HomeMoviesThe First Purge: Political Horror Done (Mostly) Right

The First Purge: Political Horror Done (Mostly) Right

The First Purge
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

With every new entry in The Purge franchise, the series has grown more violent, and more political. But going back to the beginning of this fictional hellscape has helped produce the series’ most gruesome, heavy-handed installment yet and – strangely enough – it (mostly) works.

As a refresher: The Purge is set a few years in the future. America’s crime rate is impossibly low, unemployment is virtually nonexistent, and life seems perfect. This is all because of a national “holiday” where all crime (including murder) is legal for 12 hours. But, as the sequels peel back the layers behind this sadistic event, it’s become clear that this holiday is merely an excuse for the rich to target and eliminate the poor, who can’t afford hi-tech weaponry or security systems to protect themselves.

In The First Purge, we see how the titular proceeding began, centering on a variety of potential victims in Staten Island, where the government will be running a trial purge, with participants gaining money as an incentive to stay and take part in the night. These characters include a political activist who wants to stop The Purge (Lex Scott Davis), a drug dealer being targeted by his power-hungry cadets (Y’lan Noel), a single mother who desperately needs the money (Luna Lauren Velez), and a drug addict hell-bent on making the most of the night (Rotimi Paul).

Yes, the concept behind The Purge is silly. There, we got that out of the way, let’s move on. This franchise is a fable, not meant to evoke the real world. Instead, it uses its over-the-top premise to raise awareness of actual problems in America. And while the way it does this may be as subtle to a sledgehammer to the face, it still aims to start a dialogue amongst viewers instead of just shoving gore and jump scares into their faces.

The First Purge is particularly blunt in its messaging, but also quite noble in its aims. Issues like income inequality, the militarization of police in economically struggling areas, and the terror felt by marginalized communities in Trump’s America are all given time in the spotlight. They’re all explored bluntly but sensitively through a horror movie’s lens.

Meanwhile, the villains include Russian mercenaries who help a conservative political party, a man who sets a trap so that he can grab women by the pussy during Purge night, and literal white supremacists. While one moment, involving a hate crime carried out in a church, feels like a step too far, these moments generally work as open-acknowledgments to the audience that yes, this movie is a fantasy, but it is informed by your real fears about America in 2018.

Where The First Purge – and the franchise as a whole – tends to go wrong is its overindulgence in gruesome violence, to a point where it starts to develop tonal issues. The first film in the franchise was more of a chamber piece built around tension. The sequels have all been incredibly explicit with their violence, never quite reaching torture porn status, but still feeling more brutal than your average horror movie, especially when coupled with its real-world subtext. Two sequences in particular drag on, with the camera lingering on bloody close-ups and shots of terrified victims, completely removing any entertainment value from the film.

Luckily, however, The First Purge gets things back on track near the end, where it finds its political heart and manages to produce some badass action beats. Y’lan Noel emerges as a certifiable action hero here, stripping down to a tank top, pants, and rifle holster for the last 20 minutes, in a welcome call back to Die Hard. Watching him take on an army of white supremacists almost singlehandedly is genuinely thrilling, but director Gerard McMurray throws in elements of horror and suspense, jumping between multiple genres seamlessly.

But it’s not all explosions and jump scares; the film’s best moment finds two characters bonding over their shared anguish about America’s current state, and how tired they are of fighting for equality and justice. But, by the end of the film, they feel renewed in their desire to defend the disadvantaged, and it’s downright inspiring.

Where The Purge can go from here is unclear. The Purge: Election Year seemingly wrapped up the franchise, and any prequels after The First Purge would seem redundant. And while the forthcoming Purge TV series sounds like an interesting experiment, it’s hard to believe the series can work on a weekly basis, let alone produce multiple seasons worth of content. But, as it stands, The First Purge feels like a fitting conclusion to the franchise – until, of course, America thinks of some new way to inspire the horror genre.

Overall rating: 6 out of 10

The First Purge is playing in theaters nationwide.

Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor is the TV editor at The Pop Break, along with being one of the site's awards show experts. When he's not at the nearest movie theater, he can be found bingeing the latest Netflix series, listening to synth pop, or updating his Oscar predictions. A Rutgers grad, he also works in academic publishing. Follow him on Twitter @MattNotMatthew1.

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