Monday, January 13, 2014

Worth a Binge

Few things make me happier than seeing the juggernaut that is a small studio horror film actually be good. There's something so refreshing about a company like Platinum Dunes (that same name that induces shudders of the Friday the 13th remake) produce something that's as original as it is effective. 

Although perhaps the title leaves something to be desired.

Quick Plot: The year is 2022, and America is enjoying a prosperous economy where only 1% of the population is unemployed. Though we don't quite know the details of how this new utopia came to be, we do learn that it's managed to be maintained by the annual Purge, a 12-hour evening wherein all acts of violence and vandalism are perfectly legal. Such an opportunity provides the otherwise well-behaved civilians with the vital release of all those pesky pent-up emotions, be they hatred for the lazy homeless or anger at your girlfriend's dad not accepting of your relationship.

This is the start of the problem for the Sandins, a wealthy white family living in the largest house on an uppity block. Dad James (Ethan Hawke) is an ace salesman peddling high-tech security systems that protect fellow 1%ers during the titular purge, while mom Mary (Lena Lannist--er, Headey) uncomfortably avoids geek son Charlie's questions about, you know, if it's REALLY okay to kill people one night a year. Rounding out the family is slutty daughter Zoey, a school uniform-clad teen who would rather be necking with her boyfriend.

Despite being happily perched atop the economic pyramid, the Sandins generally sit back during The Purge. While Dad is happy to benefit from its financial demands, Mom is clearly not aligned with its politics, even if she doesn't have to think too hard about it. The kids have grown up in a world where this is commonplace, lending the entire event a promising sense of moral questionability.

Upon this Purge, as you might guess based on the fact that the movie is called The Purge and categorized in the horror section, something goes wrong. Zoey's bad news boyfriend sneaks into the fortified mansion to get some dangerous alone time with disapproving dad, leaving Charlie manning the secure gates when a black homeless man is spotted outside, begging for help from the certain death he's about to receive from a band of Purgers. Understandably, the good-hearted Charlie lets the stranger inside, giving way to a hellish night filled with wealthy mask-clad murderers, overly helpful neighbors, and a whole lot of arguments involving duty vs. survival.

Written and directed by James DeMonaco, The Purge made quite a mainstream splash in its theatrical run. The horror community, it seemed, had come to a general consensus that I was aware of going in: this was a brilliant premise that didn't quite deliver.

Yes and no.

The setup for The Purge IS brilliant. Like a more apocalyptic take on Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, The Purge presents a positively fascinating, rich starting point for all sorts of horror to unfold. Imagine a utopian society that maintained its order for a simple price, that price being a mere 12 hours every year where all laws were suspended, where violence was encouraged, and no crime--be it rape or murder--was considered wrong. 

Though class isn't supposed to come into play, the very fact that the wealthy can afford to barricade themselves into modern fortresses while the less fortunate are subject to easy break-ins gives way to economic politics. There's a quick line that tells us that government officials of a certain rank are not to be harmed during The Purge, and surely, there's more of a story there. There's probably a whole novel that could be written about how the homeless community deals with the event, not to mention the mysterious history of what brought American society to this point in the first place.

My point is that The Purge is a great idea that deserves A LOT of further exploration and thankfully, its box office success seems to have guaranteed that. Perhaps a lot of early reviewers were disappointed with the film narrowing its focus to one family, but now knowing that we'll get more Purges, I'm happy to say that such a decision on DeMonaco's part was the right one.

The Sandins are not a perfectly drawn family. Daughter Zoey takes a while to tolerate, and even the grand Cersei Lannister can only do so much in hinting at the further depth of a token wife character. But in a fairly quick introduction to Dad's career and Charlie's thoughtfulness, we know enough about these people to care about how the events of this one evening will affect them as individuals and a unit. Perhaps the villains are a tad too Funny Games-lite, but their basic motivation--being 'haves' who feel entitled to hurt the 'have nots'--is clear and believable. Sure, a line like "Things like this are not supposed to happen in our neighborhood" is a little too on the nose, but I'll take overdone subtext to mindless bloodshed any day (think Saw VI to Captivity, for example).

