Founders Day (2023)

JANUARY 21, 2024


For the past 28 years, whenever there’s a new masked whodunit slasher (as opposed to the Terrifier/Hatchet types that are centered on a named boogeyman) one would assume its makers were inspired by Scream. And that’s not a knock, I should stress – why NOT ape what is easily the best of its type we’ll likely ever have, in hopes of capturing that lightning again? But here’s the surprising thing about Founders Day: it did indeed seemingly look to a Wes Craven slasher movie for inspiration, just not that one. Nor were they going back to Nightmare on Elm Street, or even Shocker (though I’d be all for that). No, the point of inspiration seemed to be My Soul To Take, which turned out to be Craven’s penultimate film and (since Scream 4 was such a lackluster snooze) the last genuinely interesting one he made before his unfortunate passing.

To be clear, Founders Day is not a supernaturally or psychologically driven slasher movie. On paper it’s very much a standard whodunit, with a masked “Founding Father” (powdered wig and all!) using a mallet and its hidden blade to wipe out notable members of a small town who are celebrating their tricentennial alongside a very polarizing and heated election for town mayor. Both the incumbent mayor and her primary challenger find themselves and their families targeted by the killer, who also wipes out some teens associated with the candidates’ children, so you got your standard red herrings (the mayor’s assistant? The boyfriend of her daughter? The wannabe new mayor himself?) and such; in fact if it wasn’t shot around the same time I’d say they were actually influenced by Thanksgiving, as it has very similar vibes at times, with the equal mix of teen and adult victims, a remarkably similar sequence where our heroine has an encounter with the killer just after he murders two fornicating bully kids in the school, plus the “small town celebrating its history” backdrop that sets it apart from the usual influences. No one’s ever had a “Haddonfield Day” or whatever, far as I can recall.

But after a decent if unspectacular first forty minutes or so, the movie suddenly pulls out a pretty novel idea: announcing itself as a two-killer slasher by unmasking and offing one of them when there is clearly a lot of movie left to go. This is followed by a bizarre montage of nearly all of the film’s characters reacting to this development over a Kate Bush-esque power ballad cranked up to 11, at which point the movie’s true colors begin to shine through. From that point on, the film is loaded with more random plot turns, strange acting choices (I could write this entire review about the chief of police, who is obsessed with candy and seems like she wandered in from Funny Farm or one of those kind of “small town folk sure are kooky, huh?” movies), and nearly every character screaming their dialogue more often than not. The film’s highlight is not a murder scene or anything else particularly horror-y, but the mayor drunkenly bursting into a town council meeting and yelling absolute nonsense for a while before pivoting to a “And that’s why you need to vote for me!” message. The actress’ total commitment to playing this outlandish moment with utter sincerity made me cackle and applaud, and cemented my appreciation of the movie.

Don’t get me wrong, much like My Soul To Take it’s not particularly great in the ways you showed up for. The kill scenes are hit or miss (they’re brutal at times, but also marred by digital blood) and lack much suspense, and the whole plot hinges on the audience believing something that any seasoned (or even half seasoned) fan won’t buy for a second and makes even less sense with later reveals (if you can’t track it, DM or email me – I can’t figure out a way to even hint at it without it being a spoiler). The killer’s guise looks good (Tony Gardner created the mask, a nice get for this obviously small production), but it’s not utilized enough, as there’s only one chase scene of note and even the killer's big entrance is played mostly in shadows and long shots. But the movie’s straight faced approach makes it seem almost kind of alien at times, like AI spit out something after being prompted with “Politics + slasher + small town.” It was that – plus the genuinely admirable fact that it is a straightforward original slasher without any real genuine humor to speak of – that kept me fully engaged.

Back to the politics though, I can’t tell if it’s good or bad that the movie is pretty apolitical, as it turns out. When we first meet the challenger, a boorish man with dirty blonde hair who is wearing a blue suit and a red tie and clearly cares more about his campaign than his own children, even an infant could probably guess that he’s seemingly meant to invoke You-Know-Who. But it’s the existing mayor who turns out to be an opportunistic jerk who is using the office to pad her pockets, so it’s not the result of someone from either side of the aisle Making A Statement. The candidates’ views and party affiliation are never revealed, either, a necessity since the killer’s motive (spoiler of sorts) boils down to a “They’re all the same” kind of thing, so labeling the characters or hearing their individual thoughts about hot button issues would cloud that approach for viewers who have a pretty clear take on who the bad guys and good guys are when it comes to politics. It never gets any more "Us vs. Them" than the opening sequence, where opposing supporters for the two candidates are interrupted by someone who just survived a Founder attack, at which point they begin fighting over who gets to protect her ("She's on OUR side!") and fighting again, the victim basically forgotten. But after that, the arguments and antagonism never really feel politically charged, and when characters butt heads it comes off like similar moments in movies with zero political ties (the bar fight scene in My Bloody Valentine 3D came to mind, as there's a nearly identical scene here). Long story short, you won’t come out of this having a good idea of who writer/director/co-star Erik Bloomquist is voting for this year, and while that is probably good for the movie’s mainstream appeal, it’s somewhat disappointing to use the political backdrop (in an election year no less) and toe the line. I’d almost rather it was right wing propaganda with slasher dressing; it might annoy me, but it’d also be more interesting in that department.

