America sucks. I know it, you know it, and most importantly, horror films know it. Some of the best horror films of all time have a strong, underlying subtext that satires whatever current state our nation is in. A major example of this resides in George A. Romero’s “…OF THE DEAD” films, most importantly 1978‘s DAWN OF THE DEAD. Romero’s zombie masterpiece is a not-so subtle stab at consumerism, that stills rings truer than ever today. With recent tragedies in todays events, it seemed like only a matter of time before we’d get a genre film with smarts that includes a relevant bit of social commentary. While not fully satisfying, THE PURGE succeeds in being a conscious high concept thriller first, and a slightly predictable home invasion film second.
The year is 2022. Thanks to an act called “the purge”, crime rate is at an all time low, and America has been completely rebuilt by new founding fathers. James Sandin (an always great Ethan Hawke, in his second film for Blumhouse) is a home security installer that lives in a very upscale neighborhood, and he’s preparing his family for the annual “purge”. One night, for 12 hours, citizens of America are granted the right to murder. Everyone stalks the streets armed to the teeth with guns, knives, and a law granted bloodlust. The Sandin’s do not participate, but their night of peace is interrupted once a homeless man gains entry into their seemingly impenetrable home, who’s the main target of a posh group of mask-wearing psychos.
Let me stop to gush how much I love this idea. It’s original, refreshing, bold, and exciting. Reading that plot alone had me jazzed and ready to plop down my cash immediately. I imagine it’s a screenwriter’s paradise, ripe with morality & subtext in between the more gruesome moments. Simply put, the concept of THE PURGE is absolutely fantastic. It feels like a brand new formula that I haven’t seen done before and I fully embraced the idea, just not so much the execution. The first two acts do an excellent job of setting up the rules & history of “the purge”, then it quickly segues into a stare-stalk-kill affair that just doesn’t compliment what it’s already set up.
That’s not to say it isn’t effective, because it really is. My main gripe is that the thematic transition gives off a been there, done that vibe. It’s definitely THE STRANGERS (and just about every better than average home invasion film)-esque, it’s hard not to make that comparison since director Bryan Bertino already did that so well (c’mon Universal, greenlight THE STRANGERS 2!) Even here the attackers don creepy grinning masks, but it’s pulled off extremely well thanks to Rhys Wakefield’s Polite Stranger, leader of the preppy participants of “the purge”. Wakefield spends the whole film delivering ruthless threats through a small window of a steel door, all while smiling, and it’s a sadistic, memorable presence that I appreciated.
However, I couldn’t help but feel there was a lot of footage excised from the final cut. THE PURGE is a brisk, 85 minute film, and a lot of it is spent with the characters just wandering around the house in the dark. That should be expected by now since it’s a Blumhouse production, but some choices the characters make are suspect and contradictory to their supposed morals, which leads me to believe there was some last minute tinkering. It leaves you wanting more, and hopefully the just announced sequel expands it’s setting & ditches the singular location. Nags aside, I quite enjoyed THE PURGE. Does it live up to it’s full potential? No, but it’s a smarter-than-average thriller that somehow got released in the brainless Summer season of tentpoles.