High Points
As mentioned by pretty much anyone who mentioned The Purge, it really does start with a rich and potent concept

Low Points
For having such a brisk running pace, The Purge does waste some of its time early on with repetition in stalking through the dark house
Lessons Learned
Toy Story-esque robot baby-head creations can be useful in a home invasion, but equipping one with a two-way radio should definitely be included in the next prototype

I understand that in the midst of a blackout and home invasion, it’s tough to maintain order, but by the third “let’s split up and find the kids” interim, take a moment to put a bell on your spacey daughter already

Next year, rather than investing your Purge stock in security systems, consider investigating the creepy mask numbers instead

As you can see, I was extremely pleased with The Purge and am genuinely looking forward to seeing how the sequel pans out. There’s still plenty of potential in the material, and with DeMonaco still in the writer/director’s chair, such an idea is promising. 


  1. Saw The Purge on TV. I thought it was okay. If I had to lay out money at the box office to see it I'd be less than enchanted with it!

    The son was so annoying I'd have liked to see him get purged. One of my favorite parts was the wife smacking around the blonde neighbor at the end.

    1. I didn't mind the kid. I kind of liked his floppy nerdism in an awkward puppy sort of way. But heck yeah to the neighbor smackdown!

  2. I totally agree with everything BlacknickSculpture wrote.
    Sure, the concept sounds cool on the surface but it doesn't really work when you look a little closer. I mean, why should something like The Purge lower the crime rates that much?
    We are expected to believe that the bad guys go like "I would really like to kill this guy right now but today isn't purge day so I wait for the next x months and do it then". Seriously?
    It actually feels as if DeMonaco didn't really think it through (or realised that it doesn't make much sense) and that's why the specifics are kept as vague as possible.
    I really was disappointed with this movie because the (still) interesting premise doesn't have an effect on anything. Instead we get a run-of-the-mill home invasion flick. We've seen it all before. No suprises here.
    And yes, that stupid son was a pain in the ass. He's responsible for the shit his family is in and he keeps making it worse and worse. I wanted him purged like 5 minutes after his introduction.
    Lena Heady smacking the blonde neighbour was easily the best thing about the movie. Too little too late though.

    I seriously doubt that the sequel will explore the concept more. I guess we will pretty much get the same movie all over again. Plot details that leaked a couple days ago (the sequel taking place at the same night but at a different location) seem to proof this.

    1. Darn on the sequel leak. I'm really hoping that they use the next installment to look at the other side of it. Clearly DeMonaco set up an alternate future that had a lot of details. Over the credits, you hear a radio talk show taking calls with a lot of dissenters, including someone ranting that the purge is just a way to slim down the lower class. I wouldn't necessary say that DeMonaco has EVERYTHING laid out, but I do think it's made clear that there's more to this society than "one night a year everybody gets their killing on."

      You're definitely right about how the purge doesn't make sense as a deterrent for your everyday 'bad guy.' Maybe it's a big structure hole, or maybe (I hope), it's just something that will be explored further in the next film.

      I guess I'm hoping to see The Purge 2 take the Hostel 2 route, where it learns from what worked and didn't in the first film. If DeMonaco is smart enough to flesh out the stuff that people wanted more of and avoid the easy Home Alone 2 style of repetition, I think this could shape up to be a great franchise.

      As far as the kid goes, I liked what they tried to do with him. Here was someone born into a generation that never had to question the purge, but being kind of a weirdo, he did. I liked the perspective of an 'innocent' who had clearly benefitted from the status quo, and what that meant when he would confront his parents about it.

  3. Glad you enjoyed it! I loved it, myself. Some of my friends were meh, but I really dug its insane theme - It played like a lost John Carpenter movie or some dystopian 70's SF film. "Escape from New York", "Logan's Run", and "Silent Running" all had insane one-note premises too, but that's what made them cool. Also, the dude who played the lead Young Republican should audition to be the next Joker.

    1. Fitting, since DeMonaco directed the Assault on Precinct 13 remake!