Dad Media Month (Counter-Programming): The PURGE Series

Why The Cheap Little Action-Horror-Series-That-Could Matters Today

I’m a recent convert to James DeMonaco’s action-horror quadrilogy (now including a television show on USA!), which started with 2013’s The Purge. Being fairly steeped in Horror, Sci-Fi, and low-rent Action as I am, the series had always sounded conceptually interesting to me, telling the story of a world just down the block from ours where one night a year, all crime is legal. But after reading middling to negative reviews of the first film, I’d sort of put it on the back-burner as a thing I might like to check out on a hungover Sunday at some point in the future. As happens in the Golden Age of Low-Rent Media, plenty of hangovers and Sundays came and went without any follow-through on my end, until one day I looked around and realized that this violent little home invasion movie (starring everyone’s favorite slumdog Ethan Hawke) had generated 2 sequels and a sizeable following while I was napping. People were suddenly talking about the series with exuberant tones as bonafide fun little horror-actioners. What’s more, they were suggesting these cheap little movies were kind of a blast, with actual biting satire. I inferred I’d slept on a thing that might require my attention.

I’m known in our little circle of writers as the guy who constantly bemoans ‘touching the stove’. That’s that thing where even though you know there’s never been a good Transformer movie, or a watchable sequel to Jurassic Park, or any reason whatsoever that Ready Player One should exist, and you buy a ticket anyway. The stove is a stove. It’s a thing that’s meant to burn things, and it’s clearly turned on. But since you know best, you touch that stove, damning us all to live in a house where more and more hot stoves keep being delivered. Anyway, when I realized (the week it hit theaters), that a fourth Purge was on the way, I decided I needed to touch this stove, and I rented the first film in the series. I ended up blazing through the entire series in a weekend, catching The First Purge as my first theatrical Purge. Quite surprisingly, the Purge series didn’t turn out to be a stove at all. In fact, the only thing it’s cooking is MAGA hats on a bonfire.

You’re probably asking, “But what the hell does all this have to do with Dad Media”? Well, since you’re not my dad, why don’t you stop bossing me around and let me get there? As Diane laid out in her intro piece to our little theme month, Dad Media is, while hard to define specifically, pretty rooted in some common tropes, like the stalwart and earnestly good-doing do-gooder, bringing reason and moral adroitness to the corrupt and corrupted systems around them. From Diane’s piece: “Dad Media tends to embody a nostalgic ethos of self-sustainment and bravery, a callback to when men were tough and took charge. They had moral gumption and they always did what was right”. The darker side of that coin being that these are all, nearly always, white dudes who are a part of, or attached to the power structures and institutions that prop up centuries of racial and class inequities in our culture. More to the point, a lot of their exploits veer into how they deal with ‘other, external’ threats, or right the wrongs they see from within the power structures they occupy. To put it simply; they’re just kind of making sure the status quo isn’t upset too terribly bad.

This is deeply rooted in the American Exceptionalism that helped us to frame ourselves as the courageous and determined heroes of two global conflicts, but isn’t it also what helped us frame westward expansion as a righteous and just cause while whistling past generations of genocide? I don’t want to blow your minds here, but it turns out there are more layers to this onion called America than kickass naval battles in movies and cool looking cutscenes in Call of Duty. It may surprise you to know that we were at one point totally okay with basing our economy on slave labor. I hope you’re sitting down, because it turns out that populations don’t necessarily fully repair themselves, culturally and spiritually, in a matter of a couple centuries after things like this. In fact, a lot of the problems that arise when you treat people like disposable resources for a few hundred years tend to linger, albeit under different names and institutional doctrines. Rather than siege movies where upstanding and respectable nuclear families defend themselves against hordes of invading scum, the Purge series plays with these underlying (and not so underlying) issues and dynamics in American culture.

