The First Purge (2018)
Studio: Universal Home Entertainment
Release date: October 2nd, 2018
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Note: click here for a review of The First Purge from earlier this year.
If there were ever a horror franchise primed to feature in the Expanding Brain meme, it’d be The Purge. Despite its irresistible hook (“What if all crime were legal for a 12-hour period each year?”), the first film is a pretty rote, forgettable home invasion thriller, save for one crucial wrinkle: the implication of class and race warfare entailed by such a scenario. While it wasn’t made completely explicit, it rumbled forcefully enough in the subtext for series creator/writer/director James DeMonaco to further expand upon it in the increasingly woke sequels. To watch Anarchy and Election Year is to witness a franchise slowly putting it together, not only in terms of style, scope, and scale, but also in terms of capturing the angst of underprivileged and minority Americans.
The first sequel imagines a mostly African-American resistance group working to topple the New Founding Fathers, an old white male cabal that’s essentially exploiting the annual Purge as an excuse to ordain violence against the groups it wants to crush beneath its privilege-encrusted heels. Election Year makes this conflict even more pronounced, with the resistance group playing a larger role and allowing this franchise to inch even closer to pointing its finger directly at white, upper-class America’s complicity in fanning the flames of class warfare. Nobody would ever accuse any of the Purge movies of being subtle, and yet the first three do manage to hold their tongues just enough to pass as blockbuster diversions.
With The First Purge, however, DeMonaco and Blumhouse truly got it: just as many unseemly elements in America’s governments have removed their metaphorical hoods, so too does this franchise dispense with any pretense with this prequel. Between its incendiary marketing and the choice to completely embrace an unapologetically black sensibility, The First Purge is the moment where the franchise reaches Galaxy Brain status. It’s the “fuck it” moment, when DeMonaco and company say exactly what they’ve been working up to for half a decade now: The Purge is simply a blatant excuse to prey upon minorities and poor people. As the title implies, the prequel takes audiences back to when the NFFA conduct the initial Purge as an experiment on Staten Island, home to their supposed “undesirables,” who are set to be eradicated by state sanctioned paramilitary hate groups throughout the night—all before a nationally televised audience, of course.
At first glance, it’s fair to dismiss The First Purge as more of the same, especially since Election Year didn’t do much to advance the formula from Anarchy. Much of it still captures street-level carnage, as Staten Island becomes a twisted, candy-colored urban maze lined with masked slashers, deadly booby traps, and savage bloodletting. As ever, this latest outing exploits DeMonaco’s clever premise for the usual slasher and action movie beats, as vulnerable citizens steel themselves against the anarchic onslaught playing out in their streets.
In the hands of director Gerald McMurray, however, all of this is revitalized: indeed, one of the bigger “twists” here is that most of Staten Island actually doesn’t yield to the lawless impulses the government hopes to instill with The Purge. Many hole up in safe places, like a church, while others actually party right in the middle of the streets. The latter sequence is one of the best of the franchise so far, as McMurray captures this carefree, carousing crowd in triumphant fashion, offering a raucous rejoinder to the inevitability of black-on-black violence.
Of course, that won’t do for both real-life audiences and the NFFA, both of whom expect the streets to run red with a wave of “cathartic” violence. DeMonaco and McMurray oblige in incendiary fashion, branding the NFFA-sanctioned paramilitary forces with the iconography of white supremacy: literal Klansmen, soldiers bearing blackface-inspired helmets, or even riot cops. None of it is subtle, but the world doesn’t exactly require subtlety at this point. We need more impassioned, pissed-off art of this nature to push back against the oppressive swell of hatred and bigotry that has erupted during the past few years. The First Purge is arguably the franchise’s most satisfying entry yet precisely because its directs the audience’s bloodlust towards true deplorables of society: the racist, elitist extremists who are repelled here in violent fashion—not that this deters the NFFA from deeming this experiment a success, of course.
Perhaps unwittingly, The Purge has become the franchise of this troubling age, more effectively capturing this upsetting zeitgeist with each new entry. Despite its status as a prequel, The First Purge is the culmination—and the most convincing articulation—of both the rage and despair that has guided the sequels. In doing so, it also closes the loop, so to speak: while I doubt this franchise will be tabled anytime soon (a TV series is currently airing, less than 3 months removed from the release of this film), I would like to see it move beyond the confines of these follow-ups. Keep the messaging, of course (in fact, keep shouting it from the rooftops), but it’s probably time for this series to find a new path forward from both a narrative and aesthetic standpoint. Endless potential lurks within The Purge, and I’m eager to see what new directions DeMonaco and company might take—well, so long as it involves blowing away white supremacists.
After a July 4th debut (speaking of incendiary) in theaters, The First Purge arrives on home video from Universal, who has put together a respectable Blu-ray/DVD combo release. The presentation is top-notch, particularly in terms of reproducing the weird vibrancy of the brutal Purge Night proceedings: for all its sordid, ugly story material, this is an often gorgeous-looking film that’s done justice here.
Some supplements also accompany the main feature, mostly taking the form of standard EPK fluff. “A Radical Experiment” is a 5-minute making-of bit that includes some soundbites from various actors and Jason Blum himself about the film’s production, while “Bringing the Chaos” provides an 84-second glimpse at filming some of the action sequences. Brevity hinders should be the most intriguing supplement, “The Masks of Purge Night”; rather than provide an exhaustive overview of the masks featured in this film (and others), this is another 80-second rundown that only skims the topic’s surface. A lone deleted scene also appears, though that labelling is a bit of a misnomer since it’s more like an alternate take that was rightfully replaced in the final film.
Obviously, this isn’t the most robust release, and fans hoping for a deep dive into the film’s production will be left wanting. Something tells me, however, that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of The First Purge on home video. Considering this franchise’s growing stature as a defining series of its generation, it’s likely to inspire more in-depth supplements on future releases, perhaps as part of a definitive box set. In time, The Purge should be the subject of a substantive retrospective documenting the unlikely success story of a late-blooming franchise that's emerged from the crucible of these trying times. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: