I recently sat down and watched “The First Purge” for the first time. Having seen the other three, I tossed it on the screen, expecting it to be a decent prequel. I did not expect what I was about to see. But first, let’s talk about the franchise as a whole. Throughout four films, Josh DeMonaco gives us a look into a futuristic United States of America. This isn’t a nation with flying cars, houses among the clouds, or technological enhancements that benefit the greater society. This is a nation that has become highly militarized, even more polarized in belief that previously seen, and a nation that’s bloodlust has grown insatiable. In 2014, following a massive economic crash and widespread social unrest, a political organization rises to the forefront and is rapidly voted into office. This group is known as the NFFA, or the New Founding Fathers of America. This organization establishes a totalitarian government, complete with a police state, under the guise of preserving democracy, freedom and the values of the United States.
Part of this preservation comes in the form of stabilization of American society, and thus The Purge is born. The 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified, establishing a 12-hour event starting at 7pm on March 21 and lasting until 7am on March 22, wherein all crime, including murder, is legal. It is through this Purge that by allowing society to fall into deviancy and crime for a short window, it is released from their systems, and allows them to live as law abiding citizens for the remainder of the year. Within the film series, the Purge has resulted in crime and unemployment rates plummeting to 1% and a strong economy.
Throughout the series of films, DeMonaco gives us pieces of this history to place together ourselves, seeing how this idea has warped into something even more sinister than initially conceived. This is where The First Purge comes in. Taking place in 2014, the New Founding Fathers of America sanction a social experiment on Staten Island, where every road in and out is closed, and all crime is legal for 12 hours. Citizens who remain on the island during this experiment are given $5,000 if they survive, with those who participate offered additional compensation. The goal is to see the crime rate in the greater area fall below 1%, and the general populace kept in control following the experiment.
However, when the participation levels are much lower than anticipated, the NFFA manipulates the experiment to overhaul the numbers. In particular, it trucks in mercenaries and gangs to pose as mobs of citizens. The underlying reason for this is that the Purge to the NFFA is less about a societal release, and more used as a method of artificial population control, as the unemployed poor in slum neighborhoods as well as some working-class people are usually the main targets. The film follows a group of residents around a popular projects area in Staten Island, a predominantly minority occupied building being systematically wiped out. The NFFA uses the attraction of money to prey on the citizens on the island, and then uses these death squads to go door to door and eliminate the lower-class population, predominantly made up of minority groups. Due to the popularity and participation levels, the film ends with the NFFA announcing that they will be expanding to a nationwide purge within the next year.
It was at this point in the film that I was absolutely blown away. How did a series that started with a home invasion thriller spin into a political critique on our xenophobic and nationalist tendencies as a nation? In the original film and its sequel, we witnessed the point of view from an affluent family in their own home on Purge Night, and then a couple stuck on the streets trying to survive the night. We then saw political motifs forming in The Purge: Election Year, taking place in 2040 and showing a candidate running for office that ran on an anti-purge platform, sparking the rule change in that years’ purge that removed immunity from elected officials for the first time since it’s inception.
What DeMonaco gives us is a look into just how easy it is for a fascist state to rise out of turmoil. How easy it is to point a finger at those with less than you, those who look different than you, or those with different values than you and say “Them. They are the reason this is happening.” Even if it is outlandish and crazy, there are some that will listen. And just like that, it snowballs. What really hit me when viewing this film is the similarities between DeMonaco’s 2014 United States and our own present-day United States. The NFFA-esque attitudes that have boiled over on the political right, posing as protectors of American values, while just draping nationalist intentions. The demagogic figureheads that have risen up to criticize entire groups of people for financial instability, rise in crime rates, and spikes in unemployment. The mobs that were brought in to purge this lower income area resemble a majority of the nationalist, alt-right hate groups we see in our world today, targeting the same areas with violence. Most of all, it struck me how easy this widespread violence would be to swallow as a nation. The culture we have created that is obsessed with firearms, violence, and the “rights” we have to defend ourselves against anyone and anything we deem a threat.
Most of all, it struck me how a horror movie can still hit home in this day and age. The film is great from strictly an entertainment standpoint, falling in line with a number of action film motifs, namely Escape From New York and The Raid: Redemption. But the political baggage that this film, as well as the other three in conjunction, carries is phenomenal. It is most definitely in the conversation when it comes to black horror, featuring a predominantly black cast, struggling against a system that is avidly stacked against them. It creates an important entry, filled with symbolism that resonates, trucks of people in Klan outfits, mercenaries with neo-nazi symbols emblazoned on their gear, crowds of white men carrying torches. Experiments forced upon minority populations harkens back to Tuskeegee. Black characters not knowing where the violence will appear, but knowing for sure that it will appear. It all hits home.
Political messages in horror is no new thing, but it is always appreciated when seen. Gothic literature was written as a reaction to the movement of Enlightenment. Godzilla and most kaiju films stemmed from the fear of the atomic age and what effects that would bring upon the world. Films like Night of The Living Dead, They Live, The Crazies, Get Out, Jacobs Ladder, all of these contain loads of social commentary that could keep any graduate student busy for years dissecting. Because we can’t separate ourselves from society, art is always in conversation with the culture or society that produced it, either in agreement or opposition.
It reminds us that even when we use mediums like this to escape the problems staring us in the face daily, they find a way back into our heads. The eerie feeling I got watching this film and not really being able to distinguish a lot of the set pieces from the actual news these days really resonated with me. From a franchise that has built upon itself with every new entry, I am excited to see where this all ends up and what message it is going to carry.