While I may be predisposed to enjoying the odd cop movie or espionage show, since it lines up with my more privileged upbringing within these structures, there are plenty of people in my life and community for whom these very structures aren’t a passive and benign wall to lean on for support and protection, but an ongoing potential threat to their well-being, livelihoods, and their very lives. If you’re following me this far, then follow me a little further into the black cynicism the Purge series puts forth: that at any moment, with a few ballots cast askance, the cold indifferent stance these systems and institutions maintain to the marginalized communities of the country could become a war footing, if even for one night a year.

That’s the picture that the Purge series paints of where we are as a country today. And with each installment, the series fleshes out this ethos in more and more concrete terms, gradually shifting its POV and casts further and further away from the standard white male protagonist along the way. In these films, one might expect the villains to be the unmoored crazies and creepos rampaging through the streets, threatening the ‘normal, decent folk (read white) with their savagery. But to a film, each installment paints the danger of consequence-free mayhem in a 12 hour span as cover. Cover from which the much more sinister machinations of an entrenched racial and economic power structure, hell-bent on retaining the spoils of their centuries of plunder, can finally dispense with the more subtle tools of disenfranchisement and appropriation, and move the dial all the way to ‘eat the poor’.

The Purge series plays with all of these things in interesting ways which become more complex and overt with each new installment. However, they’re still low-budget horror-action hybrids, conceived of and written by a white guy from Staten Island. While they’ve got lots of great ideas, a killer concept, and some wonderful protagonists, they’re often a bit broad and earnestly ham-fisted. If you’re like me, this isn’t necessarily a bug, since I came for the spatter and stayed for the subversion. But I want to call out why I think this series works so much as a whole. And that is that the series has been built from the ground up as part of a pretty singular vision. James DeMonaco wrote all four films, and directed the first three before stepping aside and handing over the reins to Gerard McMurray on The First Purge. I think another series like this, with less singular control and passion (and not shepherded by a group like Blumhouse) would easily have been turned into a revolving door for different journeyman creatives to pay dues into, on their way to bigger projects. Continuously churning numerous, awful derivations out into VOD hell before finally disappearing off the cultural radar. But given this unified vision and focus, the series has become one of the most interesting (and awesome) genre franchises today. Not to mention one of the most vital, as it relates to where America is now.

The Purge – Small Beginnings

Envisioning a near-future where our country has rebounded from the brink of economic collapse, The Purge is a small and contained film, set mostly in the upper-middle class palace of Ethan Hawke’s suburbanite salesman, James Sandin. Nevertheless, the film does an admirable job of setting up the world in which the Purge takes place. We’re given the information that this version of America was suffering from a prolonged economic downturn, leading to massive unemployment and rioting in the streets. This ‘economic anxiety’ became so bad that a new political force called The New Founding Fathers of America (the NFFA) emerged and quickly rose to power in the wake of the populace losing faith in both main parties of government. Their solution? Give the people an outlet for all of that pent-up rage and frustration for one night a year. The rules are simple: All crime, including murder, is legal for 12 hours. No class 4 explosive devices, and no purging of high-ranking government officials. Beyond that, you’re free to do what you want, any old time (between the hours of 7pm and 7am). The Sandin family lives very well off the back of James’ success, selling Purge security systems to other upper-crust suburbanites, including all of his awful, snotty neighbors. On Purge night, circumstances conspire to create a siege scenario in the Sandins’ household, where they realize they must decide whether to fight off a group of marauding Young Republicans, or hand them the homeless veteran who is their quarry, and who is hiding out in their house.1

What follows is a fairly standard siege/home invasion film, but one which escalates into a raucous spree in the final act, when James decides he just isn’t comfortable being the kind of guy who stands by while murder is committed. Where things get truly interesting, though, is once our upstanding neighbors show up and start killing the Purgers tormenting the Sandins, only to reveal that they aren’t here for a rescue, but to Purge the Sandins for making them all so envious of their nice new home addition (paid for by the security systems James sold them).

