“Commencing at the siren, any and all crime, including murder, will be legal for 12 continuous hours. Police, fire, and emergency medical services will be unavailable until tomorrow morning until 7 a.m. when The Purge concludes. Blessed be our New Founding Fathers and America, a nation reborn. May God be with you all.”
For the uninitiated, the premise is simple: after a severe economic downturn, the USA have voted in the violent, patriarchal New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA). Crime and unemployment are at a historic low, apparently thanks to the NFFA’s Purge initiative, one night every year when all crime is legal. Participants are encouraged to “release the beast”, and rather than settling in for a night of guilt-free movie piracy, most seem to opt for Very Violent Murder as their crime of choice. Touted as a dose of healthy catharsis, it soon becomes clear that the Purge is more of a social cleansing than anything else, as the poor and vulnerable are unsurprisingly hit the hardest on the night you can murder without consequence.
Our entrance into this world is 2013’s unassuming debut The Purge. Our punchable protagonist is one James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a man who literally profits from the annual murder spree by selling Purge-proof home security systems to those who can afford it. Secure behind their own armoured gates, the wealthy Sandin family plan to safely wait out the night as they always do – until their young son Charlie sees a wounded homeless man (Edwin Hodge) screaming for help and lets him inside. This sets off a bloody chain of events as a pack of smartly dressed, armed-to-the-teeth strangers arrive at their door in hot pursuit. They offer a simple ultimatum: the Sandins must release the “dirty, homeless pig” to them, or else face being murdered themselves.
What follows is a pretty standard home invasion horror, as the masked creeps begin their siege and the privileged family is finally made to face the bloody realities of the Purge Night first-hand. Initially trying to violently force the man outside, James and wife Mary (Lena Headey) soon realise they can’t stomach throwing an innocent man to his death, despite the risk to their family. It’s this journey, rather than the blood and mayhem, which provides the film’s most interesting thread. The Sandins aren’t bad people per se – they, unlike their neighbours, don’t spend the hours leading up to the Purge sharpening machetes or assembling assault weapons. But in trying to stay apolitical in the face of government-sanctioned brutality, they become complicit. The film enjoys exposing and critiquing that complicity, and there’s definite satisfaction to be had in watching that tacit “don’t-rock-the-boat” support broken down and transformed into resistance, as the family ultimately choose to fight back.
Masked creeps and social commentary aside, there’s an enjoyably silly dark humour that runs throughout The Purge, as the annual ritual means blandly commonplace grievances quickly become deadly. The strained relationship between James and his teenage daughter’s boyfriend, or Mary and her passive-aggressive, cookie-baking neighbours, soon become bloody death matches. The film’s denouement sees said neighbours shoot the masked intruders – an apparent triumph for the Neighbourhood Watch programme? – only to reveal that they did so because they want the honour of murdering the family themselves. Because everyone secretly hates their neighbours! The Sandins are ultimately saved in the nick of time by the homeless man; by the time the credits roll, friends have become enemies, strangers become allies, and the family’s idyllic life – and their unquestioning complicity – has been obliterated.
The Purge is a solid start to the franchise, presenting the familiar but enjoyable “Maybe Humans Are the Real Monsters” spiel with a side order of Very Obvious Social Commentary. But it’s in the sequel, Anarchy, where the franchise really finds its feet. The Sandins and the suburbs are swapped for the waitress and single mother Eva, as De Monaco shows us the horrifying realities of living in such a universe when you can’t afford protection. Violent circumstances force Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter Cali (Zoë Soul) outside into the bloody carnage of the Purge – and it’s only thanks to a chance encounter with Frank Grillo’s gruff loner Leo Barnes that their lives are spared. Leo, intent on finding and murdering the man who killed his son in a drink-driving accident a year ago, finds his plans waylaid when he rescues the women from being beaten to death. It’s a deliberate mirroring of Charlie’s actions in the first movie, and a refreshing rejection of the tired, edgelord-y premise that humans are inherently violent and cruel.
Rather than repeating the siege narrative of the first film, Anarchy opens the Purge universe up, as Leo reluctantly agrees to escort Eva and Cali to safety in exchange for use of a car that will allow him to complete his own Purge mission before sunrise. Picking up another couple of stranded tag-alongs, the movie plays like a gritty reboot of The Warriors, as the group dodges bullets, booby traps, and marauding gangs as they try to make it through the war zone that is Los Angeles on a Purge Night.
While compelling, Anarchy‘s politics here are still about as subtle as a sledgehammer (at one point the wealthy literally auction off the poor to be hunted with rifles and night-vision goggles) – but, two films into this universe, that’s pretty much par for the course, and if you’re along for the ride you can appreciate the message despite its delivery. By the time Michael K. Williams briefly cameos as the leader of the anti-Purge resistance (accompanied by the homeless man from the first movie, now revealed to be named Bishop) it’s more than apparent that this is less of a horror and more of a violent action thriller – and we’re more than ready for the revolution.
After the undeniable success of the first two, a third Purge movie was a no-brainer. Released in 2016, subtitled Election Year, and with the tagline ‘Keep America Great’, the film goes pretty much exactly where you’d think. The Purge, now a global phenomenon, attracts international “murder tourists” from around the world who eagerly flock to the States to partake in the annual bloodshed. Leo’s back and is now working as the bodyguard to US senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). After surviving a horrific Purge massacre which killed her entire family, Roan is running for President on an ‘End the Purge’ platform – but the nefarious New Founding Fathers obviously aren’t keen to let her live to see polling day.
In many ways, Election Year is a bit of a rehash – despite politicians supposedly enjoying Purge immunity, Charlie is inevitably double-crossed and once again Leo and co. find themselves stranded outside on the worst possible night, this time with a target on their backs. So far, so Anarchy. But director James DeMonaco keeps things interesting with more world-expansion – everything from the mundane reality of shopkeepers dealing with skyrocketing Purge insurance premiums, to finally seeing the organised underground resistance briefly teased in the previous movie. We’re also shown the mindboggling courage of the volunteers like Laney (Betty Gabriel), who will venture out to offer medical support on the year’s most brutal night when official emergency services are suspended.
After the familiar parade of scary-ironic murder-masks, Election Year surprisingly ends on something of a high. Charlie survives and achieves a landslide democratic victory, tragically making a narrative about a capable female politician triumphing over far-right extremism read like some kind of beautiful escapist fantasy. Seeds are of course sown for sequels (over the credits we hear talk of NFFA sympathisers staging violent protests across the country), but the message is clear and heartening – people, claimed to be “an inherently violent species” throughout the series, have rejected the Purge wholesale.
When reviewed in 2018, the movies couldn’t be more relevant. The numbing, state-endorsed normalisation of ultraviolence (particularly against people of colour), the gaping divide between rich and poor, and the rise of fascist governments reflect our own crises more abjectly than ever. But despite such a cynical premise, the movies champion compassion and resistance at every turn. Leo Barnes puts aside personal vengeance to defend a group of total strangers. Charlie Roan, who survives the worst kind of hell imaginable, dedicates her life not to revenge, but to end the Purge. And it’s all thanks to Bishop, the homeless man rescued by Charlie Sandin in the first movie, and who goes on to save pretty much everyone in the franchise multiple times. The series consistently challenges the absolute worst of humanity with the absolute best, with ultimately a single act of mercy in the first movie leading to the downfall of the Purge in the third. With the fourth installment in cinemas and a TV show in the way, it’s exciting to see where the series will go next.