Imagine an America in which, for 12 hours, all laws are suspended and all crime is legal. Murder, rape, arson, robbery, jaywalking – the minute the klaxon goes off, society gets a free pass to do whatever it wants. During this annual holiday where citizens get to “release the beast,” the 1-percenters barricade themselves in their state-of-the-art smart houses. The poor, well…you can guess what happens to the poor. They’re fucked per usual. But hey, what’s a little class warfare when it’s open season in the name of collective catharsis, right? Happy cleansing, folks.
That’s the premise behind writer-director James DeMonoco’s The Purge, a 2013 movie that dropped Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey into a yuppie nightmare. Now four movies into a bona fide franchise – the latest, The First Purge, lands right before Independence Day, because of course – this combo of home-invasion thriller, dystopic slasher flick and gore-soaked social satire has become one of the most successful low-budget, high-return series running. (The first three films’ combined worldwide box office is just under $320 million; their combined budgets probably cost less than a single five-minute CGI sequence in a Marvel movie.) And that’s not even counting the 10-episode TV series that’s dropping on the USA Network this September, which looks to deliver more of the bloodlust-rinse-repeat formula into the comfort of your own living room.
Which begs the question: Why, exactly, are these films so consistently popular? Never mind the fact that horror is a reliable multiplex staple overall, and that Blumhouse – the production company responsible for an ungodly amount of the scary movies you’re seeing in theaters these days – has figured out how to keep is finger on the primal-fear pulse of moviegoers while keeping the price-tags low. What collective chords are these movies continually striking?
You could point to the sheer relatability inherent the fantastic notion of the all-you-can-kill buffets that lies at the center. When the company’s majordomo Jason Blum sat down with Bill Simmons for the host’s Ringer podcast, he explained the genesis (more or less) of the concept: Driving in Long Island, James DeMonoco was cut off in traffic. I want to kill that guy, the director allegedly said to his wife; her reply was “What if you could?” He then pushed the idea to the next logical blow-off-steam extreme, albeit one that has occurred to virtually anyone who’s suffered through everyday indignities. Who hasn’t wanted to punch the person who swerved in front of them? Which is one modest proposal away from: So then what if you, could, say, burn down your the house of your obnoxious neighbor, the one who plays their music too loud all the time, as well? What are these movies if not viewers’ violent vicarious thrills writ large?
And there are other factors as well. These movies have the most diverse casts this side of the Fast & Furious films, with a mix of African-American, Latino and white actors like actually reflect your typical movie audiences. Starting with the 2014 sequel The Purge: Anarchy, it gave the world a blue-collar action hero in Frank Grillo, an Italian-American actor who comes off like both the dude next to you in line at the deli and the toughest guy at your local MMA dojo. (He’s a tough-guy alternative to the A-list stars – our generation’s Lee Marvin.) And bloody kills + creepy masks = asses in seats on a Friday night is not exactly rocket science.
But best of all, the Purge movies have a cake-and-beat-it-to-death-too when it comes to sneaking in digs about our nation’s class system. (Yes, America does have one. Please stop pretending that we don’t.) In that same podcast, Blum also said that half the audience sees the films as cautionary tales and the other half as a great idea – it’s a one-rage-fits-all notion that appeals to Bernie bros and MAGA nuts alike. It wasn’t a coincidence that The Purge: Election Year, which dropped during the most divisive political campaigning in decades, featured white-supremacist villains, BLM-style public dissent, N.R.A. pandering and gun-control advocacy. You can be a Tea Partyer or Occupy advocate and find something here. It’s as free-form outraged as your average Twitter feed.
And now we get The First Purge, a prequel that looks back at how this whole thing started – with good intentions, greedy political power grabs, a blonde Marisa Tomei, angry citizens and a need to vent with violence “on both sides.” It will undoubtedly make a mint as well. You could say these movies predicted the current moral free-fall of the Trump era or were made for them – really, we’re one tweetstorm away from our commander-in-chief “jokingly” suggesting something just like it. But the only real ideology behind these movies goes beyond partisanship. To quote the end of our Election Year review, the Purge movies’ shared connection is: “America is violence. God bless the U.S.A. God save us all.” The sentiment, eerily enough, feels even more potent and terrifying and real today than it did then.