I remember the first time I saw The Purge, now it wasn’t the same monumental experience as when I saw Jurassic Park or Space Jam for the first time, but it made an impact nonetheless. I was filled with intrigue and excitement after the movie. It felt like I was seeing something original and interesting. I left the theater excited to talk to anyone that I could about the movie. Being a life long horror fan added an extra bit of excitement to the movie. Soon my excitement faded and I moved on from the movie. A few years later the excitement came rushing back with the release of The Purge: Anarchy. This experience was much different; I left the theater incredibly disappointed by the movie. Something was missing from that I was hoping would be there (some would argue good filmmaking). Even still by the time The Purge: Election Year came around, I found myself sitting in the theater excited for what was to come. Once again I left disappointed, this time even more than the last. It left me questioning my interest in the franchise but I fell for it again with The First Purge. I convinced myself that this one would be different. It would capture something not only interesting but also fun and smart and everything that these movies should be. Unfortunately it didn’t, but this time I was able to pinpoint the problem. This problem was now undeniable and I realized that it was inherent and I don’t think it can be fixed.
Before I get to the problem, it seems necessary to point out what works about the franchise. Clearly there is something that is reaching audiences because it has been an incredibly successful franchise. While it continues to make good money, it hasn’t received the critical acclaim I once hoped that it would. The reason I thought these movies would be good is because the premise is great! The franchise has been armed with an incredibly intriguing and interesting premise. The idea that the government would try and solve increasing poverty and crime rates by allowing all crime to be legal for 12 hours is interesting. There is a birth of interesting directions one could go with this premise and is a solid foundation in which to make great movies. The premise can function to serve two audiences, there are the horror/thriller elements that come with the idea of 12 hours of anarchy and there is the political aspect, which offers an opportunity for dramatic elements. In the right hands The Purge franchise could not have only made lots of money but also made good films.
The misuse of a great premise is one of the continual problems within the franchise but it isn’t the biggest problem. The biggest problem resides with the franchise’s namesake. The actual purge itself isn’t interesting. Making a movie about what happens during those 12 hours is low hanging fruit. It’s the easiest possible version of the movie that can be made but it’s also the least interesting version. We know what happens during those 12 hours and after having seen it depicted three different times there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of stories that come from that time period. That’s why these movies are continually disappointing. There is hope that something greater and more interesting will be depicted. Something that will be both entertaining and smart but it doesn’t actually happen. After about 20 minutes of set up (people lamenting about The Purge) we just get the violence. I understand that there has to be some element of The Purge depicted and I am here for that as well but it’s a mistake to spend a majority of the movie there.
The most recent iteration of the franchise, The First Purge, seems to understand what it has with its premise. Which makes it all the more frustrating when it is abandoned for a cheap thrill. These movies have been watered down to its simplest possible form. It’s just people thinking they are safe inside, bad people (usually the government, which isn’t uninteresting) get inside, good people have to run through scary city and it all ends with the grand climax (that usually includes a Deus ex machina) that is inside of a building. Along that journey there are plenty of jump scares and creepy masks, the latter of which seems to be the driving force of the franchise’s marketing campaign, to develop a fake tension that serves to hide the generic plot points. This is what every Purge movie has been whittled down to. While there does seem to be value in this type of movie, it just feels unsatisfying and disappointing because it feels like the series should be so much more.
There is no hope that The Purge franchise will turn towards making smarter movies, there is no financial incentive for them to do so. In a climate in which every production company is looking for reliable IP to build franchises around, Universal has one, no sense in tinkering with it now. Even if they did aim to fix the franchise and make smarter movies, could they? The problem of The Purge being uninteresting is now undeniable to me, but in order to have a Purge movie there has to be a purge. To me the answer lies where all of this began, the first movie. The Purge was essentially a home invasion movie. It worked because it made purging this ominous thing that lingered over the movie. We felt safe in the house, of course until the house was broken into. The tension was real and genuine because the experience was self contained and personal. Widening the scale of it doesn’t work, keeping it small does. The actual Purge all on it’s own is a terrifying thing to think about (especially in our current political state), and it becomes all the more terrifying when it feels personal. Purge parties, scary masks and crack heads with knives don’t provide fear, simply having your purging neighbors show up at your door is.
A little politics and a little fear could be the template for a very interesting Purge movie, but it will never happen. As uninteresting as The Purge itself is, the money is in the masks. This franchise has been built around jump scares, creepy masks and reflecting the fact that we don’t want high concept. We simply want to think we want high concept. Wrap an interesting premise in a horror movie all about inventive ways to kill people and you have the perfect distraction. People walk out of the theater (as I once did) thinking they will have an interesting conversation about something but instead they resort to the masks. What a shame.