Horror films aren't generally upbeat and inspirational. When you go into an action film, you expect the good guys to beat the bad guys in the third act. But horror films often end with dismemberment, apocalypse and pyrrhic victories in which the protagonist becomes more monstrous than the monsters. Awful things are out there, and if you're lucky you may be able to escape for now. That's what passes for an uplifting message in horror.
“The First Purge” is an exception. The fourth film in the “Purge” horror franchise is a timely, and surprisingly earnest, glimmer of hope in summer filled with real-world cruelty and government oppression. It may be exploitive, low-budget schlock, but it nonetheless attempts to honestly grapple with America's present. And, despite our current grim circumstances and its own genre stereotypes, “The First Purge” ultimately is a film about believing in America's future.
The fourth film in the “Purge” horror franchise is a timely, and surprisingly earnest, glimmer of hope in summer filled with real-world cruelty and government oppression.
Admittedly, an introduction to the “Purge” franchise concept doesn't lead one to expect much in the way of sweetness and light. The series is set in a near future America, recovering from a dystopian period of skyrocketing crime and unemployment. Dissatisfaction and chaos allow a new far-right, quasi-religious political party, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), to seize control of the government. The NFFA manages to restore peace and prosperity through the Purge, a once-a-year event in which all crimes are legal for 12 hours.
The Purge allows people to rid themselves of hatred, anger and resentment, so that they are free to be good citizens for the rest of the year. Crime rates plummet; peace and prosperity are born from the charnel house.
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The series seems to be founded on a belief in humanity's — and America's — inherent cruelty and violence. But creator and writer James DeMonaco has always worked to complicate that reading. Over the course of the first three films (2013's “The Purge,” 2014's “The Purge: Anarchy,” and 2016's “The Purge: Election Year”) we learn that the Purge doesn't work as it's supposed to. Much of the yearly killing is done, not by citizens, but by government forces deliberately murdering poor and marginalized Americans to reduce population size and eliminate welfare and social safety net payments. The Purge is a tribute, not to Shirley Jackson's epic short story "The Lottery," but to Economist Thomas Malthus's grim predictions of population collapse..
“The First Purge” (directed by Gerard McMurray), makes the government's role in the Purge even clearer than its predecessors. The film is a prequel; it tells the story of the very first experimental Purge. Staten Island has been selected as a testing ground, to see if suspending the rule of law for the night encourages people to vent their anger and violence and thus become more placid and satisfied the rest of the year.
The Purge doesn't work very well, though. Suspending laws does lead to some looting, and a couple of bad actors are eager to commit murder. But for the most part, the poor black and brown communities on the island are not, as it turns out, especially interested in going to war for the edification of the overwhelmingly white NFFA. Indeed, the idea of the Purge is met with protest. On the night itself, many people leave the island; others gather together in churches to pray. Even more organize an enormous, ecstatic block party, clogging the streets, dancing and altering their consciousness without fear of police intervention.
White supremacists slaughter people of color in the name of American patriotism and balanced budgets. It's a bleak vision especially in the current social and political climate.
Even the local drug gangs keep things mellow. Drug kingpin Dmitri (the very talented Y'Lan Noel) orders his crew to lay low. The “Purge” franchise has cast more and more people of color over its run; "The First Purge" completes the transformation, as all the main protagonists are people of color. In “The Purge,” a white family provides sanctuary to a black homeless man. In the“Purge: Election Year,” a white female senator is the hope for the future and her white bodyguard joins with people of color to protect her. In “The First Purge,” though, white people don't save anyone. Instead, Dmitri and his gang end up defending their own community against an assault by NFFA soldiers.
That assault happens because the NFFA is determined to have bloodshed, even if the people of Staten Island don't want to oblige. It offers cash payments to impoverished people if they commit acts of violence. It also (as in previous films) sends its own people to the cordoned off area. Police and mercenaries in quasi-fascist regalia march into black communities and homes. Trucks with men in full KKK regalia ride through the streets as fires bloom in the background. White supremacists slaughter people of color in the name of American patriotism and balanced budgets. It's a bleak vision especially in the current social and political climate.
In other words, “The First Purge” presents American white supremacy as nightmare. But it also recognizes that that horror is not natural or atavistic. It's political. The NFFA's goal is to naturalize violence; they manipulate events and statistics to suggest that poor people and people of color are violent and uncontrollable, and that their deaths are a patriotic necessity.
And yet, the people who are supposed to fall on each other refuse. Instead, those labeled as deviants, criminals and expendable trash band together to defend themselves. Fascism in “The First Purge” is ascendant, powerful, and murderously effective. But it is not unopposed.
Watching America embrace its worst traditions of authoritarianism, violence and cruelty can leave one with a feeling of hopelessness and inevitability. This, apparently, is who we are. But is it? The “Purge” series rejects that argument. Instead, it shows authoritarianism and violence as a conscious decision, made not by the public as a whole, but by particular people in power. America in the “Purge” chooses to become a country defined by horror. But if you can choose to purge, you can also choose not to purge. If we can make a worse world, “The First Purge” says, we can also make a better one.
CORRECTION (July 4, 2018, 5:00 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the island where the fictional events of the "The First Purge" occur. The movie takes place on Staten Island, not Long Island.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."