We’re now four films into Blumhouse Productions’ Purge series, and its trappings have become fairly easy to predict. There’s a single night of legalised violence, gangs of deranged people in creepy masks, extreme violence, and a thread of less-than-subtle political satire.
Written and directed by James DeMonaco, the first three Purge films gradually expanded on its dystopian premise. The first movie, released in 2014, was a clever twist on the home invasion thriller, where a wealthy white family saw their fortress-like house beset by lunatics. The second and third movies took us out on the streets, with Frank Grillo guiding us through a night of chaos sanctioned by the US government.
The First Purge, meanwhile, takes us right back to where it all began. Why would America allow for such a strange and horrifying annual event? If nothing else, the insurance claims must be a nightmare to sort out. Directed by series newcomer Gerard McMurray (who previously made the indie drama Burning Sands), The First Purge shows how a perfect storm of financial crisis and political fervour led to what was originally called The Experiment: a social test dreamed up by one Dr May Updale (Marisa Tomei with a blonde perm).
It’s Dr Updale’s belief that a night of lawlessness will help cleanse a nation of its pent-up fury – and in the process, drive down the crime rate to a single-digit percentage. To help prove the point, and funded by a right-wing political group called the New Founding Fathers, Dr Updale launches a test run of what will one day be known as the Purge: a 12-hour suspension of crime in Staten Island, New York.
As the fateful night draws close, McMurray (and DeMonaco, who returns as screenwriter) introduce the players in this debut game of death. There’s a pumped-up drug boss named Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel), who’s not unreasonably fearful that rival gangs will use the night as an opportunity to knock him off his perch. There’s his former lover Nya (Lex Scott Davis), who sternly opposes Dmitri’s pharmaceutical business and leads a street protest against the first Purge. But then there’s Nya’s little brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), a teenager who’s started dealing drugs on a street corner and harbours secret plans to use the Purge for his own murderous ends.
All these characters start the night scattered around Statten Island, and as the deathly siren marks the start of the free-for-all, Dr Updale watches the events unfold from the safety of a darkened control room, the flat-panel screens filling up with images of people roaming around in masks.
Amid the grain and gore of McMurray’s handheld digital photography, there are flashes of a better film struggling to get out of The First Purge. Like the previous movies, this is a mash-up of genres, with its dystopian horror concept applied this time to an urban crime thriller. The largely African-American cast is uniformly decent – Y’Lan Noel’s a convincing anti-hero, and the most interesting character among the ensemble. But as the movie descends into its usual stew of chases and shoot-outs, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that we’ve seen a lot of these scenes before.
Interesting new twists on the standard theme, including contact lenses that allow Dr Updale’s team to track and film their test subjects’ movements, are introduced but never really explored in any depth – ultimately, they just exist to give characters’ eyes an eerie glow. Nor is Marisa Tomei given very much to do as the Purge’s architect; bizarrely, the story treats her as a pawn in a political game rather than partly culpable for all the unfolding bloodshed – though why she thought giving people a licence to pillage and murder wouldn’t have some sort of further-reaching consequence is a mystery.
Like 2016’s Election Year, The First Purge struggles to recapture the pace and suspense of the franchise’s high point, Purge: Anarchy; the final third ups the tempo with some solidly-executed action set-pieces, but the path’s strewn with scenes of drab exposition and on-the-nose dialogue (“We choose to heal or to hurt and you chose the latter”). Oh, and Rotimi Paul, who plays a deranged villain named Skeletor, puts in one of the most distracting, scenery-chewing performances of the year so far.
As a mix of B-movie and blunt-force satire, the Purge franchise remains pretty much unique in current cinema, and The First Purge has just enough on its mind to make it worth seeing. Once again, we’re given an outlandish portrait of a country’s social and political divides, and its better moments are quite chilling. But after four years and four movies, the sirens, masks and slogans are also beginning to lose their impact.
Early in The First Purge, we see a poster for the forthcoming Halloween reboot on a character’s bedroom wall. It’s a moment of glaring self-promotion for Blumhouse, certainly, but also a cautionary reminder of how time and familiarity can strip a franchise of its menace.
The First Purge is out now in UK cinemas.