When President Donald Trump declared that he would ‘make America great again’ it appeared that the satirical social commentary within the Purge series had finally reached its conclusion, with the newly elected commander-in-chief’s comments echoing that of the franchise’s third instalment Election Year. But Trump’s powerful motto was in fact first conceived by former actor Ronald Reagan during his 1980 Presidential campaign, in which he stated, ‘For those who’ve abandoned hope, we’ll restore hope and we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again.’ Reagan’s words became a symbol of optimism at a time when the country was still reeling from the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal of the 1970s and would usher in a new era of Capitalism across the United States.
While the first Purge sequel was released prior to Trump’s own Presidential race, its concept of a totalitarian future in which an extreme right wing government would sanction an annual event in which all forms of crime are legalised for twelve continuous hours – in order to allow citizens to ‘unleash the beast’ and thus revel in their constitutionalised bloodlust – now seems less tongue-in-cheek fantasy and more like a future America has been dangerously close to embracing. ‘What’s interesting about the trilogy is how it went further and further regarding wearing its politics and social mores on its sleeve,’ claimed a Forbes article during the release of the latest sequel in 2016. ‘Encased in the horror genre, one noted paradoxically both for being disreputable and being political, writer/director James DeMonaco crafted a saga which pointed an explicit finger at the worst impulses in American society and arguably highlighted them as specifically American.’
Horror and satire have often worked hand-in-hand, using extremes as a mirror to reflect the flaws of modern society and how unless those issues are rectified then future generations could face a world ruled under fascism or plagued by war. George A. Romero littered his acclaimed zombie series with numerous commentaries on the modern world, from his criticism on the Vietnam War with Night of the Living Dead to America’s obsession with commercialism in Dawn of the Dead, while John Carpenter’s They Live also portrayed a society consumed by commercialism that seemed to resonate with audiences.
While many recent genre pictures have obsessed with referencing the 1970s and 1980s, the Purge franchise has instead looked to the future to theorise what kind of world may lie ahead. The series was first created by DeMonaco during the Obama Administration, yet since Trump took the White House its themes and basic concept seem more apt than ever. The box office takings of each Purge movie has reflected this, with every instalment out-grossing its predecessor and most of the reviews for Election Year focusing on its comparisons with the Presidential elections. Even the 2018 prequel The First Purge, the only cinematic entry thus far to not be directed by DeMonaco, would prove to be a hit, while a small screen adaptation would debut just three months later.
Yet despite the close resemblance between the third Purge movie and current events DeMonaco was adamant that this was purely coincidental. ‘I wrote the film right after the last movie at the end of 2014. So I didn’t even process that,’ he told the Latin Post. ‘I always wanted to tell a political conspiracy thriller for the third one. Naturally it was going to be a senator who was running for president and yeah, back then Trump wasn’t even on board. My producer always says I was telling the future because I had no idea.’
The Purge, released in 2013, was a small-scale home invasion thriller produced by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes and rising production company Blumhouse Productions which told of a family who have made money from the annual Purge through home security systems sold by the patriarch but who are inadvertently targeted by a gang of hunters when they take in a stranger on the run from the flesh-hungry mob. The first sequel, Anarchy, made its debut the following year and moved the action out into the streets, taking inspiration from Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York as a small group of survivors attempt to navigate their way through the city to safety.
Election Year, released five months before Trump’s Presidential victory was announced, was the most political of the original trilogy as it followed the events of an outspoken Senator whose campaign is to end the Purge, as she views it as a form of right wing population control, a way to legally eradicate the country of the weak and the poor. ‘Whatever utopia like this, in which crime doesn’t exist, eventually would turn into total chaos and anarchy and society as we know it would stop existing,’ stated Frank Grillo, the antihero of both Anarchy and Election Year, in an interview with Desde Hollywood. ‘From the beginning of men we had to set up a civilised society with laws and rules, otherwise we couldn’t govern ourselves and we couldn’t govern our emotions. We would be extinct.’
