Horror movies used to be sold on premises; you know, fresh spins on old concepts that suggested the flick in question was something we’d never seen before. Sadly, in the age of horror remakes, this is about as rare as a sighting of a unicorn kissing a chupacabra.
However, based purely on marketing The Purge seemed to offer just that. A film about an America of the not-so-distant-future in which day-to-day violence was cured by an annual lawless 12-hour free for all where the good folks of the United States could murder as much as they pleased just as long as they tried to keep mass slaughter to a minimum for the rest of the year. However, The Purge isn’t just a throwback to high concept genre fair, but also an homage to the way those big idea loglines tended to barely conceal the fact that the film in question was just a slight twist on an established formula. Unfortunately, when you boil down The Purge, it’s just another home invasion shocker, but at least it’s a good one. That’s more than most audiences have come to expect from the studio horror factory these days.
So with the big pitch premise out of the way (and it’s repeated many times during the first 20 minutes to avoid any confusion) the movie settles into its official plot. Ethan Hawke is introduced as a particularly rich yuppie who made millions selling ludicrously expensive security equipment so that rich folks can feel safe during the annual purge. With the big night fast approaching, Hawke and his family (including Sarah Connor Chronicles tough gal Lena Headly as mommy of two barely distinguishable children) settle in for an evening in their expensively guarded castle away from all the mass slaughter. Things seem off from the start though, from the creepy Stepford-Wives-esque sedated suburban neighbors to Hawke’s daughter’s boyfriend who sneaks into the house before lockdown. But the gooey brown stuff doesn’t really hit the fan until Hawke’s son lets a homeless man pleading for his life into the family home at the exact moment that the pushy boyfriend emerges from his hiding place with a gun. Then things get even worse when a group of masked purging psychopaths (led by ‘evil with a smile’ charmer Rhys Wakefield) show up and demand that the homeless man be released for their murdering pleasure or they’ll bust into the house and kill everyone. So, should Hawke hand over his homeless guest to certain death or give everyone a gun and attempt to fight for their lives? Well, which one would make for the most exciting climax? That’s the real question.
The good news is that despite the flaws (and there are plenty), The Purge is at least quite entertaining. Writer/director James DeMonaco was involved with the fairly decent Assault On Precinct 13 remake as a screenwriter a few years back, so he knows how to play siege horror well. When the house comes under attack, the film explodes to life and rockets from one suspense sequence and bloody kill to the next with barely any breathing room. The movie is certainly a wild ride and carried by three strong performances in Hawke’s caring/sleazy poppa, Headly’s housewife-turned-vengeful-momma-bear, and Wakefield’s smirking purger who turns mass family slaughter into a jaunty prank. There’s a lot to love in the movie and it certainly delivers on the pure visceral thrills part. The trouble comes in around the edges. There are plenty of plot twists that feel a little too convenient, the dialogue in the opening scenes is cringe-inducing, certain stock jump scares are overused endlessly, and there are plenty of logic holes like how a house full of blood thirsty purgers don’t notice that Hawke is running around firing off shotgun blasts until they are right in front of his gun barrels. I suppose, that’s the standard dumb quotient for a horror flick (if people didn’t behave stupidly/dangerously in horror movies the genre would be pretty boring), but combine that with the fact that the movie ignores the mass nationwide insanity of the central concept in favor of traditional home invasion thrills and the film can’t help but feel like a mild disappointment.
Still, even though The Purge doesn’t quite deliver on the promises of the posters and trailers, it is a dark and violent good time for genre fans craving a release from the warm fuzzies of the summer movie season. The film might not stretch beyond the expected genre requirements, but at least it fulfills expectations with ease. James DeMonaco has delivered a perfectly entertaining, nasty little thriller/horror picture and even if he didn’t have the budget to show the full scale implications of The Purge this time, the beauty of genre movies is that success guarantees a sequel that might be able to fill in the gaps (or maybe even a video game). No one would ever confuse this film for a masterpiece, but it is a pleasant genre diversion and I suppose that’s what the summer season is all about. Audiences should be able to expect more from a movie like this, yet when the basics are delivered this well they also shouldn’t be particularly disappointed either. The mistake was expecting anything else.