A sleepy college town in late fall. Changing leaves and crisp air. It’s a peaceful autumn idyll for some, a John Carpenter-esque slasher setup for others.

For the industry and genre enthusiasts gathered for the seventh annual Ithaca Fantastik Film Festival, the atmosphere is a bit of both.

Ithaca Fantastik has flourished under co-founder and artistic director Hugues Barbier, growing from three days to a week since its 2012 launch (this year’s fest ran October 26 through November 4). A picturesque five-hour drive from New York City, Ithaca presents an ideal location for weird-cinema watching, industry networking, and “leaf peeping.”

Indie theater Cinemapolis plays host as the primary venue. Between films, guests convene in the lobby to chat, work, and browse merch from independent retailers (like genre preservation house Vinegar Syndrome). The easy, centralized location facilitates the sociable atmosphere—a smaller and more relaxed version of the one-cinema format that makes some larger genre festivals (like Fantastic Fest) so effective. There are no pop-up venues, no overlapping screenings. Without the need to rush between theaters, people are free to hang out and discuss the films with colleagues. By the time the industry brunch rolls around on the final Sunday, people are laughing like old friends. Says The Rusalka director Perry Blackshear: “I’ve been to festivals where people show up to see things just to fill the time slot, but what was fun and exciting about our screening here is that every person in the audience was there to see this exact movie. It felt like I was speaking to a community of peers.”

Due credit goes to Barbier, who creates a welcoming atmosphere. Events are congenial (such as the U.S. premiere of “Drunken Cinema,” in which audiences play a drinking game during a screening of a repertory film; the Ithaca 2018 pick was Halloween H20: 20 Years Later). Attendees, including Starfish director A.T. White and Girls with Balls star Anne-Solenne Hatte, were encouraged to hang out over a beverage. “It feels very much like family,” Blackshear says.

Short films have opportunity to shine, with standouts like the dark romantic comedy “Fetish” (Best Comedy Short and Short Audience Award winner, directed by David Lee Hess and Richard H. Perry) and Leah Galant’s “Death Metal Grandma” (part of the “Necessary Voices” shorts). The latter details 96-year-old Holocaust survivor Inge Ginsberg’s transformation into a nonagenarian metal icon, neatly encapsulating Ithaca’s artistic m.o.—to curate international films that push boundaries with thought and care.

Closing night’s documentary, Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana, chronicles the only occasion in U.S. history in which an illustrator was tried and convicted of obscenity charges. Diana was on hand, signing his genitalia-festooned zines alongside producer Mike Hunchback and director Frank Henenlotter. He’s wry, funny, reserved: an inadvertent hero for free speech in our modern times.

At the closing night party, guests gather for karaoke. Diana sings Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long (All Night)” while Hunchback mans the sound system. By evening’s end—walking back to the Airbnb past the fading jack-o-’lanterns, chatting it up with friends new and old—you know bright things are waiting for this fest ‘round the bend. MM

Ithaca Fantastik Film Festival 2018 ran from October 26-November 4, 2018. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue. Featured image: Masked fest-goers scare up some fun on Halloween night at Ithaca Fantastik 2018. Image courtesy of Ithaca Fantastik Film Festival.