Horror franchises will never die. No matter how old a series may be, it’s only a matter of time until there’s a new sequel, prequel, or remake coming out way. 2021 alone is gifting us with a Halloween sequel based in October and a few months ago the Saw franchise gave us Spiral. While some may groan at the endless, cyclical nature of sequels, I’m usually okay with them. More so than any other franchise in Hollywood, horror movies are the easiest the produce and easiest to create entertainment. You don’t need mountains of special effects and a budget the size of a small country, you just need creativity and smart execution. Which is why The Purge franchise, as a horror series, frustrates me so much.
When it premiered back in 2013, The Purge was a horror movie that took its amazing premise, a world where all crime was legal for 12 hours, and turned it into a home-invasion movie. And it was fine I guess, but not at all where the premise should go. Since then, the Purge movies have expanded outwards and grew in terms of scope, but not necessarily in terms of ambition. Truthfully, as the franchise grew, it gave a sense of diminishing returns, with the new cast and new “premise” being just another excuse for excessive violence and murder.
In the context of a horror movie, I have nothing wrong with excessive violence and murder. That’s the foundation of all slasher movies and I love me a good slasher movie. But a good slasher movie, like the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, all have a central figure to work off of. We don’t watch them because we want to see a bunch of teenagers die. We watch them because we want to see Freddy Kruger kill a bunch of teenagers. Without Freddy, The Nightmare on Elm Street movies would lose their distinct lack of appeal.
That’s what basically is happening with the Purge movies. There is no central, human antagonist for the films. There is no bogeyman who we get to see attack and kill rich socialites who deserve it on a yearly or biyearly basis. Instead, we get new villains every movie yet all of them lack a distinct identity. Just last week I saw The Forever Purge, which added some Texas flavoring to the annual Purge attacks, and the only thing I can remember about the villains here was that they had cowboys hats. That’s it. No interesting villains or bad guys. Just unique visual shorthands.
Now you may say that the violence or horror isn’t really the point of the Purge movies. As a series, you may say that they’re more interested in social commentary about the state of the United States, more so than anything else. And you would be right to a point. As the series went on, The Purge became far more interested in putting a mirror up to American politics and society and showing just how ugly Americans are. And it did add a distinct flavor to the proceedings, but not enough to distract from the fact that the central premise is still being underutilized.
So what if the series is political? Horror movies have made political statements before, like Get Out and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead series, but the messages in The Purge feel especially hollow. Just to use The Forever Purge as an example, what exactly does the fifth movie say about race in America? Juan comes to America and works as a ranch hand and he personally isn’t attacked for being Mexican. No character decides to hunt him down for being Mexican or an illegal immigrant, despite the droning announcements from Purgers saying that they seek “racial purification”. He puts himself in danger to rescue his boss’s family, then goes on an adventure to save them and himself. Juan’s race only factors briefly into the plot to inform another character’s development, one who has racist tendencies and learns to eventually not be racist. What message are we meant to take away from it besides “racism is stupid”?
All of the Purge movies are more interested in showing us cartoonishly over-the-top bad guys wearing creepy masks and acting like unhinged lunatics. The marketing for every Purge movie doesn’t show any central character or and star power, but instead which masks are being used to plop onto this movie’s stream of psychopaths. Visually they are distinct, but they don’t do anything other than to show a flavor that the film is tackling. The Purge: Election Year features murderous founding fathers, which is a nice visual metaphor, but when you actually watch the movie they’re only featured for a tiny bit of screentime.
While we’re on the subject of the psychopaths, it’s almost impressive how all of the Purge movies stay committed to giving us ludicrously over-the-top psychopaths who only seem to be interested in murdering as many people as possible. Each movie, again, has its own little cavalcade of murderers who seem to come alive only on the night of the Purge and attempt to murder as many civilians as possible. Doing that once is fine. One movie full of violent mass murderers is okay and can make things intense. But when five movies are chock-full of them and each of them is as indistinct as the last, it becomes tedious.
But all of those gripes are just tangential to the main problem of the Purge movies. Yes, they’re mindless horror movies that are very interested in gleeful violence (violence that isn’t even depicted all that well but that’s beside the point). Yes, they try to be political but never carry any weight to those messages. You can even excuse the repetitive nature of the films. At the end of the day, every single movie in this franchise wastes the central premise that they were given; 12 hours a year, all crime is legal.
According to every Purge movie, if all crime was legal for 12 hours, the answer that series creator James DeMonaco came up with was everyone would try to murder each other. We all have pent up aggression and hatred towards our neighbors and coworkers, so violent murder to relieve personal stress and anger is the only function of the Purge. All others seek refuge and hide away. That’s a bleak and nihilistic message, but it’s a predictable answer. Five films of that gets boring. Why use that awesome premise in such a limiting way?
Why not do more with the premise? No seriously, with such a wonderful premise for a franchise, you don’t have to just limit it to “kill everyone senselessly” with random flavors of social commentary. The Purge: Election Year came close to breaking out of this mold, since the central premise of that movie was the NFFA, the people responsible for the Purge, put out a hit on a presidential candidate competing on a platform to abolish the Purge. It’s a unique premise, albeit one that still revolves instead around bland psychopaths blindly rushing at that film’s heroes. But there are plenty of ways that the films can move beyond just random, horrific violence.
Why not make one film into a heist thriller? If all crime is legal, why not have one film centers around a group of employees at a company using their time to plan a heist while dealing with anti-Purge security systems? You can still have your violence and carnage, but instead it’s done with the social commentary of the haves versus the have-nots in a heist film à la Die Hard? Why not have a movie where we follow a preacher who officiates gay weddings in a state where gay marriage is illegal? That would be a fascinating premise to explore and I would totally watch a movie based on that and the struggles that the members of the LGBTQIA+ community wishing to be married and the preacher undergo. That’s political, that’s topical, and that’s inventive.
If you want to go an extra step further, why limit yourself to just those 12 hours of the Purge? Set the events the day after the Purge and flashback to the action happening before it during Purge hours. People seem to go back to work, business as usually after each Purge, so wouldn’t that be psychologically debilitating and awkward as all hell if you had to go back to work with a co-worker who just 12 hours ago was banging at your door with a chainsaw? And I know for a fact that such an idea could work because The Purge TV show (yes there is a TV show) attempted such an idea in its second season. It wasn’t flawless, but giving it the tighter focus of a two-hour movie may help alleviate the problems that the show had.
I honestly thought that The Forever Purge was going to go in that direction since Juan and Adela, the two main characters of that film, are illegal immigrants. I thought for the longest time that they came over during the previous Purge and the film would loosely try and explore and legal and social implications of illegal immigration and DREAMers. But no, it didn’t factor in whatsoever into the final film. An interesting premise was there, but DeMonaco and company decided to just leave it on the ground in favor of the standard violent shlock.
I’ve got nothing wrong with violent shlock. We all need our violent shlock in our lives, but five films of the same type of boring, senseless violence isn’t entertaining. The series could have changed and evolved in a meaningful way, but it kept to the same routine time and time again. But hey, the films are still making a profit, so that has to count for something. There were more people in my screening of The Forever Purge than there were at any screening over the past year, so something is working for the series.
But I can’t help but feel it’s a case of diminishing returns. Eventually, people will get bored by the violence on display and look elsewhere. Maybe people will look for more creative horror franchises that give them the thrills and chills they need. If this is truly the end of the Purge franchises, I can’t help but feel that it will go forgotten for a good decade or so until some intrepid filmmakers revive the series and tries to do something bold and unique with it away from its shlock horror roots. I’d watch it. At least they’d attempt something interesting.