Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
When it comes to horror franchises to watch this Halloween season, The Purge might not be one of the first that comes to mind. While the four Purge films are just as much dystopian thrillers as they are horror movies, they’re a personal favorite of mine, and certainly one of the better modern horror franchises. It’s tough to say if in a few decades The Purge masks will be as iconic as Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, but the series is definitely worth revisiting this spooky season.
Like any good dystopian films, The Purge series present us with a somewhat believable “what-if?” scenario. What if the American government as it currently stands was replaced, and we had New Founding Fathers (NFFA) who created a Purge Night, a night where all crime, including murder, was legal for 12 hours? What if this practice, and the NFFA themselves, seemingly cured the USA of all economic woes, as well as greatly decreasing violence around the country? Would it seem likely, in this case, that Purge Night eased our economic troubles by reducing the amount of poor and needy people in this country? Is it hard to believe that an event like the Purge night would be much easier for wealthy families to navigate safely?
THE PURGE (2013)
2013’s The Purge is the first of the franchise, and weakest of the four movies. The year is 2022; a wealthy family is busy securing their home for the annual Purge Night, and James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), who’s sold security systems to most of his neighborhood, is confident that his family won’t run into any trouble on this dreaded holiday. Unfortunately, the family’s young son Charlie hears a man outside calling for help while watching the security cameras. He lets the man (referred to as “The Stranger”) in, and thus the Sandin family’s plan for a safe Purge Night are completely foiled.
While the Sandin family could, in theory, safely hide the man through the night, he’s being hunted by a group of wealthy purgers, who are excited about their “right to purge.” The wealthy young purgers soon show up at the Sandin’s home demanding what is “theirs,” and threatening to break in and kill the family if the man isn’t given back to them.
What follows is a fairly typical home invasion thriller. The film almost entirely takes place inside the Sandin home, and it has the same sort of claustrophobic suspense as other home invasion movies (think 2008’s The Strangers). While Lena Heady is great as Mary Sandin, the rest of the performances are mediocre and there’s no shortage of melodramatic moments as the family tries to protect themselves. Predictably, the stranger who Charlie brings in, a homeless veteran, ends up saving the day.
While The Purge lays the groundwork for the following films, it’s skip-able. There are some satisfying kills in it, with minimal gore, and the twist at the end is predictable. It’s a fun movie to watch, and like the rest of the series, it doesn’t require a lot of thinking to enjoy. I give it a 4/10 stars; it’s well done for a film done on a low budget, but ultimately it’s a little boring.
The First Purge tells the story of how the annual Purge Night came to be. It begins with news footage of the American stock market crashing, unemployment on the rise, another mortgage crisis, and an opioid epidemic. Amidst protests and unrest, The New Founding Fathers present an alternative to the republican and democratic parties. They intend to conduct a social experiment; one where all crime, including murder, is legal for 12 hours. The experiment is to take place on Staten Island; residents who choose to stay on the island will be compensated and they’ll receive additional compensation for participation. Participants are given a tracking device, as well as video-recording contact lenses (which make the user’s eyes glow brightly – it’s really cheesy).
Unlike the other Purge films where our villains are chasing after you and trying to kill you, here they are safely watching live video feeds, hoping that their experiment goes to plan. Dr. Updale (Marissa Tomei) and NFFA Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) are like cartoon villain-overlords, watching from their command center. The film goes back and forth between them, and our protagonists; regular citizens on Staten Island, Nya (Lex Scott Davis) who is against the Purge Night, and the successful drug dealer Dmitri (Y’lan Noel).
The First Purge takes the ridiculous plot lines, fun to watch action, surprising kills, and government conspiracies of the first 3 movies and ramps it up a notch. When the experiment is not going to plan — people are mostly just destructing property, having sex in public, partying — the NFFA cuts in to make sure that the experiment goes to plan by ensuring that more people are killed. The curtain is pulled back on any mystery as it’s discovered that the NFFA is sending in hired mercenaries. Arlo reveals that the NFFA is in too much debt, the population is too high, and that he is purposely targeting low-income areas.
