For contemporary filmmakers, perhaps the most lingering cinematic forebear of both contagion and invasion traditions is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Across the years, critics and viewers have attached all sorts of sociopolitical subtexts to the film, but none of those affects the essential circumstances of the plot: Reanimated corpses are trying to get into this house. We don’t know what caused them. We don’t agree with each other on how to deal with them. Will we survive this night? For more than four decades, no political or social winds of change have reduced or fundamentally altered the impact of the film. Such sturdiness is an outgrowth of Romero’s bold view of the unknown.
The biggest missed opportunity in DeMonaco’s failure to explore the unknown of horror or horror of the unknown is in the ability to say something—anything—insightful about the nature of evil. Deliver Us from Evil, Scott Derrickson’s 2014 exercise in adding a dash of horror to the buddy cop/police procedural genres, is a middling movie. Yet it includes a discussion of “primary” and “secondary” evil that contributes to a thought-provoking third act.
Despite many flaws, the moment in the film when the monstrous villain is convicted of his “secondary” evil through exposure of its “primary” source is undeniable in its power to affect the way viewers conceptualize horrible acts of man. Also, that experience within the film turns the examination inward to ask the protagonist (and by extension, the audience) about his own capacity for transgression. Thus in a roundabout way, Derrickson’s film inverts the question of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2012). Rather than ponder, “What is this love that loves us?” Deliver Us from Evil asks, “What is this hate that hates us?” It’s a big question.
DeMonaco, on the other hand, presents evil as an economic force, plain and simple. The “secondary” activity is the wilding/wrongdoing. Yet that is neatly activated and deactivated by the government’s sirens, which signal the beginning and ending of the Purge holiday. The films’ quasi-religious content, invoking God and blessings and cleansing, is especially puzzling. It has no root within the films’ moral equation, which turns entirely on money and weapons. In The Purge: Anarchy, the members of a wealthy family collectively pray before killing Sanchez’ martyr father in a ritual sacrifice. But the object of their prayers seems to be the Purge itself, a holiday turned deity.
The sacrifice of the martyred father in The Purge (2012)
Get Ready to Bleed
The final problem with the Purge series is its duplicitous attitude toward this worship of violence. I don’t doubt the sincerity of DeMonaco’s stated concerns about the violence in American society. On a certain level, there is cause for alarm. In recent months, reports and/or footage of the so-called “knock-out game” violence, the mob beating of Steven Utash, the roadside beating of Marlene Pinnock by a police officer, and the eventually fatal chokehold used by a group of officers against Eric Garner, have contributed to an impression of endemic violence from coast to coast. Much of this violence is retributive in nature or evokes a sense of lawlessness, qualities that align with The Purge‘s vision of contemporary American aggression.
However, DeMonaco doesn’t appear to have considered the negative effects of presenting and aestheticizing that sort of violence for his audience. The first film begins with security camera images of shootings and beatings, virtually indistinguishable from the real-life surveillance footage that often accompanies reports of violence in the news. In the film, these clips are attributed to “Purge-Feeds”, which enable an audience of observers to gauge the “success” of the holiday. By grounding the violence of his barely veiled speculative fiction in the visible evidence of the here-and-now, he risks merging the two and inciting an audience beyond the walls of the cinema.
To return briefly to some earlier, contrasting examples: Consider The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games. Both occur in story-worlds that are (in significant and recognizable ways) not our own. Yet both have managed to raise questions about participation in violence that could be applied to the conditions of the real world/nation. The Hunger Games reinforces the value of compassion, even in the heightened context of a kill-or-be-killed playing field.
In The Walking Dead, the arc involving Dale and his argument to not let hopeless conditions drain the group of its humanity, ends violently. But the presence of such perspectives, and the philosophical discussion they create among viewers, elevate The Walking Dead to something more than a weekly exhibition of blood-and-guts.
For the characters of The Purge, however, there is no use in trying to avoid participation in violence, because DeMonaco is a filmmaker that does not think beyond bloodshed. Following the observed violence of the Purge-Feeds and the invasion of a safeguarded home, Sandin has a brief conversation with the unfortunate stranger/invader. He offers the man a range of exactly two options: die like a man or die like a coward. Within minutes, Sandin and his wife are no longer making offers, but instead sadistically torturing the man.
A subsequent reversal of behavior (based on his kids’ reactions to the violence) finds Sandin changing opponents, rising to be the hero, and attempting to ward off the privileged villains/invaders. The ease with which Sandin releases his own “beast” separates him from the lineage of invasion/contagion film protagonists who at least try to resist succumbing to the behavior that separates “us” and “them”.
And in the process of so easily and quickly activating his character’s supposed need to kill, DeMonaco encourages his audience to cheer the ultra-violence of Sandin’s confrontation with all of the invaders, rich and poor. Incitement is joined by excitement. In fact, four separate moments of peril climax with last-minute rescues involving weapons. DeMonaco, so critical of gun culture in his interviews, nonetheless culminates his movie with repeated (gratuitous, even) instances of the saving power of gunfire. It’s a pro-gun movie with anti-gun marketing.
There is another way to tell this story. Funny Games (1997), written and directed by Michael Haneke, is an invasion film that drains all excitement from the subgenre. Haneke explores the bafflement, dread, and helplessness of a family unexpectedly without freedom in its own home. The defining moment of the film subverts the fantasy of retribution that movies often perpetuate.
Without spoiling the scene, suffice it to say the audience is punished for its rapt desire to see someone—even a villain—blown away by gunfire onscreen. So Funny Games is a movie about cruelty. And Haneke’s didacticism could be considered cruel. But no reasonable viewer would mistake Funny Games for an endorsement of cruelty, because the writer/director is deeply critical of the thirst for violence, specifically in movies.
The latest installment of The Purge becomes a rallying cry for murderous vengeance. Yes, the “guns save lives” message from the first movie reappears here as Sanchez and her daughter are saved from would-be captors. As an event of the plot, this is unimaginative, not to mention contradictory given DeMonaco’s criticism of guns, but it poses no significant moral or ethical quandary. The characters are in danger, and then they’re not. Repeat.
Rather, the larger problem arrives with the revolutionary character Carmelo and his status as the film’s foremost source of moral authority. Though DeMonaco’s script doesn’t allow the character to ever gain any dimensions beyond the flat characterization of a YouTube agitator, his function within the plot becomes more important as events transpire.
At first, he’s in the background, occasionally moving to the front of the story world as the inspiration for young would-be activists such as Eva’s daughter. But by the end of the film, he and his militia storm the shooting party to save the lower class and exterminate the upper class. Carmelo says, “Change only comes when their blood spills!” and “Get ready to bleed, rich bitches!”
How is an audience supposed to respond to such a call to action? Form militias and kill the wealthy? DeMonaco has said and done so much to announce the ideological aims of his films and their adjacency to the contemporary American political landscape that it’s not possible to separate the entertainment value from the incitement.
For that matter, isn’t there more to be gained by exploring how a series like The Purge became profitable entertainment in the first place? As DeMonaco’s characters go about the business of “releasing the beast”, he and his producers calculate the profit potential of another sequel for another summer release. Likely missing is contemplation about their own role in stirring the societal chaos for another year, lest it interrupt plans to continue releasing this beast and keep the money rolling in.