Time was, you could go see a slasher movie where the people making it seemed most concerned with providing gnarly kills, suspense, and perhaps a few moments of comedy that were by turns blue and black. It was a rare title that could pull off all three, and even then strained political commentary was certainly not a prerequisite. But post-Trump, it appears that our filmmakers just can’t help themselves, and Erik Bloomquist is the latest in a line of genre directors (Craig Zobel with 2020’s The Hunt, Rob Savage with 2021’s Dashcam) who look at the past few years of political discourse in America and think to themselves: “Are we even ‘united’ anymore?” Where the urge to cram these trite musings into the confines of a horror film comes from, we may never know.
Co-written with his brother Carson, Bloomquist’s comedic horror film Founders Day is set against a heated mayoral race in a small American town that seems unusually on edge, considering that A) it’s a mayoral race in a small town and B) there is no discernible difference between the two candidates, except that one is a woman who represents the status quo — an anonymous radio caller makes reference to her “pants suit budget” — and the other is a businessman who fancies himself an outsider. Now where have we heard that one before? Adding fuel to the fire of discontent is a series of murders perpetrated by a masked killer whose weapon of choice is a gavel, quite possibly a ham-fisted attempt at symbolism.
To get it out of the way right now: Founders Day isn’t good. It certainly won’t be the worst thing to come out this year, but it’s not exactly making the case for horror cinema as an avenue for politically potent storytelling either. The film’s most egregious flaw, aside from nixing the possessive form from its titular holiday for some reason, is its weak kills. There aren’t many to begin with, but when the bewigged baddie, who dresses like one of the town’s founders, does deign to show up and get to slashing, the results are usually light on blood (and the blood that does appear is largely computer-generated), awkward, and decidedly unscary.
In the midst of all the turmoil is Allison (Naomi Grace), whose girlfriend Melissa (Olivia Nikkanen) falls prey to the gavel-wielding psycho early in the film. As a Black lesbian in an otherwise lily-white and ramrod straight town, there is an inherent tension to Allison’s, well, entire existence, and although she has learned to keep her head down and bide her time until she can leave for college in the not-so-big city, her involuntary role in the killings bring her face-to-face with the town’s casual racism and homophobia once again. It’s just too bad Bloomquist isn’t concerned with actually exploring this potentially interesting dynamic, instead opting to pay lip service to the same stale discourse we’ve had to endure since the 2016 election.
The convoluted men-behind-the-curtain machinations that motor the plot, meanwhile, strain believability and tie into the bizarre, cult-like investment some of the town’s residents have in their local politics. Neither Blair Gladwell (Amy Hargreaves), the incumbent mayor, nor her challenger, Harold Faulkner (Jayce Bartok), are given more than the vaguest of ideological outlines, and so it’s impossible to grasp what the fuss is even supposed to be about. And the way that the killings turn out to be related to the race is, frankly, preposterous, never mind the fact that it uninspiredly rips off Scream (1996) in the process.
The film embodies a lot of what isn’t great about filmmaking in the 2020s. There’s the broad social commentary shoehorned into the narrative in a possible bid for relevance, but executed with a maddening lack of courage to actually say something about the issues it raises. There are the flat digital textures that give it all the visual flair of a YouTube video — an effect made worse by some of the sketch comedy-tier performances. And there’s the, for lack of a better term, genre posturing that doesn’t translate into actual genre thrills. It’s fairly typical: everyone is after the horror tag, but no one seems interested in delivering the goods. Like the writers who don’t want to write and the readers who don’t want to read, Bloomquist wants to be a horror filmmaker without making a horror film. It’s been clear for a while now that American horror has really painted itself into a corner, and sadly, it looks like it will remain stuck there for the time being.
DIRECTOR: Erik Bloomquist; CAST: Devin Druid, Emilia McCarthy, Naomi Grace, Amy Hargreaves; DISTRIBUTOR: Dark Sky Films; IN THEATERS: January 19; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 46 min.