The First Purge hits theaters tomorrow! Get your tickets here!
The Purge premise has legs, that much is obvious. One night a year when all crime, including murder – or, rather, especially murder – is legal is a genius setup for a horror movie. And four films in five years, with a spinoff TV show in the works, is nothing to sneer at. That’s Saw level ingenuity.
The series' longevity wasn't a given. The Purge was a self-contained, Ethan Hawke-starring thriller that was all filler, no killer. The promise of dark deeds was there in the marketing material, the Halloween masks, the eerie idea of The Purge itself, but nothing particularly memorable actually happened.
To be fair, the flick was released just a few short years after Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett's wonderful You're Next, a home invasion movie with a pulse and a strong female lead who would've put Hawke's anxious head in a blender. Any comparisons were hugely unflattering.
The key issue with The Purge was quickly identified as its myopic focus on a well-off white family. The sequel's pivot to people of color, in more difficult circumstances, elevated the premise considerably. Suddenly, there were stakes. With the introduction of Frank Grillo's grizzled antihero, there was someone to root for.
The Purge: Anarchy widened the scope to take in the activities of an entire city. The Purge itself was further fleshed out by including more bloodthirsty, masked lunatics. Grillo offers an anchor to latch onto but unlike Hawke's wimpy father he isn't rooted to one spot. His vengeance-seeking, grieving father weaves in and out of the carnage to give us glimpses of some of the violence going down in the darkest corners of the city. In order for The Purge itself to matter, there has to be at least one person actively fighting against it. Otherwise, it’s just another bloody, mindless free-for-all. He becomes that by teaming up with other good people unlucky enough to be out on the streets.
The series then solidifies its real world connections by focusing on those less fortunate, i.e. the families who cannot afford to protect themselves. Or who sacrifice themselves to rich folks for a quick buck.
Funnily enough, The Purge series isn't that violent overall. The marketing always promises torture porn escapades – masked people with machetes, a guillotine that looks strangely store bought, cult-like gatherings in darkened churches – but the scariest thing about these movies is, and likely always will be, their realism.
The whole world, but particularly America, has gone to shit and this idea of one crime-filled night a year to exorcise our demons feels more and more like something that could really happen. It's easy to imagine Trump waking up, covered in McDonald's wrappers, and deciding the best way to get rid of all those pesky poor people is to give them 12 hours to kill each other (or traffic in others to do it for them – a key plot-point here).
Promotional material for the franchise heavily suggests an anti-elite stance, whether it's the oft-repeated line "just remember all the good The Purge does" (a re-purposed Republican slogan for sure – see: gay conversion camps) or that brilliant MAGA hat-swiping poster for The First Purge.
The third film, Election Year, finds a blonde, female senator utilizing her stance against The Purge as a platform for her presidential run. "This is a night that's defining our country," she gravely intones during one speech, looking dead into the camera at everybody watching at home. Maybe even at us, too. In keeping with the real world, there's a bunch of rich white dudes looking to take her down and they see the most violent night of the year as the perfect opportunity to do so. Purge stalwart Grillo, meanwhile, is head of her security detail, thereby getting roped into the bloody shenanigans without the film rehashing what's come before.
The Purge series doesn't follow the sequel rules in general; the body count isn't necessarily higher nor are the death scenes more elaborate. It's rare to see anybody dying in a drawn out, gory manner as, in another sly nod, guns are the weapon of choice. The sequels also sidestep the typical pitfalls by widening their scope but keeping the focus tight. Senator Roan might be the heroine of Election Year, but the focus remains on the underprivileged, the ones struggling to make it through the night while she fights on their behalf to ban it for good.
The film wouldn't succeed if it was just a dry political allegory. It works because the struggle of the lower classes is based in reality, whether there are masked loons running around or not. The fourth installment even goes back to the beginning rather than continuing the story in the wake of Roan's victory. Again, avoiding sequel fatigue.
It's rare that any sequel, let alone a horror sequel, exceeds its predecessor(s). The Purge franchise manages to soar to new heights with each installment primarily by ensuring there's a real-world element to the madness. This is thanks, in large part, to series creator James DeMonaco. His sharp writing, often with a darkly satirical bent, takes on gun violence, poverty, racial injustice, class warfare, and sexism, among other topics.
DeMonaco wrote all five movies and directed four (Gerard McMurray takes the reins for The First Purge). As a result, there's a through-line connecting all five stories. It's almost like The Purge Extended Universe. Considering the only other current horror EU is The Conjuring, it is hugely impressive DeMonaco has got so much juice out of a relatively simple premise without feeling the need to do an origin story about Grillo's bad-ass anti-vigilante.
It remains to be seen whether the TV series will over-milk the cow, but if the world continues on its current downward spiral, DeMonaco might find himself with more source material than he can handle. Audiences, meanwhile, will continue to flock to theaters to watch these maniacs get torn down, even if none of it is real. Yet.