The First Purge is enjoyable to watch, like the other Purge films, but the exposition is ridiculous. There’s no thinking required for viewing subject matter that actually deserves more consideration; mainly, the film brings up racial and income inequality, and rather than asking any probing questions, it gives us a ridiculous government conspiracy, stereotypes, and tropes. Due to that, I gave The First Purge 5/10 stars.
THE PURGE: ANARCHY (2014)
Anarchy takes place one year after the events of the first film. While the idea that the Purge Night is all about money is brought up in the first film, the idea is expanded on in the second as we are introduced to an Anti-NFFA group, who broadcast videos in protest of the annual purge. We’re also shown an NFFA meeting that confirms the motive behind Purge Night.
The film begins with three different storylines: Shane and Liz, a middle-class couple on the verge of separation; Eva and her daughter Cali, a working-class family who just want to make it through the night safely; and Leo (Frank Grillo), a lone-wolf vigilante hell-bent on getting revenge against the man who killed his son in a drunk driving accident. The storylines quickly converge as each character’s plans are disrupted by unpredictable circumstances and purgers (which is pretty predictable for these movies).
As the group tries to escape purgers hunting them down, Anarchy begins to blend elements of slasher films and action movies. Eva and Cali are being hunted by “Big Daddy” and his paramilitary platoon, while Shane and Liz are tormented by a group hired to bring victims to wealthy people. It makes for an entertaining and suspenseful watch, and the hired group are some of my favorite purgers in the series. Lakeith Stanfield in his mask that reads “GOD” is excellently creepy and callous as he taunts Shane and Liz.
All of the purgers have great costumes and masks throughout the series, but the ones we encounter here stand out above the rest. The introduction of the Anti-NFFA group is a great addition to the series, and allows for The Stranger from the first film to be brought back into the mix. He’s now working with the Anti-NFFA leader, Carmelo, and conveniently, Carmelo’s group is there to help when our main cast of characters need it most. The Purge: Anarchy is definitely worth a watch; I give it 6/10 stars.
THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR (2016)
As the Purge series moves forward, the social commentary only becomes more blatant. Election Year of course come out in an actual election year. Leo, from Anarchy, is head of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), an anti-purge presidential candidate who’s family was the victim of a brutal Purge Night massacre years before. Frank Grillo as Leo is one of the best things about these movies; he’s perfectly cast as the disgruntled action hero, reluctant to save the day but always there when he’s needed.
Anarchy and Election Year are a good pairing. Election Year works well as a sequel (the first three Purge films don’t feel like a trilogy), bringing back Leo as a more matured version of the character we met in Anarchy, one who no longer wishes for revenge but actually hopes that Senator Roan will be elected to put an end to the Purge Night. Leo plans for the Senator to have a safe Purge Night, but this being a Purge movie, that doesn’t happen and his plan is laid to waste. Leo must spend his night trying to lead the Senator to safety, but of course, that plan is also interrupted.
Similarly to Anarchy, we have an ensemble of characters converge; this time we have a shop owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his friends Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel) and Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria). Leo is once again tasked with keeping this group safe (although they are far more self sufficient than the characters in Anarchy). If Frank Grillo is the best thing about these films, the character of Joe Dixon is the worst (and it is not Mykelti Williamson’s fault). He’s written as a stereotype; it’s meant to provide comic relief, but it’s lazy at best, insensitive at worst.
As in Anarchy, the ensemble crew ends up meeting up with the Anti-NFFA group (this time, led by The Stranger from The Purge, Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge)). The plot becomes about more than just the Senator’s survival; the Anti-NFFA group is plotting an assassination and the Senator doesn’t want that to happen. Although the plot is ridiculous at times, it’s also the most fun movie of the series. There’s goofy kills, creepy costumes, and some seriously creative purgers. Election Year is my favorite of the series, and I give it a 7/10 star rating.
While based on an extreme premise, The Purge movies remain rooted in a believable alternative United States. The horror of The Purge is what human beings and those in power are capable of. None of the four movies are at all subtle in their social commentary and their magnification of the horrors of our modern society.
The Purge and The First Purge are entertaining and can be fun to watch, but they are definitely skippable. Watch Anarchy and Election Year though — after all, it’s another election year right now. Come for the costumes, stay for the relevance.
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