Written and Directed by James DeMonaco.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adeliade Kane, Edwin Hodge, and Rhys Wakefield.
A family is held hostage for harbouring the target of a murderous syndicate during the Purge, a 12-hour period in which any and all crime is legalized.
It’s becoming quite tiresome to be a horror fan nowadays. I've been to see a fair few horror movies this year and none of them have impressed me with the exception of In Fear (which I hope gets a full cinema release).
You've probably not escaped the promotional work done for The Purge as it’s been all over our TV screens and website takeovers. It’s been relying on the “scary mask” visuals to bring in its audience, but there is a lot more to it than that.
The Purge is set in the near future where new founding fathers of the United States have installed one day a year called The Annual Purge – where violence (including murder) is allowed and will go unpunished. Because America has this day, crime rates are at all time low due to people saving up their anger for the one day. Our focus on the Sandin family led by father James (Ethan Hawke) who installs security systems to aid people in survival during The Annual Purge. But despite having the best security system available, his family come under fire from a polite group of psychopaths who want to get into their home.
While I'm not the biggest fan of the movie, I do actually quite like the premise as it offers up the chance to ask questions about our society. Does restricting the nation to one day of silence really help us get along better? What would drive you to take part in The Annual Purge? Is this kind of violence really acceptable? Just how safe are you in your own home? Are we all being sold on the idea of "safety" from brash salesman only interested in hitting their targets?
The film also does a really good job of not forcing exposition down our throats to set up the story. We’re drip fed bits and pieces of information through dialogue, news stories and radio call-ins which gives you almost everything you need to know. There is still a great level of ambiguity about the new founding fathers which just makes them all the more sinister. That, along with the potential questions raised, should make for an entertaining movie right?
Sadly, none of the questions raised are really addressed and amazingly the film falls apart when The Annual Purge begins. I mentioned in my review of Evil Dead on the Flickering Myth Podcast that I struggle to get behind horror movies in which the main characters bring the horror upon themselves. In the case of The Purge, the youngest member of the family Charlie lets in a homeless man into their house because he’s being attacked which leads this group of polite psychopaths to start invading their home. If the kid hadn't acted like a complete idiot and listened to his father, the family wouldn't be in the mess they’re currently in. Had the film been about a random act of violence or a jealous neighbour who hates that they have more money than them (a theme that is set up early in the film) then it would have fared better – especially when asking moral and ethical questions.
The character of Charlie is a really interesting one. On the one hand he is the cause of all the movie’s problems and is a poorly written “kooky” character who has built a remote control tank with half a baby doll on top complete with cameras, audio and nightvision (quite a contrived plot point wouldn't you say?). But on the other hand he is the one with the most to say. Whereas Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey’s characters can remember “the old days”, Charlie has only ever known The Annual Purge. No matter what they teach you in school about how it’s improved things, can you honestly say that it’s the right thing to do on a moral level? Had the film developed this character better and not forced him into the “kooky teen” category, he could have been one of the more interesting elements of the film.
But because the movie takes the easy route in telling its story, all we’re left with is a pretty poor horror that resorts to mediocre jump scare tactics to frighten its audience. I'm sure that if you are freaked out by people in horrible smiling masks you might be a little uneasy, but there really is no tension to build these “freaks” up. The film is shot in the dark for plot contrivances and you just spend a large portion of the movie following people running around with flashlights looking for each other. It becomes quite tiresome and very boring quite quickly.
It feels like director James DeMonaco was relying on the movie’s main villain, played by Rhys Wakefield, to make the audience feel uncomfortable. His polite craziness is quite unsettling and he is provided with the majority of the best dialogue, but he is vastly underused and reserved for only a few of scenes and one jump scare.
I will say however that I quite liked the film’s conclusion. It looks at some of the themes set up earlier in the movie, which only makes the middle portion all the more frustrating. Had the film gone down this direction to begin with rather than the easier option, it could have been a much scarier (and better) movie.
But even for all the good it does in its opening and closing, The Purge is a series of contrived jump scares mixed with a load of rubbish and forgettable characters and blended together with a bland and uninteresting second act. There is a good movie in The Purge’s ideas, but this is not it.
At least it's not found footage I suppose.
Flickering Myth Rating - Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Luke Owen is one of Flickering Myth's co-editors and the host of the Month in Review show for Flickering Myth's Podcast Network. You can follow him on Twitter @LukeWritesStuff.