The horror genre is forever cyclical in its predominant and recurring themes. We’ve had the splatterings of torture porn, the revival of traditional haunted house stories. Now, it seems to be the turn of the ‘home invasion’ film. Already this year we’ve had ‘Dark Skies’ attacking the sub-genre from an ‘extra terrestrial’ angle. Now, it is the turn of director James Demonaco to provide us with a premise that whilst far fetched on the surface, underneath lies an intriguing undercurrent of skewered politics befitting of the current state of modern society.
Fresh from heading up an efficient fellow ‘entry’ from last year in the form of Scott Derrickson’s ’Sinister’, Ethan Hawke plays James, the ‘head’ of the Sandin family who is a security salesman by trade. Based in the heart of American suburbia in 2022 with his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and his two beloved children Zoey and Charlie (Adelaide Kane and Max Burkholder), they are collectively bracing themselves for the annual ‘Purge’.
Growing accustommed to the peace being bestowed across the nation, every year within one 12 hour period sees the country’s inhabitants given free reign to ‘cleanse’ their souls of the hatred and aggression built up in their hearts. Without the threat of being prosecuted for normally heinous acts, it has been deemed a radical yet necessary act which originally helped to restore balance to a crumbling economy and soaring levels of crime. With such a wealthy lifestyle and their helpful nature, the display of the latter backfires as they are inevitably targeted by a bloodthristy gang of masked youths led by Rhys Wakefield’s creepy unknown. Can they survive without minimal damage, or will they bring themselves down to the warped demands of such a sanctioned event?
‘The Purge’ in its well established first half, throws up a plethora of challenging questions that reek of social relevance. Classing the poor and the homeless as non-contributors, should their lives be sacrificed for the greater good of society? Is a short yet sanctioned burst of violence really the answer to nullifying a long-term threat? Would the boiling jealousy of one’s high life really drive you to act upon your despicable thoughts? Its initially good natured opening is ultimately, a facade with its ‘nation reborn’ declaration ringing false.
Perhaps weary of such ideas polluting the genre demands, the film’s unnerving promise gradually evaporates as it builds to a final act brimming with mindless violence. It could be argued this is Demonaco’s point that for all our striving for peace we will never fully eradicate the hate and whilst it will likely satisfy the faithful, its approach may alienate an audience craving a more insightful dissection.
Demonaco’s direction is efficient, juxtaposing its spacious one setting with a heavy reliance on tight close-ups and CCTV footage that simultaneously nods to the Paranormal Activity crowd and a culture fascinated by the need to see disturbing imagery. Ethan Hawke once again is a reliable figure in such fare, as his initially oblivious idealist wrestles with his conscience to protect his family with Lena Headey providing solid support.
Occasionally heavy handed in the execution of its premise (gun crime, ethnic minorities) and the lack of awareness/sound in crucial moments of terror may frustrate. Yet for all its flaws, ‘The Purge’ is a surprisingly enjoyable slice of thought provoking horror.