Viewers of this film have complained that, outside of the dynamite concept, the affair itself is too rote and small-scale to really examine the implications and world. There was a general sense of ‘bait and switch’ voiced when the film came out, which, to be honest contributed to me skipping this originally. While the complaints leveled at The Purge are not without merit, I think the last act of the film makes up for a soggy middle portion that drags on a bit too long. It’s also within this portion that Lena Headey gets the best bits to play with, as she and her new guest get the upper hand on their captors, and cement some of the staples of the series going forward. First, that the protagonists of these films are almost always victims not of random violence, but instead are terrorized by stalwarts of a sadistic status quo. Second, that the biggest supporters of the Purge are almost always well-to-do bourgeoise psychos bent on finding ways to systematically dehumanize and kill those who are less availed of society’s protections, and who have just about turned it into a religion of death-worship. And thirdly, that these upper-crusties fear nothing so much as the resistance of the groups of people they are so desperately trying to stamp out.

The Purge: Anarchy

Leaning hard into the criticisms levelled against the first film, DeMonaco set out with his second installment to do a couple of things: First, to really deliver on the world and the concept people slighted him for only teasing at in The Purge. And second, to kick a very healthy portion of ass.

In The Purge: Anarchy, we widen our gaze to follow 3 separate and very different groups as they prepare to try and survive the annual Purge. We have a middle-class white suburban couple, whose relationship is on the rocks, a latina mother and daughter, just trying to find some semblance of safety as they scrape by, and a mysterious loner (an absolutely badass Frank Grillo, suspiciously geared up like The Punisher) who appears to have Purge plans of his own. By nearly every metric you care to name where The Purge falls short, Anarchy surpasses your acceptable benchmark. The scope of the story follows our heroes as they cross almost an entire city, after circumstances find them converging on the mother and daughter’s block right as a paramilitary death squad begins systematically annihilating the inhabitants of their apartment building.

This is also where DeMonaco’s series starts to really tip its hand, as we eventually learn these mercs are government contractors, on-site to ‘help’ the Purging masses. You see, it turns out that people just aren’t stepping up and getting the job done to Uncle Sam’s expectations. This will become a recurring theme for the series going forward. As our heroes traverse this urban hellscape, beset by Purging gangs and government forces alike, they have to come together and begin to reckon as a team, while they each reckon with what the concept of the Purge actually means to them, and to their humanity. For my money, Anarchy and The First Purge absolutely nail a perfect balance between the bombastic action, America-hating proselytizing, and this weird sense of beaten optimism at the heart of this very special franchise. But if I had a Purger’s gun to my head, I’d have to say that Anarchy holds the place of honor as the most outrageously fist-pumping adrenaline rush of the series. By the end, you’ll be searching for a group of revolutionaries to join, while you wonder how they pulled off an oddly touching final character reveal in the final reel.

Also, Frank Grillo is amazing in this, as a guy who learns that it takes putting aside your selfish pain and rage to be a true ally, and a shepherd to those who need it most. In any other series, Leo’s journey would be melted nacho cheese, bubbling on the stove. But somehow the Purge series has the wherewithal to land these beats amongst the grim outlook.

The Purge: Election Year – Getting Explicit

The first, and so far only direct sequel in the series, The Purge: Election Year takes place a couple of years after the events of Anarchy. Grillo, returning as Leo Barnes, has moved past his pain and self-destruction, and now works as head of security for Elizabeth Mitchell’s dogged Senator Charlie Roan. Senator Roan has vowed to take on the NFFA, with her growing coalition of supporters, and the NFFA is not pleased. Setting forth a plan to eliminate this new threat to their power, the group does what it does best: uses its weird death-cult hold on the rich and an army of neo-nazi mercs to take her out. This subtle shift into making the ties between the religious right, the GOP elite, and resurgent racist fascism more explicit is excellent stuff, delivered well. And of course, it sort of fell on deaf ears in 2016 when it was released. Seems like RoboCop isn’t the only movie that gets more prescient every day.

