The Purge: Election Year hit theaters just a few months prior to the 2016 presidential election, deriving horror and hope from the nation’s collective anxieties regarding economics, race, and representation, not to mention the impact someone like Donald Trump could have on them should he become president. It was, like its predecessors, blunt in its satire and comic in its excess; there was a carnivalesque nature to its depiction of a white, elite ruling class that delights in nothing more than the disenfranchisement of the lower class. It was resonant, but it was also absurd and a lot of fun in its blunt way. A lot’s changed since then, however. Donald Trump is our president and, emboldened by his racially charged rhetoric and policies, white supremacists are proudly unmasking. They’re shooting up black churches, storming college campuses, and embracing the dismantling of an accountable media. Urban areas like the south side of Chicago are being labeled war zones, with Trump threatening to “send in the feds.”
None of this is lost on Purge creator James DeMonaco, who exploits these modern anxieties to disturbing effect in his screenplay for The First Purge, a furious, violent prequel to the horror franchise that presents exactly what its title promises. “Who are you angry at?” a voice asks, as the film fades in on the scarred face of Skeletor (Rotimi Paul); it turns out he’s angry at a lot, and that’s just fine by the white coats interviewing him. They’re looking for participants for the “experiment” that will be the inaugural Purge, a 12-hour period in which all crime is outlawed, including murder. Held in Staten Island, it’s entirely voluntary; residents are encouraged to leave town or stay home, but they’re also given monetary compensation if they participate and bonuses if they, well, really indulge in the lawlessness the Purge offers. Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), the experiment’s creator, sees it as a psychological experiment, but the New Founding Fathers of America — a far-right group that recently took the White House away from both Democrats and Republicans — are eager for it to work, as it offers them a means of depopulating low-income areas, thus reducing the crime rate and saving them the money they could otherwise use on programs benefitting the community.
(Ranking: Every Horror Movie Sequel from Worst to Best)
What’s striking about The First Purge is how fearmongers like Skeletor are few and far between. In previous films, the Purge was an orgy of caterwauling carnage, with the majority of society more than amped for their 12 hours of terror. Here, it’s rejected by a good majority of the local community, who choose to throw block parties in lieu of participating. Elsewhere, local drug kingpin Dmitri (Insecure‘s Y’lan Noel) warns his troops not to participate, but instead to protect their stash house from infiltrators. His ex, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), is one of the experiment’s most vocal dissenters, and hopes to spend the evening in a local church with the rest of the residing community, which includes neighbors Luisa (Luna Lauren Velez) and Dolores (Orange Is the New Black‘s Mugga, providing some much-needed comic relief). Nya’s teenage brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), on the other hand, finds himself in over his head when he tries to use the Purge as a means of getting revenge, a prospect he soon abandons once he sees the ugliness on display. On the whole, The First Purge has an overwhelming faith in the innate goodness of people.
Of course, this doesn’t bode well for the NFFA — who, as the film takes great pains to show, are firmly in the pocket of the NRA — who then dispatch masked mercenaries into the city to sow chaos and make the experiment look, on its surface, like a success. The result is a slew of white soldiers, armed to the teeth and — in one of the film’s many unsubtle maneuvers — clad in white supremacist regalia and flying Iron Crosses. With those on the ground discovering the plot, Dmitri and his crew take it upon themselves to take back their community by dispatching these infiltrators, many of whom also don uniforms evoking those of police officers and, you guessed it, Nazis. Watching these soldiers, many modeled after the goons who stormed Charlottesville, terrorize a black community could very well overwhelm those who’ve witnessed the hate of their real-life counterparts, but director Gerard McMurray thankfully doesn’t exploit the slaughter of innocents.
(Ranking: The 100 Scariest Movies of All Time)
McMurray makes a fine replacement for DeMonaco, who helmed the first three movies, and not just because having a filmmaker of color behind the camera suits the franchise’s pivot into exploring issues of racial and economic inequality. For as exciting as Election Year was, it suffered from an excess of style, which veered on glorifying the horrors of the Purge. McMurray’s eye is relatively less kinetic, favoring longer cuts and quieter moments of sustained eeriness. Here, those participating in the Purge wear special contact lenses that imbue their eyes with a sickly green glow, which makes for a particularly disconcerting effect when glimpsed through dirty windows or the eyeholes of a mask. Still, McMurray does seem hampered by the films that came before his, offering up a slew of elaborate costumes and creative means of slaughter that feel out of place in the unknowability of this inaugural experiment. The Purge movies have a signature aesthetic, and instead of setting a template for how it came to be, McMurray simply indulges it. Alas, the anachronistic necessities of prequels.
Still, The First Purge asserts itself as a meaningful prequel all the same. While many origin stories explain away characters or events better left shrouded in mystery — looking at you, Texas Chainsaw franchise — this film tells an individual story that provides some necessary context to the events we’ve previously seen. It’s also, in many ways, the most humanistic of the Purge movies. Watching the previous films, it’s easy to feel as if DeMonaco’s vision of humanity is hopelessly corrupt, that the majority of humans secretly want to live as murderous killers. Here, we see the ways that the Purge was manipulated, misrepresented, and turned into entertainment by a complicit media. We also witness the corrupting nature of the Purge, the ways in which its existence drives people towards actions they otherwise wouldn’t commit.
We also get a very different message than in Election Year, a movie that found its hope in a progressive political candidate in the lead-up to a real-life election. Here, with the government a cartoonishly evil cabal, the only hope is to embrace one’s community, to make a difference on a local scale. Is that message conveyed with any amount of grace or subtlety? Not in the goddamn slightest. The First Purge is every bit as nakedly, hysterically symbolic as its predecessors. But if there’s one thing that the current political climate is teaching us, it’s that a subtle touch isn’t always the solution.