AGAINST THE GRAIN: The Purge (2013)

Dylan sticks up for the divisive first entry in this successful horror franchise. 

I first learned about The Purge when seeing the fake emergency posters just before the summer season. They popped out in a sea of superheroes in teal and orange, and were intriguing in their refusal to give away the plot.

Then I saw trailer, which built on this notion of dystopia, adding in disturbing CCTV footage and the first notions of the narrative. For those unaware, The Purge posits an America where, for twelve hours once a year, virtually all crime (including murder) is legal. This release of primal rage has made crime rates plummet, as well as boosting the U.S.’s economy. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey deliver solid performances as the parents of a family who support but do not participate in the Purge, spending their lockdown time in their McMansion. However, when their son lets in a stranger on someone’s hit list, they are forced into a series of ethical dilemmas that turn into a battle for survival.

All of this turned The Purge into one of my must-see films of 2013.  At least until the reviews arrived. Praise was few and far between, but worse of all, they suggested the film was a boring retread of past horrors, being rather fun but ultimately appalling schlock. I gave it a miss at the cinema, and even after it bagged a surprisingly huge chunk at the box office, I never bothered to track down a Blu-ray or a stream. But the film stuck with me. I dreamt about a Purge-style world on several occasions, and kept an eye on the reviews for parts two and three, which bagged more positive if not stellar notices. This Easter, I finally got around to watching a copy, expecting very little. Although there were some flaws, overall, I thought the film was fantastic. In the last few months, I have seen the whole trilogy,  and the first part is by far my favourite.

What I love about The Purge is how small the move is. Shot on a chicken-feed $2.5 million dollar budget, the flick is essentially a one-location horror film. This limitation makes the plot focus on ethics and the minutiae of the world, and personally, I find this a lot more interesting than the sequels. Rather than descending into chaos straight away, it follows the journey home,  conversations with the neighbours, dinner chat, and the final preparations for the annual purging. One of their plans is to watch a movie. This domesticity gives the film a flavour lacking from the followups. And though it has the smallest outlook, The Purge also has the most instances of world-building. From the anthems and logos of quasi-fascist America to leaving flowers out to show your support, it is full of fascinating exposition. Spooky CCTV footage of suburbia at night also adds a real sense of menace, especially as we know there are monsters in the darkness.

I agree that the final act of the movie descends into very familiar territory. There is nothing original about people in masks assaulting a family in a house, and this film does nothing to change that. But this is why I am surprised the sequels are relatively well-regarded. They push the action element to the forefront, and whilst it is undoubtedly handled better and more spectacularly than the first film, it takes the series down a less-interesting path.

Switching the series from sci-fi/horror to action loses the scary edge of a family in distress with no-one to turn to, and the unknown government controlling lives through violence. The best bits of parts two and three were the vivid costumes and how people from different economic backgrounds deal with the twelve-hour window. By the time a senator starts fighting back, my interest had waned.

What is more interesting for me is seeing how the rest of America reacts. What happens in smalltown South Carolina? Does anyone rush across to Mexico for the night? Who is making money, and who is making the costumes? All of these ideas don’t actually involve any killing, but build a fascinating mythology.

This is the crux of what makes The Purge the most fascinating for me. We all know that there are bad people wherever you live, and that no matter how pleasant your life is, violence could always strike. We all know that there are people in our country in dire need, and yet it is easier to turn a blind eye. What happens when the veneer of civilisation crumbles away? Those spooky shots of empty suburbs and barred-up windows, with people dealing with boyfriend drama and zero-carb meals, are more vivid to me than gunfights and political drama.

I am by no means saying that The Purge is a perfect movie. However, I think it deserves more credit than it receives for the way it built a world, setting up a dilemma we can all think about. It sets up a high concept in its cinematic space that is fascinating to traverse, and one that a posited sequel or television show can further mine for terrifying, disturbing and philosophical ideas.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • James DeMonaco, director and writer of the film, got the idea for the story after his wife made a remark about an episode he had with road rage.
  • Over one hundred different masks were considered for the freaks.
  • This movie was also turned into an extreme walk-through horror maze/experience in Los Angeles called “The Purge: Fear the Night.”
  • In the trailer, the voice of the Emergency Broadcast System is male. In the movie the voice is female.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama

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