Franchise Corner Entry: THE PURGE

THE PURGE **** USA 2013 Dir: James DeMonaco. 85 mins

Writer-director James DeMonaco, who scripted the not dissimilar (and very good) remake of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, delivered one of 2013’s most profitable movies with THE PURGE, earning an instant sequel green light and an enduring franchise. It’s easy to see why: DeMonaco’s terrific high-concept riffs on the home invasion of Jack Sholder’s ALONE IN THE DARK, while channelling the cynical spirit of BATTLE ROYALE. Fans of the original STAR TREK will also recognise the prominent influence of the episode “Return of the Archons”, set on a computer-controlled planet where the population is allowed to unleash its inner beast during the approved “Red Hour”. DeMonaco’s variant unfolds in the year 2022, with crime in America reduced to a record low thanks to a government sanctioned twelve-hour “Purge” in which all crimes, including murder, are legal. The Purge has saved the country and the economy is flourishing again, but the film displays a typical modern horror relish in destroying the smug sense of security enjoyed by Ethan Hawke’s wealthy family as they watch Purge Events on reality TV from their privileged position in a gated community.
In a story indebted to Wes Craven’s favoured theme of capturing the savagery of the supposedly “civilised”, Hawke is pleasingly unsympathetic as a man smarmily content with the protection denied to the majority and deluded enough to believe his kids and wife don’t have any “inner beast” to release on Purge Night. This, of course, is proved wrong once their home turf has been violated and they turn to ultra-violence just like their poorer counterparts: it isn’t long before Mom is torturing a captive with a letter opener. If the home-invasion template had been over-played by this point (following THE STRANGERS, THEM, et al) and the outside mayhem is largely implied, this is still an intense, trim old-school B movie with a truly memorable set of masked, middle class antagonists.

THE PURGE: ANARCHY *** USA 2014 Dir: James DeMonaco. 103 mins

Given that it revolves around an annual event in morally bankrupt future America, THE PURGE lent itself more than most to an endless succession of regular sequels: all you have to do is change up the characters, find some vaguely fresh spin and voila! Instant cash! Fortunately, series creator James DeMonaco has returned to write all of the follow-ups to date and has so far managed to avoid descending into lazy repetition. ANARCHY takes place in 2024, where American unemployment and crime levels are at an all time low thanks to the yearly 12 hour purge. Escaping the domestic confines of the original, the sequel observes various unrelated characters coming together on the streets and facing mortal danger in the early stages of the latest purge – including a young couple whose car breaks down while en-route to their kids and vengeful Sergeant Frank Grillo (in a character inspired by Clint Eastwood’s role in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES), seeking retribution for his son’s murder in an earlier Purge. Grillo’s character aside, the new ensemble are one-note TV movie types, while the core plot element of the rich (gathering together to chant cult-like the mantra of the New Founding Fathers) profiteering from the Purge is a call-back to everything from THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME to the HOSTEL series. Nonetheless, this action-driven dystopian sequel achieves a Carpenter-esque vibe with its punchy set pieces set against a debauched, corpse-ridden landscape and given energy and ambience by Nathan Whitehead’s evocative electronic score.

THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR *** USA / France 2016 Dir: James DeMonaco. 109 mins

In the real world of 2016, America elected Donald Trump as their President and the concept of “The Purge” immediately felt like something he might conceivably introduce. Just months earlier, the third PURGE movie depicts the U.S. erupting into civil unrest during election year thanks to the growing belief that the New Founding Fathers are using the annual Purge to decrease population for their own ends. Wild card independent Presidential candidate Elizabeth Mitchell, who survived the massacre of her family in an earlier Purge, wants to ban the event entirely, while her rival believes the Purge saved the U.S. from economic ruin and solved the crime problem. Meanwhile, the Founding Fathers – represented by profane Raymond J Barry- plan to use this year’s Purge to do some spring cleaning and Frank Grillo is now Mitchell’s head of security. ELECTION YEAR captures a vivid sense of anarchy on the streets, with backstreet guillotining’s, awesome Purge costumes (notably Uncle Sam and a fucked-up Statue of Liberty) and subversive imagery, including the Lincoln Memorial ablaze and doused in blood. Like its predecessors, it successfully apes the tropes, style and attitude of retro 70’s and 80’s exploitation movies, while offering unsubtle politically charged sub-plots, including the NRA capitalising on the cash generated by the Purge. There are neat secondary characters, including Mykelti Williamson as a deli owner facing the rising rate of Purge insurance, though script clutter means it’s about 20 minutes too long. It’s also weakened by an upbeat resolution possibly intended to close the franchise for good, but entirely inappropriate in a year when the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse moved into the White House.

THE FIRST PURGE **** USA 2018 Dir: Gerard McMurray. 98 mins

Franchise creator James DeMonaco wrote (but, for the first time, didn’t direct) this fourth PURGE, an incendiary prequel set in the year 2018 (confirmed by a glimpse of a poster for Blumhouse’s forthcoming new HALLOWEEN movie) in an overpopulated America with unemployment rising, the stock market plummeting, a mortgage crisis unfolding, and city riots reflective of a divided country. Financially endorsed by the NRA, “The New Founding Fathers of America” rise to power, promising a revival of everything that made the USA great while exploiting the fears of the many. Sound familiar? Staten Island, rife with poverty, racial tensions and drug gangs, is chosen to host the experiment that will lead to the yearly “Purge” events, with volunteers paid $5000 to stay at home and further financial compensation if they go out. Events unfold against the backdrop of a Greek chorus of the (fake?) news media, who are disappointed that residents are using the event for nothing more than a big party – while protestors lament it as “another way to keep the brown and black people down”.
In a fast-paced genre picture with startling imagery of disguised mercenaries dressed as Klansmen to stir up violence when the lower classes don’t do enough “Purging”, this doesn’t compromise with its vision of an America in which the government depopulates the lower classes to avoid paying for them. The dialogue offers overt allusions to Trump’s America: “Pussygrabbin’ motherfucker!” and a rhetorical lament of “Fuckin’ Russia!” being the two most blatant examples. Aside from a ferocious villain known as Skeletor who could have come from any number of 80’s exploitation flicks, the antagonists are almost entirely anonymous, often disguised white-haired, white men, while one-time Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei essays the role of a key figure in the Purge “test” with only fleeting flickers of remorse. It’s extremely proficient as a modern B movie, with brutal, bloody action sequences and a driving synth score by Kevin Lax. Its legacy however, even more so than its three predecessors, will be as another contemporary American film haunted by the ghosts of Katrina and joining the cry of rage against the events in Flint, Michigan.

Reviews by Steven West

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *