The first Purge was about other people. In the ingeniously claustrophobic 2013 film, an upper-middle class family is horrified to find their neighbors and fellow country-club members have ganged up on them during the titular annual free-for-all, "purifying" themselves of their pent-up aggression and deviance by prancing on the front lawn with chainsaws. The least political of the three films thus released in the franchise, it preyed on a more basic human frailty: paranoia, amplified by the suburban stresses of keeping up with the Jones'. We only hear of the all-out chaos that descends on neighborhoods that can't afford fancy security systems and armored gates. Our only evidence of it is a stranded black man (played by Edwin Hodge, and the only character to appear in all three films) whom our protagonists take in; their harboring of him is what incites the WASP-on-WASP murderfest.
The Purge: Anarchy saw the franchise's budget increase as its protagonists' dramatically decreased. Not a sequel so much as an expansion, Anarchy is set on the streets of Los Angeles and follows several parties who find themselves in open water when the Purge siren sounds. Released from the suburban bubble of the first film, we see more of what the Purge means in this near-future dystopia — how different groups purge, why purge, upon whom, and where. Most of it involves rubber masks decapitation. What was subtext in the first film became the text of the second: the Purge exists not to cleanse Americans of their sins, but to cleanse America of its poor and disenfranchised—who conveniently, often happen to be non-white. The timing couldn't be more brutal: about a month after its release, Ferguson, Missouri erupted into violence following the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
The satire isn't particularly subtle or sharp, but it's deeply effective
The Purge series is described by Wikipedia as "social science fiction action horror films," but Anarchy is when "satire" undoubtedly could be added to that word salad. The Purge's satire is not of a particularly subtle or sharp variety, but it's deeply effective. From the very start, its true demons have nearly unanimously been moneyed white people. Its the over-the-top depiction of bloodthirsty blondes decked out in Brooks Brothers and Lilly Pulitzer, sharpening their machetes while spouting sanctimonious pseudo-religious nonsense about their rights is absurd and beside the point — the evils of privilege are the banal kind, after all — but also darkly cathartic. It's not a flaw that the Purge itself would be untenable as a piece of legislation, nor that its liturgy sounds like it was written by an overdramatic 12-year-old who went to mass once and was spooked forever ("Blessed be our New Founding Fathers for letting us Purge and cleanse our souls. Blessed be America, a nation reborn.") It's crucial to the film's messaging — the powers that be use religion and fake economic theory as twin pillars on which to prop up their agenda of violence. In the trailer for the afraid-of-the-dark horror film Lights Out, an intertitle reads "You were right all along." It could have just as easily been the tagline for The Purge films.
The franchise is not shy about its intentions; we know what writer-director James DeMonaco is up to at this point, especially with the cheerfully malevolent "I Purged" ad spots for The Purge: Election Year, the third film in the franchise, out this Friday. But after yet another wave of gun violence in America, one might think this latest film would be the bleakest of all propositions for mindless summer viewing. The real flaw of these films, after all, and the point most frequently cited by their detractors, is their inherent hypocrisy: condemning a culture of violence while actively adding to it with every blade swing and gunshot. This may be a time-tested method of exploitation films, but it doesn't make it any more palatable.
For what it's worth, Election Year actually depicts the least purging of any of the franchise's films thus far. Chalk it up to general wokeness in the Purge-verse, what we are to understand is a growing sentiment in the wake of Anarchy's bloody climactic uprising. The people are starting to get wise to the machinations of the New Founding Fathers; they hold anti-Purge love-ins and speak openly about how insurance companies and the NRA profit off the mayhem. Such activity would have been seen as un-American in the first film, but times are changing — a presidential election is approaching, and the front-runner, Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is running on an anti-Purge platform. She's a pretty, peppy, bespectacled firebrand, an anti-gun Sarah Palin, if you can imagine such a thing.
That doesn't mean that we don't see a fair share of rubber masks. A fun new twist this time around is the rising trend of "Purge tourism," foreigners flocking to America to take part in our grandest tradition. (Those hooligans running around in Lincoln and Washington masks in the trailer? Russians.) Of the traditional Purge participants, the most screen time is given to a group of vicious teen girls whose most violent ambition, despite their bloody masks and chainsaws, is to steal a candy bar from a protagonists' bodega. Though they're given the same ominous music cues and dutch-angle villain shots, they seem comparatively harmless, especially after we've seen a hint of the backrooms where the New Founding Fathers plot their revenge on Roan. The teens are just powerless, frustrated kids, poking around a convenience store, acting bigger than they feel. In the end, their fate is the same as their more well-behaved neighbors.
But Election Year is more interested in a rising war of ideologies than the gonzo-violent squabbles between civilians. If the first film was about our neighbors, and the second about our cities, then it logically follows that the third is about our leaders. The main action concerns a plot to assassinate Roan, and the ragtag team who shuttle her around DC while a gang of white supremacist mercs tails them. That means that this Purge resembles a political action thriller in the vein of White House Down more than anything else, with brief interludes for Axe-Wielding Statue of Liberty and the blood-streaked steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The bludgeoning satire is still there, but there are fewer and fewer moments of chaos for it to really shine, until the film's chillingly hilarious climax on a church altar. No matter how one-dimensionally evil the victims, the image of our protagonist shooter opening fire on a church is still a hard one to take — until we realize that the entire congregation is armed to the teeth as well, and any excuse to fire their weapons is a gift to them.
The Purge films are fueled by broad stereotypes, and not just of the killer WASPS at the root of its evil. Election Year is no different: there's the saintly Chicano store clerk, the "oh hell naw"-ing of his black boss, the quips about "waffles and pussy." If anything, this broadness is its tether to more mainstream non-multi-hyphenate horror, and the Purge films are quickly becoming a new class of zombie film, with DeMonaco, who has written and directed all three, making a clear move to establish himself as a twenty-first century George Romero. Both directors stumbled upon a powerful metaphor for societal alienation and paranoia. But while Romero's zombies had the excuse of being, well, zombies, the sentient humans of The Purge are far from supernatural.
Election Year comes off feeling like a far more optimistic film than its forebears — if we band together and resist the violence being peddled to us, it tells us, we can end the cycle of oppression. But if DeMonaco wanted to get super real, he'd have Charlene get bought out by the New Founding Fathers and backtrack on all her idealism as soon as she takes office in the next film. There will most certainly be a next film, by the way, but whether or not the Purge itself lives on is up for debate. From what we see in the final moments of the film, and what we know from our present-day American experience, it certainly isn't a prerequisite for horror.
The Purge: Election year opens in wide release this Friday, July 1.