Background

This is the most recent film of the Purge franchise and is a prequel to the other three films. It tells the story of the first experimental purge. This film is also the first Purge installment to not include any of the recurring characters (i.e.: Dante Bishop). Since its release, there has been some backlash to the film’s political stance. While I’d argue that all of the Purge films have been political in their stance towards late capitalism, I admit that this one was the most blatant. This film also makes direct reference to the Trump administration, the NRA, as well as recent events surrounding police brutality against black communities.

Teaser trailers for The First Purge were strategically released during President Trump’s first State of the Union address. The trailers were crafted to look like patriotic advertisements released by politicians, but instead the called for the institution of the Purge Night. Below is one of those teasers:

The first posters released for the film looked like this:

It’s not that surprising that a (pretty silly) horror movie would so blatantly attack our current administration. The Purge franchise is owned by Blumhouse Productions, which is gaining a reputation for its left-leaning political horror films (they also produced Get Out, for example). While I celebrate this political bent, and certainly felt vindicated watching this film, I have to wonder how much of this subversive material is selected due to the current market. It feels like this stance could be co-opted by Blumhouse simply to gain a profit. At the same time, this film also boasted a diverse cast, which is a positive change from the largely white cast of the typical horror film.

Plot Summary

America is facing a great number of difficulties: the opiod crises, economic instability, massive economic disparity, political division (as expressed through images of the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter marches, and neo-nazi rallies), illegal immigration, overpopulation, and police brutality. After a third political party (called the New Founding Fathers, or the NFF) rises from all of this turmoil and takes control of the presidency, their alliance with the NRA encourages the NFF to implement an experiment known as the Purge. Purge Night consists of twelve hours, during which “all crime, including murder, will be legal.” The NFF hopes that the experiment goes well. If it does, they promise that Purge Night will be expanded to include the entire country. This first experiment, however, will only take place on Staten Island. Residents are free to leave for the night, however, anyone who stays the night will be given $5,000, while those who actively participate will be given more money, depending on the level of their participation. The NFF sadly discovers as the night goes on that people are more interested in drugs and partying rather than murder. They had hoped for high levels of murder because that would mean that they could eliminate lower-income populations, thereby limiting the amount of welfare that the state would have to support. To encourage more murder, the NFF secretly sends in a number of different militias, consisting of White Knights, KKK members, neo-nazis, Russians, and police. Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), a Staten Island gang-lord and Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a liberal anti-purge activist, are able to protect their loved ones and a major housing development in time for the purge to end. During the final credits, it is revealed the Purge will be implemented nation-wide in the following year. There was also an advertisement for the upcoming purge tv-series stuck in the middle of the credits.

Notes & Quotes

  • In this movie, they literally monetize murder. It’s $5,000 to remain in Staten Island, but participants receive more money for each murder they commit (it’s never specifically said how much they would receive). Throughout the film, there are advertisements and bulletin boards surrounding the action, some are for guns (“Protect your freedom. Protect your family. Protect your right to purge!”), while others advertise for the purge itself (“Earn $5,000!). Nya’s younger brother Isiah (Jovian Wade) (who is discovered secretly working on the corner selling drugs for Dmitri’s crew) wants to earn money to support his family, so he also joins the purge without telling his sister. Near the end of the film, he tells her that he feels like there is no legal way to get out of the projects. The inventor of the purge experiment also expresses her surprise that more people aren’t committing murder because she assumed that this socioeconomic group would have been more likely to participate given the incentive to kill.

Nya and Isiah in The First Purge

  • Surveillance is a running theme within The First Purge. In order to receive payment for participating in the purge, volunteers have to undergo a psyche evaluation (during which it seemed like violent and psychopathic urges were a positive) and are then given special contact lenses which record and broadcast their sight to the purge headquarters. The NFF chose which videos to leak to Youtube and which to delete. During one scene, the NFF makes sure (somehow) that a video of the first kill is sent to all of the Staten Islanders’ cell phones, which helps to create a panic. The NFF also sends drones into Staten Island to record aerial views of the night. After they release a number of hate group militias into Staten Island to up the murder level, these drones are used to track anyone wearing contact lenses. This tracking information is sent to the militias so that they can easily track and kill their prey.

The contacts which purge participants wear give them a creepy cyborg look

  • There were a lot of visuals and lines which were clearly included as references to our present moment. At one point, Nya is pulled towards a sewer by a man wearing a baby mask. His hand grabs at her crotch. She is able to escape and, as she runs away, she shouts “fucking pussy grabber!” at him. There is a very quick scene of a group of police officers surrounding a bleeding and defenseless black man on the ground. A group of white supremacists shoot up a predominately black church off-screen. These moments made me feel a bit odd. Is this just another way to make a spectacle of suffering black bodies? Or is this a real method of activism and/or subversion? Or maybe its, as Noël Carroll suggests, a means for audiences to safely face our current fears and anxieties (a purge, if you will). Maybe it just felt weird to me because the movie is mostly just a silly horror film that revels in carnage and bizarre costumes and kills.
  • For some reason, they decided to advertise for Blumhouse’s upcoming Halloween through this movie. This would ordinarily be fine, even admired- horror is known for its meta and self-referential nature. So-called “Easter eggs” hidden for fans in the movie are always appreciated. HOWEVER, this bit of advertising was so blatant that it wasn’t fun at all. In Isiah’s bedroom, hanging prominently over his desk, is a poster for the upcoming Halloween.  Why??? This is a movie that features numerous masks! Why didn’t they just have someone who was purging wear the new Micheal Myers mask?! Anyway, this is maybe more personal than it is academic, but I needed to give vent to my frustration…