Founders Day

Founders Day (2023)

Founders Day had its international première on Mon 28th Aug at FrightFest

There is a scene in Founders Day where high schoolers Lilly (Emilia McCarthy) and Adam (Devin Druid) are called to the font of the class by their old history and civics teacher Mr Len Jackson (William Russ) to debate the thesis “Better a cautious commander than a rash one”. This is an urgent and highly charged political topic in the town of Fairwood, where conservative incumbent Blair Gladwell (Amy Hargreaves) and progressive aspirant Harold Faulkner (Jayce Bartok) are in vicious competition for the local mayoralty, bitterly dividing the community with their opposed platforms of, respectively, consistency and change. That Lilly is Blair’s daughter, and Adam is Harold’s son, shows how readily these ideological factions trickle down into the next generation – yet Lilly and Adam are, or at least were, star-cross’d lovers, and it quickly becomes clear that they are using this argument merely to relitigate the messy details of their own recent breakup. Here the political is also deeply personal.

Founders Day is a slasher. Someone dressed as a town founder, with grotesque mask/peruke, bladed gavel and mute determination, is hammering and slicing their way through the town’s younger population, and leaving bizarre literary quotes behind alongside the bodies. As both a lesbian and an African-American in this otherwise straight white town, A-grade student Allison Chambers (Naomi Grace) keeps her head down, stays out of local politics and is planning to move out and on to North Carolina’s capital city Raleigh for university – but she witnesses with her own eyes the killer hammering her girlfriend – and Harold’s daughter – Melissa (Olivia Nikkanen) before tipping her over the town’s elevated bridge. There are other outsiders here – rebels without a cause Britt (Kate Edmonds) and Tyler (Dylan Slade) who are pranking and vandalising their way through the place with an allegiance to nothing beyond their own anarchic thrills, and bad boy Rob Donahue (Tyler James White) who has been with Lilly at least since Adam dumped her. Also remaining neutral in the town’s affairs are Allison’s father Thomas (Andrew Stewart-Jones) and Deputy Finn Miller (Adam Weppler) – but everyone else in Fairwood is deeply partisan, right down to Miller’s boss Commissioner Judith Peterson (Catherine Curtin), who when she is not absurdly mimicking the mannerisms of Kojak and Columbo, engages in casual racism. 

With features like Ten Minutes To Midnight (2020), Night at the Eagle Inn (2021) and She Came From The Woods (2022), director Erik Bloomquist and his brother/co-writer Carson have shown their deep knowledge of genre, while always taking its tropes for an unusual spin. In Founders Day, where the director also appears as Blair’s toadying aide Oliver Hull, all the elements of a savvy smalltown high school slasher – think Scream, or Joseph Kahn’s Detention (2011) or Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls (2017) – are certainly present and correct. Yet what gives this its edge, and is enshrined in its very title, is the possibility that these murders, despite being meted out up close and personal, may be politically motivated. For Fairwood is a microcosm of a polarised America, where backward-looking impulses to make things great again and forward-looking drives for reform collide and clash without compromise to create a corrupt kind of stasis where any real action is supplanted and deferred by crippling anger. Both mayoral candidates here are terrible parents and even worse human beings, all too happy to capitalise on the deaths of children (even their own) if it will get them votes. Yet here every attempt to shake things up and move the political dial comes at a very high cost, and no one – from any generation – emerges entirely unscathed or untainted.

Slashers are typically cynical, dividing our allegiances between the co-dependent perspectives of hunter and prey, and leaving us wanting the killer, no less than the Final Girl, to survive for the sequel – yet Founders Day suggests that such cynicism lies deeply embedded in the very foundations of the American nation, where ideal ends can only be achieved – if at all – through means involving deceit, manipulation, hypocrisy and violence. Here the masked killer is also a metaphor for a bludgeoning governmental system – and we are left to wonder whether, after all the hatchet jobs and political assassinations, the follow-up will really be any different.  

strap: Erik Bloomquist’s calendar horror is all at once high-school slasher, and small-town satire of a politically polarised America

© Anton Bitel