It’s 4 pm in Austin, Texas and, despite the sweltering heat, couples are gussied up in their best formal wear outside the Alamo Drafthouse. Tuxedoed gentlemen with their mustache’s freshly waxed walk arm in arm with young women in dazzling vintage dresses. Accompanying each couple is a tiny dog. They’re here for the world premiere of Frankenweenie, the new animated film from Tim Burton. Each couple registers their pet and receives their pass, then walk off with a gift for their pet-a-Frankenweenie emblazoned dog collar. It’s opening night at Fantastic Fest.

Held the third week of September, this is the eighth year for Fantastic Fest. The eight day, multi screen event draws scores of movie lovers with its wide array of genre offerings from every persuasion: horror, science fiction, action, gonzo, dark dramas, thrillers and documentaries. For most attendees, Fantastic Fest provides the first opportunity to see films whose every parceled out morsel of news have clogged their Twitter and Google Reader feeds for months.

A small number of titles will have their wide release in the coming weeks and hope the festival generates last minute buzz. Along with Frankenweeine, opening night hosted the premiere of Dredd 3D. The ensuing days launched preview screenings of anticipated films Sinister, Looper and a work print of the upcoming Paranormal Activity 4. Tonight’s closing ceremony debuts the remake of Red Dawn.

However, the main lure of Fantastic Fest lies in the independent gems that may not see the light of day for months, if ever. Niche titles such as Bring Me The Head Of Machine Gun Woman! pack screening rooms with rabid fans while lower key titles such as Jason Lapeyre’s I Declare War, or the documentary The Final Member (which tells the story of the world’s first penis museum) become fan favorites whose word of mouth help pack in future screenings. The second half of the festival hosts a number of secret screenings: unannounced movies where the audience has no idea what they are in for until the lights go down and the credits roll.

One trait that sets Fantastic Fest apart from other film festivals is that its location is almost as much of an attraction as the film itself. For film geeks that have long suffered under the yoke of unruly patrons who talk and tweet their way through a film, the overpriced and warmed over junk food at the concession stand, and all the indifferent theater chains in general, the Alamo Drafthouse is a refuge-a beacon projected on the silver screen. The theater’s longstanding policies appeal to the hardcore cinephile: no children under six, no minors unaccompanied by a guardian and if they catch you talking or texting they will kick you out without a refund.

Almost as important as the films are the myriad of activities and afterparties. Fantastic Fest is the kind of place where you might catch Rian Johnson (director of Looper) show off his golden pipes at the Highball’s karaoke party. On another night you can cheer on the twin sisters of terror, Jen and Sylvia Soska, debate the pros and cons of remakes before strapping on boxing gloves and duking it out in the ring. The key takeaway is Fantastic Fest is damn serious about making sure you have fun.

While the experience marks the rare occasion when reality exceeds the almost impossible expectations, all good things must end. With tonight’s closing ceremonies-consisting of a Korean themed banquet after Red Dawn’s premiere, Fantastic Fest closes up shop for one more year. Bags will be packed, hugs will given and twitter handles exchanged. Upon arriving home thousands cinephiles will mark calendars for September 2013, when it all begins again.

By Mike Snoonian

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