So it’s a good thing it’s so weird! The scene where the killer explains how certain moments worked, with Saw style flashback footage, is an absolute howler and makes up for Scream VI’s utterly embarrassing reveal scene, coming closer to Urban Legend’s delightful unmasking scene (“Miss THANG!”) and yes, more yelling. Even when the killer has their obligatory “not dead yet!” return, they do so by screaming a line of dialogue I couldn’t even make out, prompting me to start cackling again (I assume the handful of other, quieter people in the theater thought I was deranged, but oh well). And again reminded me of My Soul To Take, as like that film we have killer and victim having an almost casual conversation where exposition is given to each other, as if there were audience members who needed to know where every character was at every point in the story that they weren’t on camera. Weirdly, both films also kick off with a murder on a bridge that has those bumper poles at one end to keep cars off, and I later learned that this new film was also shot in Connecticut, something I dimly recalled about MSTT. And both had animated end credit sequences too, now that I think of it. Future double feature!

I don’t know how well the movie performed over the weekend, as the box office was not reported for it. All I know is that AMC has had the posters up for months and ran trailers before Thanksgiving and Silent Night, only (around LA at least) to dump it on to one or two showings a day on the tiniest theater of the lamest of the three AMCs in Burbank, which means if its situation was like that everywhere else it COULDN’T make that much money. I ended up going to Regal (paying out of pocket! No A-List!) where it was playing at a more normal time in a large auditorium, but there were only like 10 other people there. With the strikes causing a massive reduction in theatrical output from the major studios, it’d be nice to see little movies like this continue to get big screen chances just so the theaters have something new to show, but if no one shows up then they’ll just bring back whatever the last Marvel or family hits were instead, which is a bummer. But once again, this is the kind of movie that isn’t QUITE good enough to all out recommend, especially since, as I mentioned, it kind of blunders the basics (no good chases, CGI kills, way too easy to guess main killer). However, if you enjoy slashers that seem like they’re a little bit “off”, as if they shot a first draft of a script with actors who each thought they were making a different kind of movie, then I wholeheartedly recommend it to quench that rarely satisfied thirst.

What say you?


Cobweb (2023)

JANUARY 8, 2024


It’s been a long time since Lionsgate took the time to make a horror movie with notable actors and then just randomly burned it off on a few screens with no advertising, so the makers of Cobweb can take solace in that they’re reviving a tradition! It joins the likes of Blood Creek, Haunting in Connecticut 2, Repo, and probably others I’ve forgotten, except the key difference is that I wasn’t able to make it out to one of those random screenings when it opened last July against "Barbenheimer" (a very busy time for whatever reason; it took me a month to see Oppenheimer and I still haven’t seen Barbie). I toyed with the idea of making it a blind buy a few times, but now that it’s popped up on Hulu I saved myself the 20 bucks but also actually used my Hulu account for something besides What We Do In The Shadows, so it’s a real win win.

Especially since, as it turns out, it’s not a movie I need to see again, so that Blu-ray would have gone back for 9 cents in trade-in value. It’s a pretty good movie and worth watching, but it’s also one of those movies that presents a “Are they evil or not?” mystery that, once you know the answer, renders it less interesting to rewatch (on that note, I threw it under "thriller", but only because the specific sub-genre is also a spoiler). It also has a terrible final scene that knocked it down a peg (read: Letterboxd star) for me, so that didn’t help. But your mileage will vary, of course – a number of friends called it among the best horror films of the year, and (spoiler) I’d never want to turn folks off from seeing a horror movie that actually has the stones to kill a kid.

The plot is pretty simple and straightforward: a bullied kid named Peter (weirdly, same kid from Last Voyage of the Demeter, which was released around the same time and where HE was surprisingly killed) hears noises in his room and his strict, clearly “off” parents (Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr) keep chalking it up to an overactive imagination. But given their hesitance to let him go out much beyond school, or have people over, and other odd behaviors, it’s clear the parents are hiding something and that the noises – which eventually become the voice of a girl asking for help - are probably in fact very real, but the movie doesn’t come right out and say so. So, while it often works as it should in keeping you in suspense, it’s a movie where the would-be antagonist can never really go too far into villain territory because then we’d know they are indeed evil, nor can they just explain what’s going on because then there’s no movie.