Following the critical and commercial success of Election Year, which proved to be the most acclaimed of the series to date, a fourth instalment seemed inevitable and a prequel was finally announced for the summer of 2018. While DeMonaco will once again return as writer and the picture will be developed through Universal, Platinum Dunes and Blumhouse, the producers searched for a suitable director to helm the latest story in the expanding franchise and finally settled on Gerard McMurray, whose only prior feature was the low budget drama Burning Sands. ‘It was socially conscious and relevant,’ explained McMurray on the series. ‘That was the thing I wanted to talk about. Humanising the ‘hood, you show people it’s not all bad, it’s not going be all just killing and purging. I think that was important in just showing different brown and black people in a community. I get to show what it’s like for a black man and for people of colour on Purge night.’
DeMonaco’s resistance to direct the latest film instalment is the second time he has wanted another filmmaker to take over the series, as he had initial doubts about helming Election Year. ‘I just read the newest script and we’re going to start shooting relatively soon and it’s definitely a new chapter in Purge,’ produced Jason Blum told Nerdist in 2015. ‘It feels very new and hopefully James will direct it. He hasn’t said for sure. He wrote it but he hasn’t said for sure that he’s going to direct it but I really want him to. I’m praying that he directs it. He hasn’t declared yet but it’s really cool.’ DeMonaco’s refusal to direct, despite the positive response to the two sequels, was somewhat understandable as once an idea becomes a franchise it eventually loses momentum and grows repetitive. Whether it be classic horrors from the 1980s like Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street or a more recent series such as Saw or Final Destination, the inspired and unique ideas of earlier entries soon give way to a formulaic form of storytelling.
A little political ideology mixed with your horror storytelling
‘I’ll be happy if it holds onto some kind of political ideology, something attached so The Purge doesn’t become this violent film full of Final Destination death scenes,’ Demonaco admitted to We Got This Covered when asked about the future of the franchise. ‘It’d be cool if it could always work on two levels. A little political ideology mixed with your horror storytelling – then I’d say let’s keep going.’ Eventually, however, the series made its way to the television format with a show that was allegedly based after the events of Anarchy that once again depicts a night of extreme violence sanctioned by the new American government. While the movies may have received a mixed response when the series debuted on 5 September 2018 the critical reaction was somewhat hostile. ‘So hot on the heels of the other movies, as well as the impassioned state of the country as a whole, it feels too much like an afterthought,’ stated the late Roger Ebert’s website.
Despite the reaction a second series was finally commissioned and by June 2019 a new supporting cast was announced that included Derek Luke of 13 Reasons Why and Pacific Rim‘s Max Martini. And while DeMonaco may have remained protective of the franchise he has still allowed each new writer and director the freedom to develop their own concepts. ‘I think the beauty of it is that with each new Purge we could have new faces that emerge,’ he stated in November 2018 when news of a follow-up season first emerged. ‘So unlike a lot of shows, which have to have people coming back, we’re not bound to that. So yeah, there is talk about bringing, I’ll say some people, back.’
The politics of the Purge series would not only connect with audiences and its creator but also stars of the show, as actor Colin Woodell noted in an interview with Collider. ‘I’m finding especially with the election that happened a couple of years ago, no one believed that certain things were going to happen and that every single news article that we read was actually just going to brush over, that nothing was going to actually happen,’ he stated. ‘And we’re now realising that there’s no signs of this slowing down. And that, especially with the franchise that’s already been established before us, this thing is a well-oiled machine. And there is no stopping it. So the best way to conduct yourself is to embrace it to a certain extent. Find a way to navigate within it.’
Yet while the very essence of the Purge franchise has been about those twelve hours when American citizens under their constitution rights can rape and murder to their hearts’ content, the second season of the small screen series promises to expand on this with the bloodlust continuing after the official murder spree is due to end. Through the new trailer recently released online it is suggested that those who wish to murder outside of the approved Purge are those who are targeting people they know in their personal lives, perhaps families or friends and that all bets are off when it comes to indulging in one’s violent desires. ‘This time around, the show explores how a single Purge night affects the lives of four interconnected characters over the course of the ensuing year, all inevitably leading up to the next Purge,’ explained Entertainment Weekly. ‘The second season of the small-screen version of The Purge premieres 15 October on USA Network, with a new cast and a rather different premise.’