"The Purge" movie series centers on a dystopian (and not-too-distant) reconstituted U.S. in which citizens get to "release the beast" for 12 hours once a year – killing at will without fear of punishment.
The goal is to rid the country of undesirables (read: the poor) and allow the populace to get violence out of its system during one annual gore fest in which only the fast and furious (and wealthy) survive. But the most elusive beast may be the series' politics.
Shots taken at the gun industry and the One Percent suggest the filmmakers are firing from the left. But the thing that flowed most liberally in 2013's "The Purge" and 2014's "The Purge: Anarchy" was blood.
Now "The Purge: Election Year" arrives Friday, perhaps to make a timely statement – or at least to leave no doubt the low-budget horror series is a cut above ordinary slasher flicks.
The first installment proved a surprise draw, with its story of one family’s struggle for survival set against a tableau of a purportedly Utopian society built on mayhem sanctioned by the “new founding fathers.” The movie unspooled with an air of constant tension and a whiff of allegory that recalled a low-budget game-changer of the 1960s: the original "Night of the Living Dead."
"The Purge: Anarchy" presented a wider array of characters than the original. More significantly, viewers got a chilling glimpse into the mechanics behind the night of bloodshed. "Anarchy" portrayed government leaders as provocateurs and puppet masters, egging on cowardly masked marauders and its own police-state forces. The rich, meanwhile, paid big bucks for the thrill of the kill, a la "The Most Dangerous Game." In this case, however, the well-heeled were aided by night-vision goggles.
"Anarchy," which improved on its predecessor in quality and box office take, also succeeded in offering compelling heroes – including Carmelo Johns (Michael K. Williams), a charismatic African-American leader armed with 1960s rhetoric and 2020s firepower. But the mysterious Sarge, a would-be avenger turned savior, emerged as the most memorable character.
Sarge (played with brooding intensity by Frank Grillo) returns in the new film to protect an idealistic senator (Elizabeth Mitchell) who lost her family in a long-ago purge. She wants to end the practice and become president. But escaping purge night in Washington might be tougher than getting elected.
There’s nothing subtle, of course, about “The Purge,” whose latest installment arrives on the Fourth of July weekend as the nation faces a historic election battle focused on competing views of our identity, with much of the fight over immigration.
“The Purge: Election Year” lands with the promise of offering another disturbing horror show that at least attempts to make audiences think about a beast that has no name, but seems all too familiar.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.