I’ve talked so much in the past about Blumhouse Picture’s outsized impact on modern horror and the shift to respectably budgeted fare, but the quality of those films those has been variable to say the least. From the highs of such films as Get Out, the first Paranormal Activity (the film that came to define their film model), Insidious, Hush, Happy Death Day, or even the recent Upgrade to the depths of The Green Inferno, the Insidious and PA sequels, Split, or countless instantly forgotten titles. One of those bottom tier titles was the first Purge movie (this won’t get confusing at all) in 2013 which was a collaboration with Platinum Dunes who at the time was known for shitty horror remakes. It took a wonderful premise in a society where every year there was one night where all crime was legal and shoved it into the background of a terrible home invasion flick. The following year’s The Purge: Anarchy was a drastic course correction, bringing in Frank Grillo to star, focusing on the titular Purge itself, and bringing in more social commentary, and moving towards action-horror. It still wasn’t any good, but it came close and it showed a marked improvement that 2016’s The Purge: Election Year capitalized on with some more timely satire to be basically alright. Not exactly lofty heights, but they are compared to where the series started.
James DeMonaco, who wrote and directed the series from the start has stepped back from the latter role with Burning Sands director Gerard McMurray taking over. As the title declares, it details the events leading up to and during the first Purge, a word said more times than “family” is said during Fast Five. Planned by an ultraconservative ruling party, they decide to test it on Staten Island because it has some perfect demographics or something, I don’t know, it was cut off. We’ll get to the real reason in a bit. They refuse to use that word “conservative” though, and they emphasize repeatedly that it arose as a third party, but in this in many other regards, The First Purge is far from subtle. The party comes complete with NRA support as well their name of the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) pretty explicitly invoking the Tea Party movement. They even manage to nail the look of generic white conservative politician.
Like the rest of the sequels, it follows a number of simultaneous storylines. A woman, her high school age younger brother, her drug kingpin ex-boyfriend (Y’lan Noel of Insecure), Marisa Tomei as the sociologist who developed the Purge, and a crazy murderous junkie named Skeletor who is the dumbest fucking character and yet almost wraps back around to being hilarious. Also, LaGuerta from Dexter is in it! And Melonie Diaz, though I swear that she flat out disappears which is a shame since she is always great. It has been great to see this series shift toward focusing more and more on minority characters to the point that they make up almost all the screen time and all the white people are evil.
This time around, there’s even more emphasis on just surviving as the populace for the most doesn’t really turn on each other, largely just sticking to looting. It feels more realistic than the plan actually working and people actually unleashing their murderous fury, a fact this film acknowledges. Of course, the fact that sex crimes have generally (if understandably) been neglected by this series throws all that realism out the window, but it’s hard imagining them working that into the fun tone of these movies. Which is why it is curious they then decide to throw in two random quick sex crimes, one harmless and one sexual assault which is a set up for a one liner. It comes across as introducing an issue that we were willing to overlook but which now that they have brought to the table, they are not ready to fully engage.
Not that the satire they are dealing on is a high level. Not when we have white villains coming in dressed up in cop uniforms circling around a black man to beat him to death with nightsticks, as the KKK, the Aryan Nation, the soldiers gunning down people left and right with ironic use of the American flag (Happy Independence Day!), at last one blackface mask, and the pièce de résistance, the gimp mask, PVC suit wearing Nazi. That’s not to mention the heavy overtones of the historical testing on minorities from low income areas. There’s a charm to heavy handedness, a throwback to the classic message films of the 70s. Its reach exceeds its grasp, but I can’t help but admire the film’s efforts regardless.
The actual horror of this action-horror predictably comes up short. The glowing eyes from some special NFFA contacts make for some effective moments, but the horror sections of the plot lack an effective villain and enough sustained tension. The action side fares better but is never much more than competently handled. Noel and Lex Scott Davis make for compelling leads even if the acting around them is all over the place in quality. Yet it all adds up to a solidly enjoyable crowd-pleaser of a title. Not a good movie by any means, just a messy, weird, overly blunt film that is nevertheless perfect for our times.