“Divisive” has become the fallback term for just about any political personality or issue in recent years, so bitter have differences between the two parties and many of their adherents become. The more fanatical beliefs to be found in an era of increasingly alarmist rhetoric have already provided inspiration for some horror movies, primarily smaller indie productions. The new “Founders Day,” which opens Jan. 19 on 700-plus U.S. screens, is slicker than most such while also more overt in pivoting on political rancor.
But you can’t make a pointed movie about politics — not even a semi-tongue-in-cheek genre film — without political content, and Erik Bloomquist’s feature proves toothless in that regard. Apparently afraid to offend anyone, despite numerous murders onscreen, it centers on a hostile mayoral race between candidates who posture stereotypically yet seem to have no discernible platform, ideology or affiliations on the liberal-to-conservative continuum. That renders the intended satire feeble, while the relatively straightforward horror aspects register just middling effectiveness in a standard slasher vein.
There are enough formulaic elements, especially teens meeting gory deaths, to keep undiscerning viewers in their seats. But the script (co-written by Erik and sibling Carson) stumbles in its climactic revelations, with an even worse epilogue bound to send patrons out rolling their eyes in unamused disbelief.
The New England town of Fairwood is a seemingly scrubbed, pleasant, prosperous hamlet. Yet its citizens are at each other’s throats over the upcoming mayoral election between incumbent Blair Gladwell (Amy Hargreaves) and brash challenger Harold Faulkner (Jayce Bartok). Each being pushy, obnoxious and pandering Type A personalities, it makes sense the two rivals might despise one another. But we never do find out why their supporters follow suit; there’s never a hint of what political issues (crime? employment? fiscal management? degree of flag-hugging?) they might actually differ on.
Both candidates are too ambitiously self-centered to be stellar parents. Adam disapproves of teen daughter Melissa’s (Olivia Nikkanen) same-sex romantic involvement with classmate Allison (Naomi Grace), while he browbeats son Adam (Devin Druid). The latter has just had a painful breakup with Blair’s daughter Lilly (Emilia McCarthy). Mom the mayor is too preoccupied to notice her own child’s distress, over that or the controlling behavior of bad-boy new squeeze Rob (Tyler James White). Most of these high schoolers work at the local movie house, which naturally will soon provide one site for lethal violence.
When Allison and Melissa are out walking one night, trying to get away from the general discord, they’re accosted by a frightening mystery figure in a Guy Fawkes-like mask and old-fashioned judicial wig. This is just the start of a killing spree, which is quickly exploited by the candidates for political gain — even after members of their own families are targeted. The casualty list eventually encompasses adults as well as adolescents. Among other significant figures under suspicion and/or at risk are beloved veteran teacher Mr. Jackson (William Russ), his school’s least-beloved bratty delinquents (Kate Edmonds, Dylan Slade), the mayor’s campaign manager (the director), Allison’s widowed dad (Andrew Stuart-Jones), the police chief (Catherine Curtin) and her deputy (Adam Weppler).
“Founders Day” was apparently a project the Bloomquists meant to start their careers with, though a dozen years and several other features intervened instead. But all that experience hasn’t done much to refine this original concept, which emerges with the same awkward tonal mix as their prior horrors “She Came From the Woods” and “Ten Minutes to Midnight” — its unsubtle comedy not really integrated with thrills, but clashing like oil and water.
This is not the finest acting hour for Hargreaves, Bartok or Curtin, all of whom are encouraged towards caricature yet denied material funny or incisive enough to make it work. The younger performers (though none seem young enough to be high schoolers) are better, if only because they’re allowed to play it fairly straight. Nonetheless, there’s not a lot of suspenseful buildup to or punch in the various scenes of slasher mayhem.
While the Bloomquists clearly know their horror tropes, they don’t bring a lot of conviction to them, with kills and false scares alike seeming to arrive on predictable cue.
Nonetheless, “Founder’s Day” — named after a community historical celebration that’s unwisely allowed to proceed despite unsolved murders — works passably well until the plot derails in the last reel. Without spoiling anything, while the film reaches for “Scream”-style twisty ingeniousness, its denouement just feels like labored contrivance. And a postscript is downright asinine.
On the plus side, as in the aforementioned features, the sibling multihyphenates and their collaborators deliver a good-looking, decently paced production that makes the most of well-chosen locations (primarily New Milford, Connecticut) and colorful lighting effects. That polished surface makes it easier to swallow a progress that, from start to finish, is neither particularly scary nor nearly as clever as it means to be.
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