This is where Election Year plays a card that The First Purge will play even more obviously, as well. Every time the NFFA or a person representing a power structure (whether it’s rich socialites, church leaders, or talking heads) expresses a reasoning for why things are the way that they are, it’s a blatant and obvious lie meant to cover their obvious misdeeds (sound familiar?). Their big announcement this year is that for the first time ever, government officials will not be immune to the Purge. The brilliance of this is how it’s presented; with Senator Roan’s incumbent opponent spinning it as the NFFA hearing the growing concerns that the Purge targets the poor and marginalized, and taking action to even the scales. Of course, they’re actually just trying to remove the potential for an electoral upset that would be followed by a possible end to the night forever. Roan, a Purge survivor who watched her entire family killed on Purge night, is uniting growing numbers of people who don’t buy into the NFFA’s doctrine. Working together with a group of DC residents just trying to make it through the night and protect what little they have, Roan and Barnes make a stand against the forces of the NFFA, and unite the growing group of revolutionaries now led by Dwayne Bishop (our homeless vet from the first film).

What really works about Election Year is the way DeMonaco adds specificity to the aspects that were mostly hinted at before. He makes it clear that the purging shoplifters from the openings scenes are bored, rich psychopaths. He makes it clear that the NFFA has turned the process of punishing the disenfranchised into a holy, righteous fervor. He suggests plainly that the enforcers of the conservative elite and the religious right are white supremacists. And he drives the point home that playing by the rules in our own little bubble while we’re fleeced by these monsters is a great way to end up in their furnaces. It takes real community to overcome entrenched evil. Before you think the series has traded in murder masks for bunny ears, though, he also makes it clear that even ending the Purge will simply turn the middle-America Nazis-in-waiting into the rioting hordes, instead of the jackbooted enforcers. The fight doesn’t end until the system that perpetuates it is dismantled.

Widening the aperture even further than Anarchy, Election Year does a lot of interesting work fleshing out the political world of the Purge series, only occasionally getting a little too broad in its depictions. However, given that this tone is well established in opening scenes where we finally meet the rulers of the NFFA in all their profane and pasty glory, it’s hard to fault the film for this. Especially when you see how much empathy and love Election Year has for its growing cast of supporting and intertwining characters. Election Year is, at this point in the series, the most earnestly presented and crafted entry in the series. Its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp thematically, but given how hard it works to establish the downtrodden and badass heroism of the expanding and diverse cast, it’s not hard to find its wavelength and settle in. If you’ve made it to the third entry in this series and you aren’t an instant fan of Betty Gabriel’s kickass neighborhood legend Laney Rucker, we just aren’t going to see eye to eye. Laney counterbalances Grillo’s gruff swagger with a selfless, but brutally vengeful protectiveness for the people of her neighborhood. I’d watch several more movies based around Laney.

the first purge

The First Purge – Spelling It Out For The Cheap Seats

If you make it past 3 entries in a series and someone has the bright idea for a prequel, it’s probably a good sign that the wheels have come off, and you’re just kinda looking for more blood from the stone. Nothing screams ‘hot stove’ like a late series detour to prequel-ville. Or so you’d think. In the case of the Purge series, it turned out to be just the exact right moment to zag, in more ways than one.

Election Year plays out on a note that potentially gives the series a happy ending, while making it clear that this is not exactly possible until real change is achieved. So rather than press ‘continue’ to keep the wheels grinding along, DeMonaco and McMurray made the bold choice with The First Purge to take us back to the beginning. This serves two purposes: Firstly, to shed the cast and baggage the series had begun to accumulate in order to tell a truly new type of story within the universe. And secondly, to finally make a bit of a mission statement for the series as a whole. This film is ultimately sort of a coda to help solidify the recurring themes of the series. The First Purge is the rare prequel that actually improves the films that came before it by clearly defining the viewpoint from which they originated without the expectation that new viewers will have to connect plot and character dots from previous entries. This prequel actually helps to inform the series that preceded it.

