Published Jun 06, 2013At this rate, Blumhouse Productions may wind up being regarded as the Hammer Films of the modern age. While none of the movies made under this banner have been flawless, many of them have been effective popcorn horror (the Paranormal Activity franchise, specifically) and a few have flirted with greatness (Insidious, Sinister, Dark Skies). The Purge falls into the latter category.
Sporting the essential components of a Blumhouse picture — high concept, low budget, small cast, few locations — this picture of a nationwide experiment in controlled chaos adds none-too-subtle commentary on social inequity into the mix.
In the not too distant future, the New Founding Fathers of American have developed a cure-all for crime, unemployment and a lagging economy: an annual 12-hour period of sanctioned lawlessness called the Purge. As the opening credits roll, we're treated to horrific surveillance footage of one of these violent culls in progress. This is what families gather to watch on television. In concept, it's a little Hunger Games meets A Clockwork Orange; in execution, it plays more like a fancy version of super-creepy home invasion flick The Strangers.
Ethan Hawke (in his second Blumhouse film, following Sinister) plays James Sandin, a security salesman celebrating a record number of installs in his neighbourhood this year with wife Mary (it's odd to see Cersei Lannister play a victim, but Lena Headey pulls it off) and their two children, the slightly neurotic Charlie (Max Burkholder, Parenthood) and Zoey (Adelaide Kane, Teen Wolf), who, in one of the film's greatest shortcomings, we relate to only through her feelings about her boyfriend.
Since they are upper crust folks — the one percent — the Sandins watch the gruesome events on T.V. from the (assumed) safety of their armoured dwelling. Most of the adults of the nation blindly trust in the word of Big Brother, and even if they don't participate directly, they pretend to see the value of a half-day public pressure valve release where butchering your neighbours isn't only legal, it's encouraged.
Only children too young to have succumbed to moral atrophy question the necessity of this effective system (a point harped upon by background newscasters there to make sure everyone gets the subtext). These segregationist notions of right and wrong are put to the test when Charlie takes pity on a stranger calling for help in the streets, putting his entire family at risk.
The central idea at play in The Purge is fascinating, but the heavy-handed manner in which writer/director James DeMonaco approaches the class warfare allegory goes from a little over-the-top to outright farcical with a pale, polite preppy screaming for the head of the "worthless, homeless swine" the Sandins are accused of harbouring.
Further taking a bit of steam out of the movie's sails is DeMonaco's insistence on filming so many scenes in extreme close-up. It's intended to convey a sense of claustrophobia, but the technique hamstrings the sense of spatiality so essential to creating unease.
Even with a few glaring flaws, The Purge has enough macabre ambition to continue building Blumhouse's reputation for effective small-scale horror. (Universal)