Horror movies go out of their way to explain scenarios to their audiences that will justify mayhem and bloodshed without breaking the suspension of disbelief. It’s why so many horror movies involve isolated locations and convenient outages of mobile phone service. For the horror to begin, we must first transport ourselves to a place where the horror is expected, or at least plausible. It is a convention we have grown so used to that we scarcely even question its employment any longer. But sometimes we find a horror movie that cleverly sidesteps all of that artifice and delivers an experience that is way more horrifying, unsettling or disturbing that really ought to be. And among these oddball standouts of a genre strangely hidebound by its conventions is an action-horror thriller that makes modern America the monster, and every home within it an inescapable killing ground. Welcome to…The Purge.
The story takes place just a few years from now, in a United States that has recovered from economic collapse by ushering the New Founding Fathers, a fascist political party dedicated to re-establishing the country’s economic supremacy. And just one of the ways in which it does it is through the Purge, an annual holiday where, for a 12-hour overnight period, all crimes are considered legal and all emergency services—police, fire, ambulance—are suspended. This gives the citizenry free rein to commit murder, rape, arson, whatever they want in the name of venting their wicked urges. And on one such night, the Sandin family prepares to bunker down in their posh McMansion, paid for by James Sandin’s brisk home security business selling—what else?—armored home improvements so rich people can survive Purge Night. Only as the alarms sound and the Purge begins, the Sandins’ lockdown swiftly goes off the rails. Violence erupts within the house, and a wounded Purge victim from the outside begs for sanctuary from the roving gang of well-heeled Purgers chasing him. The Sandins decide to let the wounded stranger into their home, and in so doing, make themselves targets of the Purgers looking to add the family to their scalp tally for the night. The mayhem that follows is savage, bloody and brutal. Not all of the Sandins will survive, and not all of them will avoid committing murder. But to hear the New Founding Fathers put it, it’s the patriotic thing to do.
The Purge was a surprise hit back in 2013 and swiftly launched a franchise of sequels as well as a TV show—none of which ever really managed to recapture the dark energy that drives the original. Interestingly, when it comes to sheer visceral thrills, The Purge is probably the weakest installment of the series. Its sequels offers a more frantic look at what the Purge is like for those trapped outside in downtown areas, and escalates from the single-home horror of the Sandins to neighborhood-wide riots and city-wide rebellion. But what these follow-ups all lack is the seductive power of the premise—that something like the Purge doesn’t get started without somebody in power first thinking it’s a good idea, and then a whole lot of people out of power agreeing that yeah, you know what? It is.
Most of the Purge focuses on the tactics of the Sandins and their state-sponsored home invasion, but that is not where the movie works best. It is in the quiet moments, when there isn’t screaming and gunshots. It’s when the family quietly gathers to watch the nationwide Emergency Broadcast System remind everyone of the Purge, encouraging them to get involved, and reminding them that the political leaders responsible for this are considered out of bounds. It’s when the Purgers arrive at the Sandin’s doorstep and quietly, politely, persuasively assert their right to kill a perfect stranger and anyone else who tried to stop them. It’s when the father of the house smugly watches his crappy security shutters drop, knowing they actually can’t keep out a determined intruder, but it’s not really his problem because why would he or his family being somebody’s prey on Purge night. They’re white and wealthy. The Purge is for…other people. Everybody knows this, right?
That’s why the twists of the story work so well, and as we watch the Sandins’ sense of security disintegrate, we cannot help but wonder what might be unfolding in every other house in their posh gated community. What is happening in places where people really don’t have much protection? What is happening in every home where there is a simmering grudge or a desperate fantasy of violence? It is a question we morbidly ask without much stomach for the answer.
The moment of truth comes at the end, when our protagonist family has one last trial to pass if they are to survive the night. They have already gone through hell and must now face their gravest challenge yet. How they behave, and their chances of staying alive, aren’t predicated on how they Purge. It’s how they don’t. For a movie like this, the ending feels a little predictable, but honestly, it’s the ending we need. After all, this is a movie whose execution matters far less than its premise, an idea so creepy and so plausible that the real horror it delivers isn’t within the movie itself. It’s long after one leaves the theater and starts thinking: how long until somebody in power looks at this and thinks it’s a good idea? Who among my friends and family would go along with this kind of thing? How much of a nudge would it really take for people to decide to clean house once a year? And what kind of society would result from such evil? All we’d have to ask are those who have been in one before. There are more of them than we care to admit. For them, the Purge isn’t a horror movie. It’s a documentary.