The First Purge review: More of an edge than its predecessors

Race, violence and inequality in contemporary America are tackled in this gruesomely entertaining horror prequel

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 04 July 2018 10:37 BST
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The First Purge- trailer

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Louise Thomas

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Dir: Gerard McMurray, 97 mins, starring Marisa Tomei, Melonie Diaz, Lex Scott Davis, Luna Lauren Velez, Patch Darragh, Y'lan Noel

“Who are you angry at?” potential participants in the very first “Purge night,” to be held on Staten Island, are asked early on in this gruesomely entertaining horror prequel. “Everyone and everything,” they reply. They’re offered $5,000 and the chance to vent their anger against the world by robbing, raping and killing with impunity over the 12 continuous hours in which the purge is held.

Through this experiment, the right-wing New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) are trying to demonise the underclass. US society is falling apart anyway. Unemployment is rising; there’s an opioid epidemic and the economy is in free fall.

Like most Jason Blum produced pictures, The First Purge – the fourth in a series which began with 2013's The Purge – is very slickly made. Its political subtext is also obvious. Early on, the filmmakers appear to be diving headfirst into ongoing debates about race, violence and inequality in contemporary America.

If the violence isn’t up to scratch and citizens left to their own devices decide to throw parties instead of killing one another, the NFFA will send in mercenaries and white supremacist Ku Klux Klan types to get the blood flowing.

The film’s satirical force is blunted, though, by the fact that it takes as much pleasure in the mayhem as those evil NFFA politicians. Director Gerard McMurray, working from a screenplay by series founder, James DeMonaco, clearly relishes showing the killers running amok.

The most memorable of the many maniacs on display is Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), a drug-crazed maniac who looks as if he has stumbled out of a voodoo scene in Live And Let Die; who hides razors under his tongue and who feels delirious rapture every time he slashes or stabs someone. Plenty of other would-be lawbreakers are on the prowl too.

These range from cackling old ladies with shopping trolleys full of exploding dolls and teddy bears to young delinquents who want to smash up cash machines or go joy riding. Their antics are shown on TV screens across America in real time.

A blonde-haired Marisa Tomei plays Dr May Updale, the earnest scientist overseeing the “purge” and trying to make sense of the behaviour of those cooped up on State Island as glorified lab rats. Updale notices that the lawbreakers tend to wear masks, although whether they do this for ritualistic reasons or to hide their faces isn’t something she has time to work out.

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She’s no match for the politicians who bend the experiment for their own purposes. They need death and carnage to justify staging the purge.

The film’s unlikely hero is Dimitri (Y'lan Noel), the local drug baron. During Purge night, his intention is to survive and to ensure that his criminal network stays intact. However, he quickly realises that the NFFA is waging a covert war against the poor and dispossessed. A little improbably, this swaggering, death-defying, bling-wearing, gun-toting figure is transformed into a Robin Hood-type hero.

His former girlfriend, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), is one of the community leaders, helping Staten islanders into the church in the mistaken belief they will be safe there. Nya’s younger brother, Isaiah (Jovian Wade), is being drawn into the gang world and sees Purge night as a chance to prove himself as a warrior.

The action culminates with a stand-off in the high rise building where Nya and Isaiah live. By this point, the film has turned into a contemporary western, a little like John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 (which was inspired by John Wayne movie, Rio Bravo).

It’s a measure of changing standards at the British Board of Film Classification that a film as violent as this is classified as a 15 rather than an 18. “Shootings and stabbings result in large sprays of blood and some bloody aftermath detail,” the BBFC cheerily warns viewers on its website of the many splattering scenes in which characters are shot at point-blank range.

Parts of the film are horribly derivative. The car crashes, stand-offs between drug dealers and their treacherous lieutenants and all those scenes of law-abiding citizens hiding in darkened cellars or fleeing through streets that have turned into war zones are familiar from countless other exploitation pictures.

However, like other recent Jason Blum productions (most notably Get Out), the film addresses contemporary social tensions in a sly and provocative fashion; we hear that the NFFA are in alliance with the National Rifle Association (NRA). The battle lines here are drawn across race and class lines.

Of course, the filmmakers are more interested in delivering thrills than in preaching from the soapbox. The analysis here of political unrest is very superficial. The only questions that matter once Purge night is underway is what the heroes have to do to survive.

There is no time for debating income inequality and bad housing when you’re working out whether it is best to shoot heavily armed vigilantes in the legs or how to use mirrors to catch a glimpse of your assailants in the adjoining room.

The First Purge is still ultimately an old-fashioned B picture but it has more of an edge than its predecessors. When the series started, its premise seemed far-fetched in the extreme. Five years on, the most disturbing aspect of the films is that the world they depict is no longer so far beyond the scope of our imaginations.

'The First Purge' is in UK cinemas now

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