When the history of the rise of 21st-century American socialism is written, I suppose the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the House of Representatives might merit a passing mention. But the Rosa Luxemburg of the Bronx will be a mere footnote compared with the most important radical signifier of our time: the remarkable box-office success, across four films in six years and counting, of the low-budget horror-thrillers about the Purge.
The conceit behind the Purge series is basically Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery” as reimagined by a far-left activist who’s also an aficionado of bad 1970s horror. In some near-future America, domestic peace and tranquility have been restored through a relatively simple expedient: Once a year, for the twelve hours from sunset to sunrise, all laws are suspended and every crime is legal. Kill whom you want, rob whom you want, loot and vandalize as you please — and then when the sun rises you can return to bourgeois peace, your bloodlust slaked, the savage within satisfied for at least another 364 days.
The first Purge movie, just five years old now, employed this conceit in the service of a fairly conventional home-intruder thriller, in which a gated-community snob played by Ethan Hawke has to defend his suburban brood against a gang of masked intruders when his security system lets him down. But even in the first film it was clear that the creator of this franchise, an Engels for our time named James DeMonaco, had a political gospel as well as a zeal for mayhem. And as the story has expanded across The Purge: Anarchy and then The Purge: Election Year and now (albeit with a different director) this summer’s installment, The First Purge, the revolutionary message has become ever more explicit, the to-the-barricades theme steadily more overt.
You see, the Purge is the creation of the New Founding Fathers of America, a political sect that resembles the Republican party if the GOP were really, really into human sacrifice — if the country-club wing liked to murder proles at its garden parties, if the Tea Party wanted to club the homeless to death rather than just cut food stamps, if the religious Right guillotined people at ecumenical midnight Masses, if the NRA thought the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun was to let him shoot as many people as possible once a year. And the NFFA’s goal, the series gradually makes clear, isn’t really some psychosocial release of unhealthily repressed emotions. Rather, the true point of the Purge is ruthless social-darwinist extermination, in which the surplus population — the homeless, the poor, racial minorities — is graciously given the chance to kill each other off. And if they don’t oblige? Well, then you send in soldiers and white supremacists to do it.
That’s the plot twist (apologies for the spoiler) in the latest installment, which flashes us back to the inception of the Purge — a time very much like our own (hint, hint . . .), complete with circling cable-news cameras and CNN’s Van Jones doing interviews, in which there’s been another financial crisis and the country has plunged into a depression. But instead of Donald Trump it’s the NFFA riding populism into power, and having run through all their economic-policy ideas (mostly trade wars, one presumes) without success they turn to a psychologist played by Marisa Tomei, who’s a true believer in the high-minded theory of the Purge — that it will exorcise inner demons and yada yada yada, bringing peace to people’s minds and hearts and by extension to the streets.
So under her guidance, they choose a test site, Staten Island, and offer the locals a cool $5,000 if they’ll stay in their neighborhoods while the night of lawlessness is going on. Sadly the white Trump-voting parts of Staten Island don’t factor into the story; instead we follow four African Americans from the projects — an anti-Purge activist (Lex Scott Davis), her goodhearted drug-kingpin ex-boyfriend (Y’lan Noel), her hapless-innocent younger brother (Joivan Wade), and a true psycho named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who’s the main instigator of mayhem.
Or at least he’s the main instigator for the first half of the movie, in which the purging doesn’t go as planned: The psychos slash some people up and some drug dealers try to settle scores, but overall one night isn’t enough time for the façade of civilization to collapse, even in the projects. So the NFFA heavies, disappointed with the body count, ditch Tomei’s experimental method — to her horror, because she’s a scientist — and take matters into their own hands, sending in soldiers dressed as white supremacists (or white supremacists with military-grade weapons, it’s not always clear) to make the evening into a bloody, population-culling success.
All of this has entertainment value if you’re entertained by propaganda about how America’s conservative party (and perhaps especially its current president) is just one dire recession away from offing black and poor people in huge numbers. But as the political allegory passes from the merely obvious to the thudding and relentless, the more genuinely horrifying idea — which is about the lure of evil to ordinary people, not the concentrated threat of far-right villainy — behind the Purge steadily evaporates.
If “The Lottery” ended with the reveal that the annual stoning was dreamed up by a cabal of local capitalists and fundamentalists and granite salesmen, wouldn’t it be robbed of its dark power? I think so — and in much the same way, The First Purge and the series that it (perhaps) caps off become less powerful the moment it’s revealed that Tomei’s theory is wrong and that you need mercenaries to come in and do the killing because people won’t murder their neighbors on their own.
I don’t begrudge Trump-era left-wingers their bogeymen, or the catharsis (dare one say the purge . . . ?) that these movies obviously supply. But in their desire to start the revolution, the minds behind The Purge have lost sight of a profound horror-movie truth: There are far scarier things than your political enemies waiting for you in the dark.