Who would have thought that a modestly budgeted home invasion thriller would spawn one of the decade’s more successful franchises? In retrospect, The Purge, which hit theaters in 2013, was exactly the kind of movie upon which Blumhouse Productions has built their success – big concept, small budget. Even if The Purge wasn’t a great movie per se, the sound of that siren followed by the announcement, ‘All crime, including murder, will be legal for 12 hours’ hooked audiences. Since 2013 Blumhouse has produced three sequels and a short-lived television series. All four movies have been box office gold for the studio. Some of the success is part owing to the series’ killer premise and its colourful villains. But the constant presence of series creator James DeMonaco has certainly played a large role in the consistency in quality across the movies. Now fans can expect a fifth movie – The Forever Purge – at some point. But while we wait for theaters to re-open, let’s take stock of the franchise and separate the weakest entry from the best.
4 – The Purge (2013)
It’s not often that the first movie in a franchise is also its weakest. But make no mistake about it, The Purge is the least remarkable entry in the series. However, this isn’t to say The Purge is a bad movie. On the contrary, writer and director James DeMonaco’s first kick at the can is far from bad. You’ll find lots of good ideas here. Aside from its intriguing premise, The Purge boasts a good leading cast (Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey) along with some potentially explosive subtext. In addition to the more obvious ideas around human nature and violence, DeMonaco skims deeper issues including racial injustice, class division, and privatization of security. Unfortunately, DeMonaco doesn’t fully develop these themes. Some of this is a function of budget and scope. Specifically, DeMonaco was working with a small $3 million budget. As a result, The Purge is a lukewarm home invasion movie anchored by a big concept.
3 – The Purge: Election Year (2016)
After The Purge: Anarchy opened up the franchise’s world and fully exploited its premise, DeMonaco continued with the ‘go big’ approach. Though it’s still an improvement over The Purge, The Purge: Election Year represents a step down from Anarchy. Like the first sequel, Anarchy continues the series’ shift away from horror elements firmly into action territory. And DeMonaco handles the action with the right amount of grit and intensity. Frank Grillo is back – a definite plus. Moreover, Election Year packs some timely satire with its female senator running for President against the far right-wing New Founding Fathers of America. But this time around, there’s a little too much predictability. Grillo’s character also feels less interesting – he’s missing that anti-hero quality from Anarchy. By no means should anyone consider this a perfunctory sequel. Nevertheless, DeMonaco’s bigger scope misses some of the personal stakes of Anarchy.
2 – The First Purge (2018)
By the time most franchises are hitting their fourth film, the law of diminishing returns hits hard. Prequels also rarely bode well for any horror franchise. However, The First Purge successfully used the prequel route as an opportunity to bring in fresh talent and a new direction. By the fourth movie, DeMonaco’s handle on the bigger action scenes is quite adept. And for this installment, the director and writer throws even more big ideas at the screen. Undoubtedly, The First Purge takes aim at the Trump administration. DeMonaco’s use of faulty, unethical social science findings to target minorities eerily parallels the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. There’s government-funded Russian ‘merc’s’, NRA funding of the NFFA, and references to fear-mongering in the media. Scenes of Neo-Nazi militias conducting a siege on a community church are cutting references to the US government’s complicity in the rise of neo-Nazi activity in America. Not all these ideas stick and the focus is clearly still on action and nail-biting tension. Still The First Purge is highly satisfying and better than it had any right to be.
1 – The Purge: Anarchy (2014)
Hands down, The Purge: Anarchy is the best movie in the series. With a slightly bigger budget, DeMonaco takes the ‘purge’ from a suburban household straight into the streets. This time audiences got to see the full chaos of a ‘purge night’ as we watched five very different people try to survive a night in Los Angeles. In addition to abandoning its ‘home invasion’ setup, The Purge: Anarchy takes a step away from horror into more action-oriented turf. DeMonaco treats us to some of the more visually-striking series’ villains, including Young Ghoul Face and Big Daddy. If The Purge teased some bigger themes, Anarchy gets to dive a little more into these ideas. In particular, DeMonaco’s idea of the NFAA using professional ‘purgers’ to clean out marginalized neighbourhoods is pretty provocative stuff for this kind of movie. Throw in the underrated Frank Grillo – and some welcome mystery surrounding his character – and you have a lean, relentless sequel.