There are far worse things in the world than a mediocre horror film. However, in a genre equally heralded for its very best and very worst, being average, predictable, or run of the mill is just as bad as being boring or poorly made. Home invasion horrors tend to fall into this trap of mediocrity because of the limits of the structure. You can only spend so much time riffing on the characters and premise before you have to put the cast in danger. Then you need to reach feature running time with a cat and mouse game that often puts the protagonists below the mental capacity of a mouse. This is where the frightened family separates in the dark with flashlights and weapons they've never wielded before, hunting for the invaders while praying they never meet them face to face. The last act is the confrontation that is usually the best part of the film.
Sadly, for all its grand ideas about American culture and the therapeutic powers of catharsis in the Greek sense of the word, The Purge falls into the same traps as most home invasion horrors. The seemingly intelligent characters you grew to care for disappear for most of the middle of the film, briefly resurfacing for the action at the end. It's feels like a greater disappointment than it really is because the premise is so strong.
The year is 2022. The New Founding Fathers swept into office a few years before and instituted a brilliant plan to control crime in America. Once a year, for twelve hours, all emergency services will be suspended. Murder and all other crimes are legal and people are free to use any consumer grade weapon to fulfill their blood lust. Crime is down, unemployment is practically non-existent, and the economy is booming the other 364 days of the year.
Writer/director James DeMonoco has excellent instincts. That pitch, right there, is one of the more creative horror concepts to come out in years. It's dystopian without the sci-fi elements, like Series 7: The Contenders, only with total anarchy rather than regulated chaos. It's a frightening concept that does wonders to bolster up the far weaker and more predictable plot of the film.
The Sandin Family is tense on the night of the annual Purge. James, the father, is upset that his kids are starting to rebel against authority. Zoey, his teenage daughter, is dating an 18 year old boy when she's much younger. Charlie, his preteen son, is obsessed with surveillance and questioning the necessity of the Purge. Mary, his wife, is struggling to hold things together at home while James earns his living selling state of the art security to everyone in town. The children go too far in their rebellion, putting the entire family in danger of being victims of the Purge.
DeMonoco is way too heavy-handed with the foreshadowing in the film. All of the tension that should peak later in the film reaches its boiling point before the Purge begins. Once the house is locked down and the players are placed, there's nowhere to go but the big battle. You know it's coming. There's no avoiding it. Yet for 40 minutes, the family devolves into mental goldfish, forgetting everything that happened in ten second intervals and repeating the same mistakes again and again.
It becomes frustrating because so much of the film is working. The cinematography is excellent. The sound mixing and scoring are superb for this genre. The character design of the young Purge participants threatening the Sandin family is utterly terrifying. The bits and pieces of their shtick shown through security feeds is the scariest material in the film.
Yet, despite all its faults, The Purge offers a really great sense of satisfaction in the last act. These characters (partly by their own stupidity, mainly by society) are put through hell to satisfy a bizarre ritual of sanctioned ultraviolence. It's hard to resist cheering the family on when the battle begins.
The battle in the third act between the Sandins and the Purgers is brilliantly executed. It's gritty and unpredictable until the final twist which is telegraphed very obviously in the beginning of the film. A lot of misdirection is used during the battle. Thee scenes cycle between family members until someone is forced to react to the intruders, disorienting the viewer in the best way possible. It's a great directorial conceit executed to perfection in the last moments of the story.
If the whole film played like the final act, The Purge would be a masterpiece; it doesn't. It's really troubled. The first act is passable for the genre but nothing novel beyond the underlying device. The second act is interminable and insufferable in its exploration of bad horror cliches. The Purge falls for all the traps that doom most home invasion horrors, but achieves some small sense of redemption with a really strong finale that will leave any horror fan cheering.
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