The idea behind The Purge (released on DVD tomorrow) is that, in the near future, all crime in America will be legal for a 12-hour period once a year. It’s not what you’d call the most plausible of premises, but it does result in a crafty home-invasion thriller.
This particular genre, always involving two or three homicidal maniacs breaking into a family house, got going in the 1950s. In Suddenly (1954), Frank Sinatra gives good sneer as a dapper but unstable assassin who takes over a small-town home because it offers him and his sidekicks the perfect vantage point from which to shoot at the US President.
A year later, The Desperate Hours starred a feral Humphrey Bogart, in his penultimate film, as one of three escaped convicts who hold the perfect all-American suburban family hostage. It’s as much about the friction between social classes as it is between crooks and law-abiding citizens.
The genre’s game-changer was Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), a precision-engineered torture machine in which two demonic youths have a husband and wife at their mercy. The twist is that Haneke accuses us, the viewers, of being complicit in their suffering.
David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002) treated the genre to a hi-tech sheen, but it’s never very tense, what with Jodie Foster and a 10-year-old Kristen Stewart being safely locked away in, yes, a panic room. Most subsequent home-invasion thrillers have simply borrowed the sadism of Funny Games, and thrown away the postmodernism. Them (2006), The Strangers (2008), and Mother’s Day (2010) are the most traumatising of the bunch. Tawdry as they may be, it’s hard to watch them without afterwards checking that your front door is locked.