It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single movie in possession of a good premise must be in want of a sequel. This makes smart business sense — “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Saw,” and “Terminator” wouldn’t still exist otherwise — but anyone who’s seen “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” knows it almost always results in diminishing returns. Over the last five years, an unlikely exception has emerged: “The Purge,” which by hook or by crook has become better and more relevant with each new installment.
In hindsight, the core idea is so simple and compelling that it’s puzzling it took so long for someone to make a movie out of it. In a near-future America, all crime — including and especially murder — is legal for one night every year; all emergency services are suspended. The first film, written and directed by James DeMonaco, starred Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey as a mother and father whose comfortable existence in suburbia is threatened when their high-tech security system fails on Purge Night.
Made for just $3 million, “The Purge” grossed $89 million at the box office; a sequel was announced three days after the film hit theaters and released just 13 months later. “The Purge: Anarchy” remains the series’ high-water mark on the strength of Frank Grillo’s lead performance and a move from one upscale home to the nitty-gritty of downtown Los Angeles, but 2016’s “Election Year” was far from the drop-off in quality that third entries usually represent.
In part that’s because the series has not only wised up to how accidentally timely it’s become — would you be at all surprised if a poll found that an alarming number of people consider the Purge a good idea? — but because it’s leaned into it.
“Election Year” was more overtly political than its two predecessors, but it was also released four months prior to the actual presidential election — a time when Donald Trump actually winning still felt like a worst-case-scenario joke. “The First Purge” has the benefit of hindsight and directly linked itself to the current moment via a poster that riffed on a very familiar red hat (see below).
This kind of commentary is blatant, but it isn’t toothless. And while it’s true that the “Purge” movies want to have it both ways, reveling in the ghoulish bloodletting even as they decry the fascist policies that brought it about, they don’t use their characters as cannon fodder the way slashers and torture-porn thrillers do. The series has increasingly turned its focus to the have-nots, many of them minorities, and rooting for them to make it through the night is far more enjoyable than watching Freddy Kreuger’s victims perish.
That’s as true as ever in “The First Purge,” a prequel revealing that the now-annual event began as a one-off experiment in Staten Island, New York. With an opening montage that alludes to both the opioid epidemic and the NRA-backed political party that made this all possible, the film (which DeMonaco wrote but did not direct) centers around a low-income housing project whose participation in Purge Night is considered a bellwether to its overall success.
The New Founding Fathers of America don’t mind playing dirty to ensure that as many people as possible do. Residents are actually paid $5,000 to stay on Staten Island for all 12 hours of the Purge, with further compensation granted to those who partake in the violence — which is to say, many of these people can’t afford not to participate. Some do so gleefully, but many more are simply gambling on their future.
Inherent in this setup is a class distinction: The wealthy can afford to insulate themselves from the violence — or, just as often, participate in it with abandon — while the poor are left to fend for themselves. DeMonaco, who wrote and directed the first three films on his lonesome, has underscored that tension more and more as the series has gone on: “The Purge” is silly and a little heavy-handed, but it’s also socially aware.
With a fifth movie all but inevitable and that TV series soon to premiere, a thought: The next “Purge” movie shouldn’t actually be set on Purge Night. Imagine what the other 364 days of the year must be like: Do people avenge their loved ones in fits of rage, or do they wait until such an act is once again legal for 12 hours? Do the nonviolent wealthy go abroad to avoid the carnage? If the “Purge” franchise is to remain fresh moving forward, it should recognize that the Purge itself is becoming its least compelling aspect.