The pleasure of horror is intrinsically related to its anticipation — thus, any film in the genre must provide as much suspense, if not more, as it does gratification. Fulfillment is hollow and unsatisfactory if the audience does not feel as though they earned it, usually by having spent minutes waiting with bated breath, fearing, imagining and dreaming up countless scenarios, only for those expectations to be dashed or subverted. Well, what’s this got to do with “The Purge: Election Year,” anyhow? A hell of a lot, as it turns out.
“Purge” begins with future senator, Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), gagged and bound with her family, all at the mercy of a perversely amused purger. He’s worked on his playlist all year, see, and he wants to share it with them; it would be a waste otherwise. People die soon after, one suspects. Naturally, this tragic turn of events spurs Charlie onto a prestigious political career, campaigning against the Purge and its architects, the New Founding Fathers of America, whose hold over the government is absolute and seemingly intractable.
She’s leading in the polls, and Charlie’s got a strong chance of dethroning the NRA — oops, NFFA. Oh, and Charlie’s got an ironclad plan as well: to wait out the yearly Purge in her home, rather than a secure government shelter, so that she might accrue greater support from the public. Naturally, the declaration guarantees that her safe safe-house is about to become a ticking bomb.
Meanwhile, local deli-owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his assistant, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) receive an insurance hike the day before the Purge, and it begins to look like they’ll have to defend the shop themselves. Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel), Joe’s kinda-sorta adopted daughter, has decided to spend Purge night driving the streets in an EMT to provide assistance to the injured. It’s a selfless, but thankless, job.
Against all natural expectations, everything has to go to shit. Charlie’s head of security, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo, reprising his role from “Purge: Anarchy”) uncovers a betrayal, and the safe-house suddenly becomes a great deal less safe. There’s also a great deal less house, after an explosion takes out the second floor.
With the two on the run and on the streets, they eventually, and serendipitously, meet Joe and his associates. All the group has to do is survive the night. Easy, right? Well, yeah, actually. Because there are no stakes, no anxiety of failure, “Purge” brings nothing to the table.
There’s jump-scares aplenty, and more ultraviolence than even Alex of “A Clockwork Orange” could shake his cane at. But it all rings strangely hollow — the victims gushing blood, mad clowns and sadistic purgers all melt into a singular mass of yowling and gunshots. Horror contains a multitude of constituent emotions, including pleasure and titillation, yet “Purge” leaves one feeling numb, not amused.
It goes through the motions, sure; heads roll, flesh is torn, the music throbs and booms at unnatural intervals. It even tries to sell a soppy pro-peace narrative, furnishing its villains with neo-Nazi tattoos and far-right imagery, even as guts spurt across the screen. But “Purge” doesn’t hold to the frighteningly unexpected quality of genuine horror. It’s a tale of heroism and triumph, wrapped in a shiny and gruesome action package. “Psycho” remains the stuff of nightmares because it teases out the audience’s unease. Here, the plot is presented in bright Vegas lights. It seems that the jump-scares and fetishistic lampooning of far-right Republicanism are its only claims to fame.
And that’s the issue; if “Purge” tackled its purported theme with greater nuance, or at least a proper sense of humor, if it had any purpose and vision beyond milking the franchise for the producers and the directors, it would wouldn’t ring so false. Because it does. Director James DeMonaco can drape a film in koans and platitudes, but he can’t hide the mercenary intentions driving its creation. Sure, lots of movies exist only to make cash. But few are so callously indifferent and cynical.
Well, at least the gore is good. That’s definitely worth a watch.
Director: James DeMonaco
Starring: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson
Release Date: July 1, 2016