Regardless of your personal feelings about Blumhouse’s franchise of political psycho-thrillers, you can’t deny they’ve burrowed into the public consciousness to an impressive degree – after all, everyone knows what The Purge is and the concept has become something of a household name even with people who haven’t even seen a single frame of the (to date) four movies and two seasons of the television series. In fact, what with COVID lockdowns, the BLM movement raging against police and the storming of the United States Capitol in January 2021, you’d be forgiven in thinking that franchise creator James DeMonaco has that ability to do that trick Doctor Strange does in Infinity War where he scans countless realities in order to prove that we aren’t yet living in the darkest timeline – emphasis on yet. Yet back in 2013, his premier entry into a franchise – that’s due to end soon with The Forever Purge – didn’t really manage to get across how terrifying this legalised class war could really be.
It’s an alternate 2022 (or at least, I fucking hope it is) and the trials and tribulations that had beaten America to it’s knees has been circumvented by something cooked up by the ruling body who are known as the New Founding Fathers. In order to counteract all the violence caused by the poverty and crime in the wake of a massive economic collapse, the Fathers created The Purge, an annual event where for twelve hours all crime is as legal as buying and apple or flying a kite. While you do have the option of sitting it out at home while hoping that some disgruntled maniac doesn’t kick in your door and riddle you with bullets, you are strongly advised to “release the beast” and get out all your frustrations in a cleansing, healing, killing spree that handily comes with no ramifications whatsoever.
In this dystopian nightmare we meet James Sandin as he drives home to his extraordinarily affluent gated community in order to sit behind the state of the art security system his company created and wait out the Purge with his family – wife Mary, their weirdo son Charlie, who creates remote control toys that wouldn’t look out of place hiding under Sid’s bed in Toy Story and elder daughter Zoey who has goo goo eyes for her forbidden boyfriend Henry.
However, after the system has been activated and the siren announcing that the twelve hours of lawlessness goes off, the Sandin family’s luck rapidly goes south in a hard, hard way. Firstly, boyfriend Henry has snuck in to have “words” with the disapproving James and then Charlie exercises his anti-Purge feelings by offering safety to a wounded, homeless black man who claims he’s being hunted – but worst of all are the group of masked, armed rich kids who come looking for their quarry who really don’t take kindly to “one of us” harbouring “one of them”.
As the family scour their large house in order to capture the homeless man they debate about what they’re going to do once they catch him: continue to give him shelter or hand him over; but those creepy spoilt bastards outside haven’t got all night…
The thing that carries the full weight of The Purge is undoubtedly it’s insanely juicy premise which possibly is one of the best back stories a movie of resent times has given in order to stage what is essentially a standard home invasion flick. However, the problem with that is simple, a good home invasion flick doesn’t need a good reason and are normally more terrifying the less you know about the invaders. Take The Strangers who coolly reply ” Because you were home.” when asked why they are doing what they’re doing; or how about the smug, rubber gloved teens from Michael Haneke’s rage inducing Funny Games who claim simply to be curious whether the targeted family can survive the night – my point is that just because your thriller has a mouthwatering premise, it doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels.
Thus is The Purge’s main problem; it’s super tight budget doesn’t actually allow it’s writer/director the opportunity to explore this fucked up new world to it’s full extent and instead gives us a rather narrow view through the eyes of – wait for it – rich white people. It’s an issue that’s soon addressed in the sequels but the movie strangely avoids focusing precisely on the kind of people who’s suffer most from an event like this and the sole poor person who features isn’t even given a name as he’s bartered for by two warring groups of caucasians. This “if it can happen to rich white people it can happen to anyone” approach was thankfully dropped for a more inclusive view but until then we had to spend a night with the family of Ethan Hawke who truth be told, hasn’t had much luck with protecting his cinematic families thanks to movies like Sinister but proves to be a decent foil here as a life sheltered by money is slowly pryed open and he’s finally forced to pick a side after years of sitting on the fence. Supporting the Purge while never Purging yourself is all well and good if you can simply lock yourself away; but where do you stand when your country’s troubles find their way into your living room? Also wrestling with this conundrum is Lena Headey’s Mary, who’s resolve is a little clearer but who doesn’t so much have to deal with the masked, grinning lunatics as the fake smiles of her jealous neighbours and both actors do well, but they don’t really have much of a likebility factor. In fact, no one is particularly likeable in this movie and it desperately needs a Frank Grillo of a Carmen Ejogo to make you give more of a shit about what’s going on besides just screaming and bloody acts of self defence.
However, remove all the missed opportunities and more obvious political references and The Purge is a fairly average, if perfectly competent, thriller that keeps the violence and tension ticking along just fine – but if you truly want a nail grinding experience that manages to keep it’s grey matter ticking even when it’s leaking down the walls, you might want to do yourself a favour and take in Jeremy Saulnier’s magnificent Green Room.
Better things were in store for the franchise in the shape of it’s grander sequel which gave the concept the space and budget to breathe while wisely riffing on John Carpenter with heavy Assault On Precinct 13 vibes that makes perfect sense when you realise that DeMonaco also scripted the ill fated remake.
An average little pulse Pounder that set the stage for what would come less, The Purge may be one of those films that’s more famous for being famous than being great, but it does just enough to allow it’s admittedly great status quo to live on.
An ok occasion of the home invasion persuasion.