And so for an hour we watch scene after scene of the parents acting mildly threatening but never outright BAD, until the runtime reaches a point where we can learn the secret of the noises in the walls and what, if any, the parents’ involvement is with them. I was slightly disappointed that it ends up being a variation of the reveal in another genre movie from 2016 (the title of which will be too much of a spoiler, but if you want a hint: it had a sequel that I disliked!), but the villain is a memorably creepy one all the same. Plus, it makes up for the first hour's balancing act by decimating a group of bullies who came to torment Peter, including an offscreen but still somewhat startling beheading (we see the aftermath via the still walking body). There’s some unfortunate CGI in these moments that hampers their effectiveness a bit, but it’s forgivable when you consider how much the movie decides to earn its R rating after a full on PG-13 first hour.

But man, that final scene. Without spoiling its particulars, it basically feels like there was a five minute epilogue of sorts that they decided to cut down into 60 seconds with narration by the villain. Why they’d do that I don’t know; it’s not a very long movie and the credits run at a crawl to pad it up to (almost) 90 minutes, but it really does a disservice to the film. It’s hard to tell if the images we’re seeing are imagined or an actual future for the hero (we see him in a different bedroom, so it seems he moved to a happier environment), and it also weakens the “I’ll be back someday” threat the villain is attempting to make. WILL it be back? Or is it just leaving the kid forever scared at the idea it *might*, like some kind of boogeyman? It’s unclear, but the credits run long enough to debate it with whoever you’re watching with!

(Fairly clear evidence that this was a re-edit is given right at the top of the film, as we see two editors listed with the second being Kevin Greutert, who when he’s not making Saw films is basically the horror industry’s go-to editor for reworking movies that are coming up short with test audiences.)

Otherwise: pretty good little creeper! Caplan and Starr do a fine job of walking their fine line between “strict parents” and “possibly murderers”, and along with Castle Rock (amusingly, the reason I got Hulu in the first place) serves as a fine reminder that Caplan is a terrific actress, since she's best known for being hilarious and charming in things, but can adapt to genre roles with uncanny ease. And as a Last Man on Earth fan I was happy to see Cleopatra Coleman in something, playing the kid’s obligatory “teacher who notices something is wrong and oversteps her boundaries” (I got some real Antlers vibes at times, in fact). The score, attributed to “Drum & Lace” (Sofia Hultquist) is quite good, and perhaps best of all, it’s a Halloween-set movie but without going overboard with it or dropping in overt homages to Carpenter (a bully does smash a pumpkin, but it doesn’t play like a tribute to Tommy’s). Given the “lonely kid trying to help a possible ghost” plot, I think it’d pair nicely with Lady in White, in fact.

Ultimately it’s not hard to see why Lionsgate buried it; with violence toward kids and a plot that doesn’t give them much to market it around (i.e. an action figure-ready villain), it was probably never going to be a big theatrical hit anyway, though I always wonder why it is they make these movies in the first place – don’t they know from the script that it’s not going to be something the mainstream masses will latch on to? And it’d work just as well at home to boot, so: sure, let’s get it onto streaming services as quickly as possible. But with the strikes and lingering production slowdown from the pandemic, you’d think any finished movie would be worth giving a shot to just in case it connects, plus horror fans don’t exactly get spoiled by a glut of movies throughout the year and would probably show up out of curiosity if they knew it was there. I just wish I could give it a fully committed endorsement, but that final 90 seconds and maybe a few too many “if they just say ______ the movie would end so they’ll be vague and weird for no other reason” moments keep it in “Yeah it’s pretty good, go ahead and watch it if you have Hulu” territory, but not as "background viewing" the way so many streaming films are. It's worth your full attention!

What say you?


Terror Train 2 (2022)

DECEMBER 31, 2023


Unlike Halloween and Christmas, there aren’t a lot of New Year’s-set horror movies, and let’s face it – neither Terror Train or New Year’s Evil (I know they’re not the only ones, but they’re the most popular) are amazing enough to revisit every year. So last year I opted to watch the *remake* of Terror Train that had popped up on Tubi, only to laugh when I discovered one of the only two changes of note it made from the original film is that it changed the holiday from NYE to, sigh, Halloween. Which, to be fair, actually makes the costume element make more sense, but since I wanted something seasonal and it turned out to be unrelated I was mildly annoyed. But thankfully, Terror Train 2 takes place a year – and two months! – later, setting itself on December 31st and restoring balance to the universe.

