Imagine a night where any crime is legal, including murder. Who would you ‘purge’ given half a chance? Writer-director James DeMonaco’s The Purge is more frightening in concept than conception, though it’s still a solid and watchable affair. It doesn’t offer any new chills that other under siege-style horrors haven’t already. It’s also not as creepy as Paranormal Activity or Sinister – though producer Jason Blum’s influence is apparent having worked on all three. However, The Purge’s initial strength before the mayhem begins is fuelling that deep-seated fear of lawlessness and loss of control, heightened by the horn that signals the start of ‘anything goes’ – including our viewing journey.
It’s America but one of the near future where employment is at one per cent and crime is virtually unheard of, thanks to a government-sanctioned, 12-hour period where any and all criminal activity, including murder, becomes legal. The Purge is a night of citizen rule designed to clean the streets of undesirables. Some go out to purge, while others like the Sandins stay at home behind metal barricades until the 7am siren sounds the end. However, this time, when a distressed intruder breaks into their home, the family must make a moral decision that could cost them their own lives.
Like Paranormal Activity or Sinister, The Purge is most successful when it relies on the power of voyeurism through CCTV to titillate, waiting for the action to play out into screen, and in so doing, building up our anticipation of the first big scare. The rest is a cat-and-mouse chase through darkened corridors and rooms in a plush and expensive abode with some satisfying jumpy moments. That said it does suffer from prompting its next move at times that lessens the impact. It could also have been a lot darker by toying with and exploring the psychological effects, but it’s more content with funny-looking masked characters popping out of dark corners with little imagination spent on how.
The Purge also suffers from that saccharin Hollywood horror gloss, more concerned with how attractive its characters and their lifestyle look – even when wounded and blooded – than getting downright ugly and twisted. In that respect, Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey are perfectly adequate in their roles, but there’s none of the tortured appeal of Hawke’s author character Ellison Oswalt in Sinister.
The standout performance comes from Rhys Wakefield as the polite, smiling stranger who comes a-knocking at the Sandins with his frenzied band of well-to-do flower power kids. Wakefield’s character represents the worst nature of the privileged that this night of legalised slaughter truly benefits behind a real, live mask of his own. It’s his chilling social commentary that is the most terrifying to contemplate as he explains in a maniacal but disturbingly reasonable fashion into CCTV camera why he is acting as he does. Like a present-day Clockwork Orange character, he has an intelligent but alarmingly unhinged and mysterious persona, making him all the more effective in delivery.
Equally shocking and uncomfortable to watch is the chosen target of the night who takes refuge in the Sandins’ home. There’s no mistaking the racial cleansing connotations here, and the labelling of certain groups deemed more responsible for reported crime. In that respect, DeMonaco’s film challenges engrained social stereotypes, say, with rough sleepers – do pay attention to the target’s attire. It even poses the question of what secrets are kept inside America’s gated communities who are perhaps as culpable. The story has an end twist that with hindsight is set up at the start. Again, the film’s strength is in what is not actually being said. The Purge offers an intellectual debate first and foremost, rather than any memorable shocks and horrors. It also exposes a new talent for acting the madman in Wakefield, leading to exciting things to come. DeMonaco should be happy to be instrumental in that.