Before we get too heady here, it should be noted that the real secret weapons of The First Purge are the great cast, and the visceral action on display. These aspects combine in the perfect way to supplement what is, without a doubt, the most nakedly antagonistic Purge film yet. It would appear that DeMonaco’s choice to take a back seat and bring in fresh eyes was just what the doctor ordered, because The First Purge is walking around with a big mad-on for the post-Trump America. McMurray is also able to introduce a little bit of artfulness that DeMonaco doesn’t quite possess on his own, in scenes where the organization who conceived of the Purge interview the residents of Staten Island,2 in an attempt to ascertain their viability. Of course the experiment is voluntary, but given the difficulty for some residents to relocate and the fact that the organization is offering cash incentives for taking part, it starts to look a little fishy to some of our protagonists.

What’s great about this setup is that it makes abundantly clear that Marisa Tomei’s initial idea for the experiment was simply the perfect opportunity for the NFFA to enact their policies. Most of the inhabitants of the island regard the Purge with humorous irony, throwing big parties, or simply shaking their heads and hunkering down. Those that want to take part are clearly depicted as monsters, already so removed from society that a night of Purging isn’t going to bring them any closer to model citizenship, or misguided fools playing into the hands of an oppressive power structure. Ostensibly disappointed with the turnout, the weaselly NFFA liaison calls in marauding bands of neo-nazis, klansmen, and militia members to give things a nudge (read: start exterminating people). The First Purge puts to bed the tenuous reasoning that this night is a means of release for society’s evils, plainly and specifically explaining that it is an excuse for the government to wipe out people on the lower rungs of society. If that sounds outlandish, I’d like to point out that the current administration in the real world is doing everything it can to let hurricanes kill people and remove others’ ability to access any level of healthcare or education. To be honest, I’m not sure that putting monsters in blackface masks on the payroll as urban pacifiers is stretching credulity for very much longer in this, the absolute worst timeline.

But let’s get real. None of this works and none of this matters if the film isn’t engaging and exciting. And this is what The First Purge has in spades. In his first feature role, Insecure’s Y’Lan Noel is well-acquitted as a modern action star with a pulse. Playing a minor gang kingpin, Noel brings charisma and intensity to the role of a guy who has made bad choices in life, but lives on his own terms. Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, and Siya round out what is the most diverse cast in the series to date, each doing excellent work in both the action and dramatic portions of the film. But Noel’s work in the rapidly escalating fight scenes and shootouts bears particular praise.


Wrapping Up – God Bless Whatever Is Left Of America

In deciding to write about this series for Dad Media month, I was primarily finding an outlet to write about a series that has shaken me up in recent months, and that I’ve really connected with. But I think the key thing that should be observed in this month, where we’re talking about endlessly morally upright dudes doing endlessly morally upright things in service to their ideal of what this world should be, is that there is always a darker side to that entrenched view of American values. We owe it to ourselves to constantly re-examine what it is that those narratives serve, even as we cheer on Harrison Ford kicking terrorists out of his plane, or Kurt Russell sneaking onto a terrorist’s plane. There’s nothing at all wrong with finding succor in stories about naval officers and determined cops and CIA analysts fighting the good fight. They are of immense value to me personally. But there are good fights going the wrong way. There are difficult realities about the rot at the foundation of our systems that we’re all party to right now, and that we have to face. The fact that the Purge series is out here carrying on the mantle of Carpenter at his angriest gives me comfort, as well. The fact that four movies costing less than $40 million altogether have struck a chord with this vital and angry rhetoric, without losing sight of being an exciting, bloody good time, gives me a little hope that someone out there is listening. That we might see our way through to a better alternative than the world DeMonaco has drawn for us.

  1. Our vet, played by Edwin Hodge, is the only character to appear in each of the following 2 installments, tracking a really interesting arc of his own where he goes from hunted street urchin, to revolutionary lieutenant, all the way to resistance leader by the time The Purge: Election Year takes place.
  2. In a throwaway line from a talking head newscaster, the reasoning behind staging the first Purge experiment on Staten Island is its ‘ideal demographics,’ if you catch my drift.