Founders Day

Fairwood’s incumbent mayor Blair Gladwell’s (Amy Hargreaves, "Blue Ruin") opponent Harold Faulkner (Jayce Bartok, "SubUrbia") thinks his high school senior daughter Melissa’s (Olivia Nikkanen, Netflix's 'The Society') appearance reflects negatively on both him and his campaign.  Convinced that instead it’s the fact she has a girlfriend, Melissa runs out to drive away with Allison Chambers (Naomi Grace).  But Melissa won’t be home that night, Allison witnessing her horrific attack by a wigged and masked figure wielding a judge’s gavel, and in addition to being distraught about his daughter, Harold will be apoplectic upon learning Gladwell intends to go through with the family festival for the town’s tricentennial, “Founders Day.”

Laura's Review: B

Cowriter/coeditor (with brother Carson)/director Erik Bloomquist ("Ten Minutes to Midnight") crosses the holiday slasher with “Scream” then wraps it in political satire in a gory horror comedy elevated not only by a well thought out premise but by its cast and crew.  Filmmakers should take note of cinematographer Mike Magilnick ("She Came from the Woods") whose artful compositions here are one of this film’s biggest assets.

Melissa, intent on convincing Allison not to leave their hometown, heads into Fairwood’s Main Street with her where Melissa’s brother manages the local theater.  When they head off to a romantic bridge and Melissa’s harrowing fate, we learn that Adam Faulkner (Devin Druid, "Greyhound") has recently been jilted by Lilly Gladwell (Emilia McCarthy), the daughter of his dad’s adversary, by their cocky coworker Rob Donahue (Tyler James White).  The next day, with Melissa’s disappearance under investigation by Commissioner Peterson (Catherine Curtin, TV's 'Orange Is the New Black') and Deputy Miller (Adam Weppler), Mr. Jackson (William Russ, "Cruising," TV's 'Boy Meets World') pits Adam against Lilly in a debate while Alison endures the tasteless prank stabbings staged by Tyler (Dylan Slade) and Britt (Kate Edmonds) in the high school’s hallways.

That night at the theater, Lilly begins reaching out to Adam to console him only to be shocked by Rob’s aggressively misogynistic reaction.  Left to close the theater, she’s in the midst of texting Adam when she suddenly hears the familiar refrains of ‘Let’s all go to the lobby’ echoing from the theater.  When she’s found the next day, the news will be delivered to her mother by mayoral aide Oliver Hull (Erik Bloomquist) just as she’s opening Founders Day festivities.  In one of the film’s many genre subversions (and example of political hypocrisy), the festivities are called off, yet the body count continues to mount.

The Bloomquists have a lot of fun skewering the American political system, saving one of their sharpest barbs for their unexpected climax.  They accomplish a lot seeding their teenaged romances with the progeny of political adversaries and oppressed minorities, one third act partnership unified by thinking that authorities are ‘looking for someone to blame’ rather than uncovering the truth.  Tragedy is turned into political opportunity in the most cynical, jaw-dropping way imaginable.

The cast features young actors in the teen roles playing it straight while many of their adult counterparts go broad and the mix works, the authorities (Hargreaves, Bartok, Curtin, Weppler) cartoonish parodies.  William Russ’ teacher Mr. Jackson is an exception as is Andrew Stewart-Jones as Alison’s dad Thomas, the former a voice of reason, the latter the face of concern.  Nikkanen stretches credulity as a high school senior, but Grace, McCarthy, Druid and White create a believable and distinguishable group of kids.

Magilnick’s care pays off, not only in tiling high school corridors with angled lockers but in the way he juxtaposes Adam’s head on a pillow, Allison’s looking down at him from the frame’s opposite corner.  His shots can be eerie or arty, lighting Peterson’s face from below as she interrogates Alison and capturing red, white and blue in a puddle, reflections from a police car at night.  Tim Williams’ (“Pearl”) score accentuates horror as well as faux patriotism, complemented by dreamy synth pop soundtrack selections like Keep Shelly in Athens’ ‘We Want More.’

“Founders Day” is a superior commercial slasher with more on its mind than mayhem.

Robin's Review: B

Dark Sky Films releases "Founders Day" in theaters on 1/19/24.  Click here to find a theater near you.