trejo and co-star Alexa Vega will attend Thursday’s world premiere.

Keanu Reeves will promote his directorial debut, “Man of Tai Chi.” Reeves will participate in the Fantastic Debates, where he will debate an undisclosed topic with Drafthouse mastermind Tim League. Unfortunately, “Man of Tai Chi” star Tiger Hu Chen will step in for Reeves in the traditional post-debate boxing match. Elijah Wood will promote “Grand Piano,” a thriller starring Wood as a piano player who is terrorized by a sniper who won’t let him stop playing. The 3-D concert film “Metallica: Through the Never” will have Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo in attendance, inspiring rumors that they’ll also be performing later in the fest at the closing night party.

Last year, the festival saw increased interest in documentaries, and that trend continues to this year. Both “Tales From the Organ Trade,” a documentary about organ trafficking narrated by body horror expert David Cronenberg, and “Mirage Men,” an insider’s perspective on a government attempt to shape the public opinion on UFOs, sound hugely compelling. These films add to the factual weirdness which counterbalance the narrative oddities that the week holds.

No film at this year’s festival is quite as conceptually audacious as “Escape From Tomorrow,” which director Randy Moore filmed under the radar in Disneyland, communicating with his crew via walkie-talkie so park officials wouldn’t catch on. The film has reportedly been trimmed to avoid lawsuits from Disney, but is still a highlight and one of the week’s most essential films.

Ti West’s “The Sacrament” takes “You’re Next” stars Joe Swanberg and AJ Bowen into a horrifying cult compound, and local production “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” looks to be equal parts coming-of-age story and neo-noir. Fantastic Fest regular Alex de la Iglesia made clowns simultaneously terrifying and sympathetic in 2011’s “The Last Circus,” and promises to do the same for witches with “Witching and Bitching,” which features a gang of bank robbers, hostages and family members in tow, stumbling upon a coven in the throes of a deadly ritual.

Drafthouse Films’ “Cheap Thrills” won massive acclaim at this year’s South By Southwest film festival, and the grimy, hilariously demented thriller should be a perfect fit for the Fantastic Fest crowd. Germany’s “Nothing Bad Can Happen” shows a young, kidnapped Christian’s faith being relentlessly tested, and Dutch Academy Awards submission “Borgman” looks like a bafflingly odd but uplifting story of an upper-class family’s destruction at the hands of a homeless man.

That’s not even taking into account the parties, the karaoke or the interactive events this year. While there is still the pleasantly blood-soaked films that ensure the festival will sate every film fan’s taste for the unruly, it’s the feeling of being among a community of equally passionate film lovers that makes Fantastic Fest such a joy. Even if Metallica doesn’t end up playing the annual closing night blowout, Fantastic Fest will find a way to make it a worthy capper to Austin’s most representative film festival.