Blood and gore among the palm trees. That might sound like a B-movie pitch, but it’s actually the essence of Europe’s largest fantasy pic parade, the Sitges Intl. Film Festival of Catalonia, which celebrates its 40th edition this year.

The quaint, sun-drenched fishing town of Sitges comes off as a relaxed Cannes, with a vibrant mix of screenings, press conferences and parties, attracting guests such as Sam Raimi, Quentin Tarantino, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro and David Cronenberg.

Following fest director Angel Sala’s appointment in 2001, the fest’s fantasy theme has been expanded to include Japanese anime and a special Orient Express competitive section.

Sala believes the genre’s becoming less gore-oriented and reaching out to wider audiences.

“People are no longer scared of seeing scary movies,” he explains, citing the critical and popular acceptance of films like “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

Local producers have benefited from Sitges’ promotional presence.

In 1999, Barcelona’s Filmax launched its Fantastic Factory label, which has forged a path-breaking business model fueled by international sales.

Other local companies riding this wave include Rodar y Rodar, which is behind fest opener “The Orphanage.”

“We avoided screening at other festivals,” says producer Joaquin Padro. “Sitges has huge emotional and symbolic importance for us — a young audience committed to the genre that travels all over Spain and worldwide.”

The vibrant state of local production, complemented by the 100,000-plus attendees, points to Sitges as an important testing ground for genre films.

“Sitges is an excellent promotional platform,” states producer Adolfo Blanco of speciality house Notro Films. “An increasing number of buyers follow reports on the festival via the Internet.”

For his part, Sala views San Diego’s Comicon as Sitges’ main rival. “There are ever more links between television, comic books, fantasy literature, role games and videogames,” he says.