Fantastic Fest guaranteed to scare, excite

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Ethan Hawke in director Scott Derickson’s “Sinister.”

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

There is no film festival in the world quite like Fantastic Fest. Every September, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema on South Lamar is taken over by the festival for a week, and this year, the exterior of the theater has been painted black and white for the opening night film, Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie.” Burton’s newest film will play on four screens Thursday night with the director and cast members in attendance. Students eager to check out some of this year’s films but unable to afford a badge will have a chance to attend screenings via standby lines, especially in the second half of the festival.

Other hot tickets at the fest include Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller “Looper,” (118 min, 6:15 p.m. Sunday). The Daily Texan will have a full review for you next week, but this isn’t a film to be missed, especially since Johnson and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt will be in attendance at Sunday’s screening. More than that, “Looper” is easily one of the best films of the year so far, a beautifully executed moral argument that finds the humanity that so much science fiction lacks.

Austin screenwriter C. Robert Cargill is the twisted mind behind “Sinister” (110 min, 8:30 p.m. Friday), a horror film that seems to turn the concept of found footage on its head when struggling writer Ellison (Ethan Hawke) discovers something haunting in a box of videotapes left in his attic.

Critics lauded “Sinister” when it was screened at South By Southwest, and when a mainstream horror film that’s not a remake or a sequel gets this much attention, it often means audiences are in for something special.

Fantastic Fest hasn’t always been known for its documentaries, but they’ve stepped up their game this year. “Exorcist in the 21st Century” (80 min, 9:35 p.m. Saturday) tracks a Vatican-approved exorcism, and should be a fascinating, if occasionally hard-to-swallow, look at one of horror cinema’s few archetypal protagonists.

“My Amityville Horror” (88 min, 6 p.m. Saturday) tells the famous (and oft-adapted) story of the Amityville hauntings with the help of first-hand witness Daniel Lutz. “Room 237” (102 min, 2:30 p.m Sunday) is an entirely different approach, a film examining Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and the various conspiracy theories surrounding it, including ties to the JFK assassination and the moon landing. As a bonus for audiences, screenings of “Room 237” will be followed by a special presentation of “The Shining” played backward and forward simultaneously, which is about as disorienting as it sounds.

But the main reason people come to Fantastic Fest is to see horror cinema from all corners of the globe, and this year’s slate doesn’t disappoint. “The Collection” (94 minutes, 5:45 p.m. Friday) is the sequel to indie slasher “The Collector.” The original was a viciously entertaining surprise, and the sequel finds lone survivor Arkin (Josh Stewart) venturing into the Collector’s lair to save a recent victim.

“Doomsday Book” (115 min, 6:20 p.m. Thursday) teams up Korean directors Jee-woon Kim (“I Saw the Devil”) and Pil-Sung Yim (“Hansel and Gretel”) for an anthology about the apocalypse. “I Saw the Devil” was an audience favorite at the 2010 festival, and “Doomsday Book” seems like it’ll be just as much fun, spelling out three different world-ending scenarios in two hours.

Adrian Garcia Bogliano was at last year’s festival with “Penumbra,” and he returns this year with “Here Comes the Devil,” (97 min, 11:20 p.m. Thursday), a Mexican film about two children who mysteriously disappear while playing just out of their parents’ sight. When they return, they bring something supernatural with them, and things promise to get weirder from there. Early reviews have praised the film for its slow burn approach to a typical demonic possession story, and Bogliano has a touch for building intensity that can’t be denied.

And then there are the films at Fantastic Fest that stretch the boundaries of good taste, rationality or just simply are too strange to fit in at any other festival.

No film has me more simultaneously intrigued and put off than “The Final Member,” (75 min, 8:50 p.m. Thursday), a documentary about men obsessed with penises, human or otherwise. “Holy Motors,” (115 min, 8:50 p.m. Friday) is an examination of identity from French director Leos Carax. Denis Lavant, playing a jaw-dropping 11 roles, drew rave reviews for his performance at the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere.

Finally, “The ABCs of Death” (123 min, 9:00 p.m. Saturday) is a horror anthology commissioned by Drafthouse CEO/certified madman Tim League. Twenty-six directors from around the world each tackle a letter of the alphabet, and the sizzle reel screened at SXSW promised one of the most demented, gleefully horrific films to ever hit Fantastic Fest. Plan your meals accordingly.

Anyone trying to sample this year’s eclectic slate of films would be smart to come during the second half of the festival, which lasts until Thursday, Sept. 27. Most of the industry types flee Austin at the end of opening weekend, leaving the remaining four days of the fest more sparsely attended. The later and the busier the time slot, the less likely a screening is to sell out, and even the most packed screenings have standby lines that often let a lucky few slip in under the wire.