The Purge films are special, mostly because they’ve offered up perhaps the purest examples of modern exploitation cinema being made with a mainstream mindset. Beginning with a simple hook—for one night in America each year, crime has been legalized by the government as a means of spiritually “cleansing” the nation of its vilest impulses—writer/director James DeMonaco created a hyper-violent, satirical vision of the US that smuggled a great deal of dorm room sociopolitical commentary inside of its preposterous narrative conceit. It’s the Larry Cohen “elevator pitch” approach to schlock fiction: deliver a logline-ready premise the viewer is instantly intrigued by, and then black bag a healthy dose of subversion inside your superficially innocuous B-Movie. The premise has legs, that much is obvious. And four films in five years, with a spinoff TV show in the works, is nothing to sneer at. That’s Saw-level ingenuity.
But the series’ longevity wasn’t a given. The Purge (2013) was a self-contained, Ethan Hawke-starring thriller that was all filler, no killer. The promise of dark deeds was there in the marketing material, the Halloween masks, the eerie idea of The Purge itself, but nothing particularly memorable actually happened. The key issue with The Purge was quickly identified as its myopic focus on a well-off white family. The Purge: Anarchy‘s (2014) pivot to people of color, in more difficult circumstances, elevated the premise considerably. Suddenly, there were stakes. The series solidified its real-world connections by focusing on those less fortunate, i.e. the families who cannot afford to protect themselves or sacrifice themselves to rich folks for a quick buck.
In the first film, the protagonists received updates from the outside world through TV and radio broadcasts, whereas in the sequel, those broadcasts are suddenly brought to life in vivid, vivacious detail. The third film, The Purge: Election Year (2016) then allowed us to peek behind the curtain and glimpse the political mechanizations that put this rather barbaric practice into place. While small business owners struggled to pay Purge Insurance premiums to protect their storefronts, figureheads inside the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA)—a radical fringe party that rose to power amidst economic collapse and widespread societal chaos—feared a new presidential candidate who wants to take down their precious psychological tetanus shot. Like the first two movies, these developments are all delivered with the lunkheaded subtlety of a jackhammer, yet watching pieces of filmic pulp that were simultaneously angry and populist remained utterly thrilling.
The First Purge is an extension of Election Year’s explorations of a fictitious legislative agenda. However, before this nefarious law can be implemented, an experiment must first be performed. We’re no longer in the near future, the narrative shifting to sometime in the present. The NFFA’s implemented a Purge Night test run on Staten Island. Recruiting the poor and downtrodden—from bored social security starved geriatrics to drug addicts—the “scientific study” (headed by a bleached blonde Marisa Tomei as Dr. Updale, or “The Architect”) offers a financial incentive to those willing to participate. All that’s required of individuals looking to submit themselves to observation is that they wear a pair of high-tech contact lenses (which allow researchers to see through applicants’ eyes) and commit to unleashing their wildest desires until dawn. I’ll concede that these contact lenses offer a lot of aesthetic pulp throughout the film, giving an almost demonic glow to the eyes of eager Purgers.
Thankfully, DeMonaco hands the franchise’s reins over to a new filmmaker for the first time (though he remains as the sole credited writer), and the director of choice for this one just happens to be a person of color! Gerard McMurray, whose only other feature credit is Netflix’s black fraternity hazing nightmare Burning Sands, brings a level of authenticity to what’s essentially the series’ Blaxploitation chapter, complete with its own Superfly hero in Y’lan Noel’s project kingpin Dmitri. The proof is in the point of view—from The First Purge’s dialogue to its rageful ethos to its trap rap soundtrack—which, try as DeMonaco may, just doesn’t resonate with the same fist-raised truth without a black man behind the lens.
The rage that simmers beneath the surface of this black Island community can be felt even as its residents express their fear of looming doom that their government is hanging over their heads. Tenement neighbors ask each other how they’re doing with a hitch in their voices, before wondering aloud just how bad this “experiment” is going to be. Corner kids try to determine whether signing up is an easier way to make ends meet than simply slinging rocks. Meanwhile, Dmitri rallies and arms his troops, letting them know they’re not going to move their stash or retreat from their neighborhood, nor is he allowing his soldiers to entertain this white man’s genocide, as doing so is merely playing into “what they’d want”.
The First Purge really does feel like the schlock expansion of the racial anxieties of 1970s blaxploitation films. Military grade weapons are mysteriously finding their way into the hands of Dmitri’s enemies, and once the experiment kicks off, white gangs dressed as KKK members seemingly appear out of nowhere. McMurray amalgamates a mountain of loaded imagery into surrealist violence, all while terrified parishioners gather in a black church, hoping it can provide some sort of sanctuary during the storm (minor spoiler: it doesn’t). This is ethnic cleansing hiding under the guise of a spiritual one. And yet, despite the basic premise, the film doesn’t wallow in human cruelty and misery. The Purge films could go full Saw, and while that may be more viscerally effective, it seems that DeMonaco is far more interested in exploring the sociopolitical aspects of the world instead of showing the audience ever more creative ways to destroy the human body.
The First Purge could also arguably be the first in this franchise to comment upon its audience’s fascination with the violence in the streets. From their observation towers on high, safely removed from the atrocities happening below, the researchers and their media counterparts are attempting to quantify and intellectualize these primal happenings. Why are the participants wearing masks? Why are they getting such enjoyment from murder and robbery? Would we act any differently if the roles were switched? As a conspiracy unfurls from the control room, it’s no coincidence that those allowed to ask these questions are all white, while others stuck fighting for their lives are exclusively folks of color. It’s a sly annotation on the privilege of the movies’ artistic intent (not to mention their creator) that’s never actually spoken aloud, yet represented almost purely through casting.
By the time we reach the film’s climax, McMurray (with the aid of cinematographer Anastas N. Michos) has whipped up a near psychedelic barrage of smoky, fascistic imaginings, as gang commanders dressed in Nazi regalia (flanked by soldiers in blackface masks) try to kill everyone in a public housing high-rise, before Dmitri literally strangles one of these minstrel massacre artists to death. This one brief scene of our hero choking out a faceless stormtrooper of his people’s apocalypse makes the message behind McMurray’s movie quite clear: this is a work of pop insurrection. While we’re bombarded daily by speeches from a President who wants to “build a wall” and partially blames anti-fascist protesters for a death of their own in Charlottesville, movies like The First Purge feel like vital howls of rage that just happened to muscle their way into your local multiplex. This is the most inflammatory type of mainstream filmmaking.
In the end, The First Purge offers up the best and worst of the Purge franchise, giving us super pulpy horror schlock filled to the brim with a heavy-handed, satirical bent. It’s over-the-top as hell and many lines far too blatantly try to call out current events (including an eye-rolling reference to the Trump hot tapes), but it’s a ton of fun. And it’s so encouraging to watch this series evolve the way it has. A small horror movie that squandered its premise got several sequels that not only deliver what the original lacked, but expand the world in interesting ways! It remains to be seen whether the TV series will over-milk the cow, but if the world continues on its current downward spiral, DeMonaco might find himself with more source material than he can handle.