It’s also a better movie than its predecessor, which it was shot back to back with. Normally, combined productions like this tend to mean that the second of the pair is much lesser than the first (for examples: Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions, Pirates 2 and 3, etc), but that’s not the case here, and ironically it’s the very nature of that sort of production that allowed it to come off as the better of the two. If this was a traditional sequel, it’d probably have a mostly new cast, with some survivors forgotten, and there would probably be a new location as well (or at least a *different* train). But by jumping right into it with the same cast and crew, that means pretty much everyone that survived the original is back here, and by being on the same train it feels more like a successful do-over than traditional sequel.

Because as I mentioned (and for those who haven’t seen it), the remake only made two changes from the original, one being the rather superfluous day it was set on, and the other was the identity of the killer. Rather than go with the magician's assistant, the remake (spoiler) changed it to the conductor of the train (Carne, the Ben Johnson character in the original, played by a woman) and chalked it up to the umpteenth “vengeful parent” excuse, as Carne was revealed to be the mother of the kid they pranked at the beginning. So along with the much less interesting cast, CGI blood, etc it made the remake a very trying experience, offering almost nothing new while doing the same thing we already saw before only poorly, with its two changes of note only reminding you of other slasher movies (Halloween and Friday the 13th, namely). Here, they’re into entirely new territory with regards to its plot, so I just found myself more interested in the proceedings, as I didn’t know who would die and when (and where, and how, etc). Hell, even though the killer’s identity was different last time I was still able to figure it out long before it was revealed, but here I actually guessed wrong! The person I pegged as the new villain took an axe to the back barely over the halfway point!

But in my defense (big spoiler here, so skip this paragraph) I have been conditioned to accept that the killer in a slasher sequel will never be someone from the previous movie. Not that there are a lot of whodunit slasher sequels, but if you look at the handful – the Scream series, the Last Summers, Urban Legend(s) – you’ll see that the new killers are always new characters as well. The closest we ever got was when there was a draft of Scream 2 that turned Cotton into the killer he was accused of being in the first place, but that got changed (rightfully so IMO), while I Still Know just had it be the same guy with a new character, and Urban Legends: Final Cut introduced an entirely new cast anyway (save Reese, of course). So naturally, as a slasher connoisseur going back over 30 years at this point, my eyes were only trained on the handful of new characters, only to see most of them get killed before the climax, allowing the reveal to work as something of a surprise (but not a cheat – important distinction). So good on you, Terror Train 2 – you had the balls to do something Scream never did across five sequels.

Of course, the flipside to all of this is that you have to accept the dumbest setup in slasher history (or at least tied with I Still Know’s radio station trip to Bahamas nonsense) for all of this to occur. I can KIND OF buy the idea that today’s social media obsessed millennials would be jealous of survivor Alana and think what she went through was so cool, and also that they’d want to commemorate the events on the train (though the holiday switcheroo makes this a little awkward – why are they celebrating it on New Year’s when it happened on Halloween?), but Alana AND The Magician both being coerced to join the festivities, plus Sadie the assistant conductor, who is now the conductor? It’s a bit too much “Dick Thornburg was also on Holly’s plane” sequel nonsense for me, even by the already low standards set by a cheapie/quickie sequel being offered for free on Tubi. Like, at least leave Sadie or the Magician *off* the train and just trying to get there to help, or something.

But otherwise (and the return of the CGI blood, though there are some practical spurts on occasion and a surprisingly gnarly disemboweling) it’s shockingly “pretty good” for the most part. I honestly can’t recall a slasher sequel that brought back literally everyone (even Scream 2 left Sid’s dad out of it), and even in the first one I enjoyed the Magician and Alana’s platonic friendship, so I was happy to see more of it here. And even though I’ve seen it a million times by now, I’ll never not laugh at dumb comments from the clueless viewers who find themselves watching a live streamed murder in one of these things. Also, since every horror movie heroine has trauma now, at least they put it to good use – Alana’s PTSD includes hallucinations, so at one point she sees an actual murder taking place and assumes she’s just imagining it again, turning around and doing her breathing exercises to calm down. Heh.

That said, it’s also one of those things where I can’t help but wonder if it’s actually worth watching or if it’s only benefiting from my extremely low expectations. I’d also be curious how it was received by people who never saw the 1980 film and thus were able to watch (and enjoy?) the remake without the déjà vu distracting them the entire time. Maybe they were annoyed at the reveal and/or seeing their favorite returning character(s) die. But for those like me who think the OG is entertaining but no classic and were equally baffled that the remake couldn’t be bothered to make any real changes until the last ten minutes, I think you’ll agree this one, if nothing else, shows a little more effort. And that’s always worth noting in this day and age. Especially right now, when we’re besieged by “Mickey Mouse horror!” trailers thanks to the "Steamboat Willie" copyright expiration. I’ll take Terror Train 7 over any more of that dumb crap.

What say you?


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