Two years removed and 2018 still remains the ‘Year of Blumhouse Productions’. While Insidious: The Last Key and Truth or Dare were critical duds, both films were box office successes. And the studio’s re-invigoration of Halloween in October of 2018 marked a major course correction for the dormant franchise. Somewhere in between, Jason Blum tided horror fans over with The First Purge. Despite being the fourth film in the dystopian franchise, The First Purge has generated early buzz with its overt political overtones. At the very least, the sequel makes a good case for the ‘less is more’ approach to marketing. But how good can the fourth film in a franchise be?
A prequel, The First Purge, opens a day before the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) pilot their bold social experiment – ‘The Purge’. Several news clips outline the economic crises, poverty, and crime that gave birth to America’s newest political party, and quickly transitions to scenes of psychologists interviewing ‘candidates’ for the inaugural ‘Purge’. To test the potential benefits of a ‘Purge’, the NFAA selects Staten Island as the pilot site, offering residents $5000 to remain and more money if they actively ‘Purge’.
While activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) plans to spend the ‘Purge’ sheltering community members, her younger brother, Isaiah (Jovian Wade), foolishly opts to participate to seek retribution for a slight. Gang kingpin Dimitri (Y’Lan Noel), apprehensive of the social experiment, simply wants to keep his crew and empire safe. But when the NFFA sends in hired mercenaries to increase casualty numbers, Nya, Isaiah, and Dimitri find themselves in a war to survive.
The First Purge Offers a Better Mix of Action and Horror
To date, The Purge franchise has had a rollercoaster history in terms of overall quality. None of the first three films were bad by any measure. Perhaps the worst criticism I could hurl at the The Purge was that it was serviceable. Anarchy benefited from opening up the franchise’s world and dialing up the action. Yet none of the first three films were ever really scary outside of the actual central concept.
Director Gerard McMurray actually injects quite a bit of suspense into The First Purge.
Director Gerard McMurray actually injects quite a bit of suspense into The First Purge. Once all the story pieces are in place and the ‘Purge’ siren sounds off, the second act lifts off. From that point onward, McMurray treats us to several tense moments and a few effective jump scares. The First Purge merges the traditionally creepy aesthetics that define the franchise with much better executed scares than earlier entries. An alleyway scene with cleverly rigged dolls offers one of several fun jolts. Rotimi Paul’s character, Skeletor, may also easily be the most frightening character in The Purge’s world.
At roughly the halfway point, McMurray shifts the tone from horror film vibes to action film pacing established seen in Anarchy and Election Year. The shift in tone and style leaves the film feeling a little disjointed. Fortunately, McMurray more capably fuses these approaches together. McMurrray shoots all of the action scenes tightly, and more than delivers on the film’s R-rating. In addition to being the scariest film in the franchise, The First Purge is arguably the bloodiest of the films.
Provocative Imagery and a Scathing, If Not Perfectly Assembled, Commentary
General consensus on Rotten Tomatoes suggests that The First Purge never hits the lofty goals of its intended political subtext. On that point, I’m not sure I entirely agree with other critics. James DeMonaco throws lot of big ideas at the screen in The First Purge. DeMonaco’s use of faulty, unethical social science findings to target minorities eerily parallels the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Several Easter eggs make direct allusions to the current Trump administration. 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 the U.S.
A lot of big ideas are thrown at the screen in The First Purge.
Are all of these ideas fully realized? Not really. Does The First Purge revert to stylized, over-the-top violent action in its final act? Yes. But critics are shortchanging McMurray. To a large extent, he is limited in the depth to which he can explore more complex ideas. After all, The First Purge is the fourth entry of a well-established franchise. Furthermore, as a prequel, The First Purge has to connect its narrative to the previously established rules of the franchise’s world. Unlike previous Purge films, The First Purge doesn’t just touch on issues of race and injustice. The First Purge addresses these issues head on with both its storyline focus and proactive imagery. A para-military soldier dressed very similarly to a Nazi officer with some soldiers wearing Blackface masks delivers a scathing commentary, even if it’s not perfectly assembled.
Strong Characters Fleshed Out By Engaging Performances
The Purge films have always been characterized by colourful villains. Conversely, the franchise has been weighed down by flat protagonists, Frank Grillo excluded. The First Purge boasts some of the best protagonists in the franchise. The prequels boasts strong performances across the board. Y’Lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, and Jovian Wade all deliver believable, engaging performances. Noel and Davis are particularly charismatic, getting the audience behind them very early in the film. Unfortunately, Marisa Tomei is largely wasted as the psychologist responsible for developing the idea behind ‘The Purge’. She seems disinterested and disengaged, which may stem from the lack of screen time.
The First Purge Might Be the Best of the Franchise
By the time most franchises are hitting their fourth film, the law of diminishing returns hits hard. Earlier this year, the Insidious franchise delivered a middling effort with The Last Key. The Saw films showed serious signs of franchise fatigue by their fourth film. Prequels also rarely bode well for any horror franchise. However, this time Blumhouse used the prequel route as an opportunity to bring in fresh talent and a new direction. The end result was a provocative entry that may be the best of the bunch. Certainly, the ending fell a little optimistic given where the story has to go. Nevertheless, it opens the door for another sequel with more ideas worth exploring.