I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot lately for a great many different franchises, but it’s kind of amazing that we got here, right? Really, it’s more like a minor miracle. Despite starting with a movie that even fans of the franchise can’t really bring themselves to get behind, The Purge has proven itself to be one of the powerhouse horror franchises of the new millennium: the near-annual releases of which has proven to be something of a holiday must-see of truly blockbuster proportions.
Freddy Krueger’s heyday has come and gone. Jason Vorhees keeps limping back for more box office punishment every couple of years. Charles Lee Ray has migrated permanently to the small screen. Pinhead keeps sporadically appearing to decidedly mixed results and nobody seems to care about Leatherface anymore. But, by God, people keep tuning into the annual purge, even after its blood-splattered blow-out for the timely Purge: Election Year (2016) documenting what was supposed to ostensibly be the final observance of the sanguine holiday.
So here we are, two years in and the Trump Presidency faces its first purge (both figuratively and literally): a movie which seems laser-targeted to co-opt the horrific rhetoric of the sophomore regime for its horrific displays of cinematic violence. But something never comes from nothing, and even the Purge has its beginnings. Only in this case, those first baby steps toward terror weren’t taken in the geographic borders of Staten Island (as they are in the now-playing prequel), but in the seemingly safe, upper-middle class home of Ethan Hawke’s James Sandin.
The film opens up in the waning hours before the start of the annual Purge: the patriotic holiday where, for twelve uninterrupted hours, all crime (but especially murder) is perfectly legal and citizens are encouraged to purge themselves of all their pent-up, violent urges from the previous year. But while the Sandin’s heavily-reinforced home — courtesy of patriarch James’ profitable employment at a home security firm — seems like the perfect hold-up from harm during the ghastly holiday, inflamed passions and well-intended mercies inside their steel-reinforced walls prove to be just as deadly as anything they could hope to find on the streets.
Despite the ingenious conceit of its premise — a single night where everybody’s out to get you and absolutely none of the everyday infrastructure that we take for granted (police, doctors, etc…) is going to come to your aid — it’s immediately obvious that it was only used as a convenient narrative shorthand to explain away the tried-and-true complaint of the home invasion genre: why don’t the victims just call the police? Especially in an age of cell phones, where cut phone lines won’t explain away the lack of outside help, this has become a problem that has constantly stalked these kinds of movies (and maybe be one of the reasons why the traditional slasher movie has struggled to find a place in the local multiplex).
Sure, there are the vague beginnings of the series’ trademark political satire — from patriotic call-ins to a local radio show to impetus for the home invasion being the ill-advised rescue of a homeless man from a band of rich purgers to the third-act climax against the family’s seemingly well-to-do neighbors — these are more of a narrative side-effect of the “why no police” premise rather than the main focus of the proceedings. It’s still the same, old, everyday white people being menaced by home invaders that they can’t logistically run from.
Writer-director James DeMonaco very clearly has little interest in the Purge itself outside of a springboard for whatever violence he can ultimately throw at his nuclear family of protagonists. It’s only in the later films that DeMonaco (and now McMurray) figure out a narrative through-line more interesting than what we’ve already seen from Panic Room (2002) more than a decade ago. And the lack of any real meat on this movie’s bones really shows, as it’s forced to move along from family-conflict to family-conflict with the ticking clock of the invading purgers to mark time before the film’s third act really kicks things off.
While the movie isn’t a total wash, there really isn’t too much to recommend about it on its own merits. Ethan Hawke is, as ever, a great actor who really puts more into his role than it probably deserved. The premise is, of course, brilliant, even if it is barely touched in this first franchise outing. The party of purgers are suitably unsettling and the third-act entry of the family’s murderous upper-class neighbors is genuinely unexpected and effective. It’s just that the rest of the movie is stretched so thin that it practically tears at the seems of its own story.
Ultimately, outside of marathoning the entire series, there’s really no need to revisit this first movie. It’s a C-list horror movie with an A-list premise whose series didn’t find its footing until the sequel (and, boy howdy, did it ever find its footing in that film). Otherwise, this movie warrants a hard-pass.