Film Review: The Purge (Both of Them)

Tuesday 19 August 2014 by

I had a bit of a film session the other day; doing nothing but films and eating my bodyweight in junk food, I decided that if I was going to do The Purge, I might as well do The Purge: Anarchy as well, and so trotted off to see the hyped-up sequel.

If you don’t know about these films, the premise is this: in order to keep the peace 364 days of the year, one day a year, all crime, including murder, is permitted across America. From 7pm to 7am on the 21st March every year, there is free reign to loot, riot, steal, and murder. Sounds like a good premise, right? If you’ve ever wondered what could possibly happen in 12 hours when people are allowed to do anything they wish, these films seem to theorise on that, which should make for interesting viewing.

The Purge, Film

The Purge tells the story of the Sandin family, who are fabulously rich from all those security systems they have been selling. On Purge night, we find the family locking down their sprawling house ready for 12 hours in relative peace and quiet. Things start to go wrong when the daughter’s boyfriend sneaks his way in, and the son briefly opens the door to let in an injured stranger. The stranger, it turns out, is being hunted by another gang, who turn up and lay siege to the house. Let blood and guts commence.

The Purge Anarchy, Film

The Purge: Anarchy attempts a bit more of a plot line with it. Forget the privileged family defending their home, this time we have varying groups of people who are stuck outside during Purge night in the city and are being chased down, and so combine forces in order to stay alive. However, there is a greater conspiracy at work, with a group of anti-Purge fighters rising up, claiming that the Purge is all about keeping the poorer population down and advancing the rich (a theory only enhanced by the demonstration of the Purge “games” the rich like playing with the poor).

Although it is hinted at in the first film, it’s definitely much more obvious in the second – there is a distinct cult-like attitude to Purge, with an almost maniacal following. Crime is not only legal for the night, but also the fashion. People have turned it in to a career, a night-long party, and all sorts of twisted fantasies. It’s like being stuck in a gruesome computer game. Unfortunately, it only seems to concentrate on the murder aspect of it – what about other crimes? Why not try to steal from Tiffany’s or try illegal drugs? Why the need for a murderous rampage? Is everyone really that full of rage and vengeance and violence that, if given free rein to do anything, they will always turn to murder?

If I’m honest, the genre is hard to define – being neither horror nor slasher, action nor thriller. Trying to be a bit of them all, it fails to do any of it, and instead hovers uncertainly between clever concept and generic blood-and-guts with questionable dialogue. It’s nice to see an attempt at continuity when it comes to plot themes and the hint of a further story arc to come – the idea of a franchise of the likes of Saw doesn’t seem out of the question. But we’ve gone from recognisable names (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey) in one, to relative unknowns in two – perhaps sliding down the ranks in horror popularity? The possibility of a third isn’t really in the running, because there isn’t much more you can do with 12 hours of murder and mayhem other than more murder and mayhem. It feels like it strays from the “crime is legal” theme to the “you’re surrounded by psychotic mass murderers” concept within a few heartbeats of film one. Admittedly, the Saw films are pretty basic too, but they carry an overarching theme that seems to be lacking in The Purge.

The characters are all a little underdeveloped – I can’t remember their names or backstory from one moment to the next, instead they seem to be props for the surrounding violence. You don’t invest in them or feel empathy towards them as they come under fire. Rather, it’s all a bit ambivalent, much like the feeling I have towards these films. I enjoyed the concept of them more than I enjoyed the execution; perhaps I have more faith in humanity than the creators of horror films, but I can’t suspend my disbelief enough to engage with a film that paints the entirety of the American population as mass murderers waiting to happen. As films, they are enjoyable enough if you go in for those sorts of films, but I don’t feel like they particularly broke ground with anything spectacular – something that, given the premise, they should have been able to do. Of the two, Anarchy shows the most potential, by virtue of a better plot, but perhaps not worth the ticket-and-popcorn price…

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