The Purge films have a brilliant concept – for one 12-hour period once a year, all crime across America, including murder, is legal. These films examine the sociological backdrop behind a society that would allow for such an event. This is a concept that lends itself to world-building and has the opportunity to do plenty of fascinating things. So why doesn’t it?
The First Purge follows an “architect,” played by Marisa Tomei in a terrible wig, who is responsible for the idea that leads to the social experiment that eventually becomes The Purge. During this first year, it’s tested in Staten Island. The impoverished and destitute are offered $5,000 to stay home on Purge Night – more if they decide to participate in the carnage. The film follows the way that events play out that evening.
I was with this movie for the first act. The anti-Purge protests that the film kicks off with feel very reminiscent protests you see on the news every day. We have a government today where something like the Purge is looking less and less like dystopia, and that’s terrifying. But that’s all this movie really has. It descends into the mediocrity that has destroyed every one of these movies. We follow a cast full of unknowns who all remind us of better actors. They’re all cookie-cutter characters with nothing original or subversive to them. There’s the drug dealer with a heart of gold, the woman who will do anything to protect her family, the straight-A student who might be taking a walk down a dark path. And there are two demented old women who are putting explosives inside of stuffed animals and setting them off as strangers walk by.
And that is exactly where these Purge films lose me. Every one of these films has attempted to be the grindhouse, exploitative, slasher B-movie, but also say something relevant about the world we’re living in. And, for whatever reason, they can’t have it both ways. The message is distorted from the cheap jump scares and the campiness. And doesn’t work as a horror film either, because every scare is seen a mile away. The political commentary is much more effective than any jump scare this film has.
Writer James DeMonaco owns rights to this franchise, and he has essentially written the same script four times. After every film, he’s claimed that the franchise is over, but get ready for the new Purge miniseries teased during the credits of this film – on the USA network this fall! Every one of these films crudely glosses over the same themes introduced in the original movie, hints at something more interesting, and goes nowhere with it. It feels as if a plucky eighteen-year old took a Political Science 101 class in his first semester of college, got through a week of it, and dropped out. Next, he decides to write a screenplay for a “politically relevant horror movie,” with what he learned in that one short week. He doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, but he’s sure he does. That’s exactly what it feels like to watch a Purge movie.