The “old” Fantastic Fest was lawless, sometimes in a good, fun way and sometimes in a bad, predatory one. And attempts to recapture it through stunts just don’t play the same in the new era. Which is fine—from experience, I can testify that it’s a Sisyphean task to try to live up to people’s nostalgic expectations of an event (or, in my case, a website) whose flaws were never visible to those who moan the loudest about how things used to be so much better in the old days. I also know what it’s like to work at a beloved institution after it’s been purchased by venture capitalists and trying to maintain some level of personal and institutional dignity under those circumstances. You love the thing; you wouldn’t have patiently climbed the ladder if you didn’t. It’s the devil you know.
Last year’s event established the leadership of festival director Lisa Dreyer and director of programming Annick Manhert, bringing a palpable change in the energy from alpha-nerd aggression to a more welcoming, female-led environment. (Fantastic Fest also gets a little queerer every year, which is a delight.) The horror genre, in general, is in the midst of an aesthetic shift from the bifurcated “elevated”/heavy-metal approaches of the 2010s into something new. That something is still amorphous, but it does present an opportunity for Fantastic Fest’s current programmers to shape and nurture it, putting their own stamp on the festival in the process.
The devil Fantastic Fest knows is ‘80s-influenced neon and splatter, as reflected not only in “Toxic Avenger” but also the closing night film “Totally Killer,” Canadian indie “The Last Video Store,” and the latest “V/H/S” sequel. But around the edges of the festival, a more adventurous energy coalesced around the latest cut of “Caligula,” of all things, as well as the relatively new Burnt Ends section (it was launched last year as an online section and made the leap to in-theater screenings this year) from programmers Ahbra Perry and Peter Kuplowsky.