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?


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