Fans of THE PURGE franchise know one thing is for certain: If you are looking for subtlety, look elsewhere. With much carnage and fanfare THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR carries the torch of its cinematic lineage with another bloodbath.
Situated in the same slightly dystopian American future as the previous two films THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR ups the stakes by engaging with both politics and religion. After losing her entire family during Purge night 18 years ago, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is running for president on an anti-Purge platform, and she is gaining momentum. As we saw in the previous two films, the Purge is a racist and classist night which was designed to control the poor and minority populations. Only affluent families can afford to build their homes into fortresses, and those without homes are merely lambs waiting for the slaughter. Roan knows this, is angered by it, and is rallying the 99 percent to rise up against it with their votes. Predictably she is running against a rich old white guy, Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), who thinks that Purging is his God-given American right. When it is announced that no one, not even high ranking government officials, is exempt from the Purge this year, Roan knows to kick her own security into high gear. She is target number one for these bloodthirsty wingnuts, and her head of security Leo (Frank Grillo) will stop at nothing to protect her.
The first Purge film made it personal. We saw one family’s drama during a Purge night that did not go as well as they wanted. The second, THE PURGE: ANARCHY, showed us what Purge night was like outside of the protected, suburban fortress. We saw the grimy city streets, and even more disgustingly, we saw how the rich citizens entertained themselves with the pain and suffering of the less fortunate. These films turn a mirror back on to the worst aspects of American greed and pride and make us face the worst parts of this country. THE PURGE is not subtle or nuanced. Technically a satire, it goes so far as to rub our faces in the shit that we have crapped out over the years. It does so with really fun and inventive kills and great gore effects, so that we’ll pay attention to its message.
Building on the racial and socioeconomic themes from the previous films, THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR also introduces religion and politics. Most notably, it marries those two ideas in the same way that the evangelical Republicans have tried their best to conjoin church and state in the real world. Seeing the insistence in killing other innocent people in the name of both nation and God is unnerving and a little too close for comfort to our current state of politics. Owens leads an annual Purge Mass to commemorate the beginning of the annual night of lawlessness. This means he not only actively participates, he speaks from the pulpit about the ways that the Purge benefits our souls.
After Roan’s safe house is compromised, she and Leo hit the road in search of shelter for the night. They thankfully encounter a group of kind souls who not only offer to help, but they are supporters of Roan’s campaign and know that saving her is the only way to finally put an end to this sanctioned massacre.
Don’t let all of the politics and morality fool you. THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR still has some of the best horror set pieces of the year. As our left-leaning gang is making their way through the city we run in to more scenes of murderous mayhem than I could keep track of. There are a group of fairy-like women, frolicking under a tree filling with men hanging dead from their necks. We also get to see a giant guillotine being used down a back alley in the heart of Washington D.C. And if you’ve ever wanted to see a group of screaming torture victims, strapped to the hood of a moving car which is being driven by a group of mace-wielding men in disco ball masks, then you are in luck! Heck, there is even a group of international Purge tourists dressed like Abe Lincoln, Uncle Sam, and Lady Liberty serving their own version of American horrors around town.
And herein lies the beauty of THE PURGE. None of these horror vignettes deserve to be the focus of an entire film. They are merely fun and superficial images that have their strongest impact by remaining brief. The fleeting glimpse of these monsters do not need back stories because their lack of context adds to the terror they create. THE PURGE, led by writer/director James DeMonaco, knows that horror lies in brevity and respects that. Rather than trying to flesh out every single detail, he leaves a lot to our imagination and the world of the Purge is richer for it.
I bring this up, because the dignity of brevity explains my conflicted feelings behind the main featured antagonists in the film. The second time we see the gang it is glorious. A group of teenage girls emerge from a car which has been completely covered in white Christmas lights. They are wearing lingerie, bloodied masks, and carrying rhinestoned machine guns. The film slows down to give is a little more time to soak in this rich imagery while Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” fills the street. This is everything I ever want out of a horror film, in a single bloody and indulgent moment. Unfortunately, the girls then open their mouths and we realize we have met them before. The first time these girls are introduced, it is the day before the Purge and these girls are in their civilian clothes. Dressed up in their Lolita-style school uniforms the girls try to shoplift from the deli that will later be shelter for Roan. They are entitled, spoiled, and snarling. The confrontation with the shop owner gets aggressive very quickly and we see these little shits for what they really are. When these jerks come back to the deli on Purge night for revenge it is expected, but something about their unchanging attitude rubbed me the wrong way. I have already seen their monstrous side. I already know these little snots are bad kids, so their Purging does not add any dimension to their characters or to the world of the film.
I am far more interested in being surprised. For example, I want to see little old ladies beating their neighbors to death with their canes. Those brief horror scenes we see quickly throughout the film bring me those surprises. This gang is the most visually satisfying, but the least intriguing.
Even I can look past my nitpicking here to admit that I enjoyed the hell out of this film. THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR is as subtle as a brick to the head but it is brilliant.