It’s kind of funny, but a thought dawned on me as I entered the theater last night that The Purge is one of a dwindling amount of commercially successful horror franchises over the past five years. Other than The Conjuring–which ironically just saw its uneven second installment hit cinemas a couple weeks ago–I can’t really think of any other examples. While the original Purge (released only in 2013!) started out small as a tense thriller of home invasion and suburban jealousy, its sequel, the slightly unwieldy Anarchy, attempted to craft a overarching mythology by moving to the streets and exploring the human consequences of the day. The problem with Anarchy was that it was uneven–the concept was there, the visual flare was there, even some sort of originality was there, but the execution was kind so so and the end result was, quite honestly, forgettable.Of course, the money was there, so writer-director James DeMonaco was given a third opportunity to come through on his outlandish premise and, while gifted the timeliness of one of the most polarizing election years in recent history, it still comes across as a great concept muddled by frustratingly uneven execution.
That’s not a total indictment of the film–Election Year has plenty of visual and visceral moments amidst sections of corny build up in Joe’s deli to awful dialogue–seriously, who wrote that Bucket of Chicken? The film also seems to have frighteningly little clarity in vision at points–there’s something going on there about class and race relations, but instead of an actual insight the audience is left with awkward one liners, such as how the Senator and Sgt. are white people, but they’re Joe’s white people so he’ll protect them. It’s borderline infuriating to see these moments because, again, the concepts are there–from the moment where the Insurance Company refuses to cover the deli for the Purge to the skinheads wearing Nazi propaganda that are on the hunt (for the Senator, so, yeah), but more often than not these feel like superficial details more than well thought out statements. Then there’s that wonderful sequence–probably the best moment in the film–when Senator Roan and Sgt. Barnes are on the run after first being double crossed and run into a hoarde of foreigners appropriating American iconography as they partake in the Purge. On some level, I’d really like to believe this is a statement on how the American public is represented and comes across to foreign countries, with these twisted symbols full of anger and radicalism, but the film drops the foreigners so quickly its hard to tell if that was a coherent idea, or is just a case of digging too deep. And then there’s the seemingly progressive choices in casting coupled with dialogue which feels like it plays slightly too hard on steretypes more often than not.
Muddled as it may be in message, Election Year can only truly be this frustrating because it has the concept, and packs enough thrills and entertainment to hint at what could have been, and to keep it from being outright dismissed. After its wonky exposition finally ends, The Purge gets moving and throws creepy image after creepy image, trying its best to not give the audience long enough to even wonder about why it may have chosen the over sexualized young antagonists other than the fact the lit up car looks good, or why those figures in bridal outfits might be hanging those others. Without spoiling too much, it does end on a note that signals the completion of an arc, coupled with an open-ended cliffhanger that signals a possible transition. At this point, the series might do well to take the cue from its films and transition hands to someone that might be able to finally do the concept the justice it’s deserved since leaving home.