The horror/thriller genre has become rather stale for me in recent years, most of these films just haven’t been able to capture my attention anymore. The last movie in that genre that I reviewed, Green Room starring the recently deceased Anton Yelchin, is easily the best I have seen in a long time. However, there has been another series of films that has half-heartedly maintained my interest, the most recent entry being The Purge: Election Year.
In 2013, we received a film whose premise vaguely resembled any number of near-future-dystopia movies where a government endorses murder as some sort of fix for a larger problem, whether it be The Running Man or Battle Royale. That film was The Purge starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey. The basic premise of the titular Purge is that once a year for 12 hours, all crime, including murder, is completely legal. This results in vast anarchy for that period of time, with the rich barricading themselves in their homes using top-of-the-line defenses, and the poor left to fend for themselves, oftentimes resulting in them being targeted as easy prey.
This concept in and of itself provides an interesting commentary on the effect of the class gap that exists in the world today, but that is more of a side note. The movie is all about carnage and survival as a rich family is targeted by a group of psychotic Purge celebrators (Purgers) after the family saves a man they were hunting for sport. Unfortunately, the movie was hindered by horror-typical dumb characters and a rather average spectacle, making it nothing more than a run-of-the mill and unspectacular horror film, though it’s not the worst I’ve seen.
I never expected there to be any more to it, it very much seemed like a one-and-done type of movie, and yet in 2014 we received the sequel The Purge: Anarchy. This unwanted sequel somehow managed to be superior to the first film in almost every way, drastically changing the feel of the film to be a little heavier on the action while still maintaining a solid thriller status. There was barely any resemblance to the first film. Aside from the Purge premise itself, none of the main characters return, and the style of film goes from a “trapped in one place” horror thriller like Night of the Living Dead or Panic Room, into a “point A to point B gauntlet” action thriller a la The Warriors.
Taking over the lead in Anarchy was Frank Grillo, who is great as the grizzled and highly-trained cop out on Purge Night to right a wrong, only to be pulled by his conscience into protecting two separate pairs of people stuck out in the chaos – a mother and daughter dragged from their home by Purgers, and a husband and wife with a marriage on the rocks whose car was sabotaged. The quintet works together to survive and make it to safety, encountering a variety of deadly Purgers along the way. This proved to be a more engaging and fun outing than its predecessor, all the while shedding more light on the world of these films.
Much like after the first film, I figured the story was done after Anarchy, but I shouldn’t be surprised that another sequel emerged, the aptly named The Purge: Election Year. Unlike Anarchy, which followed a whole new group of people from the first film, we actually continue to follow the protagonist of the second film, Frank Grillo’s Leo Barnes. So, SPOILER ALERT, he survived Anarchy. He isn’t the only returning character either as the man from the first film that the family saved portrayed by actor Edwin Hodge also showed up briefly in Anarchy, and now appears in Election Year, making him the only actor to appear in all three films.
The story of this threequel finds the badass and Purge-surviving Leo Barnes two years after the events of Anarchy. He now works as the head of security for Senator, and Presidential front runner, Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). She has forged her campaign on the promise to eliminate the Purge, a move which makes her a target. The yearly Purge has come, and with her enemies looking to silence her permanently, it is up to Barnes to protect her and survive another Purge. Also trying to survive the night while aiding the Senator is shop owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), his friend and employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and former Purger-turned-savior Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel).
Much like the prior films, there is a consistent antagonist that threatens the safety of our protagonists. This time it isn’t a group (or groups) of Purgers, but rather some heavily armed Neo-Nazi mercenaries led by Danzinger (Terry Serpico), whose sole mission is to capture Senator Roan and deliver her to the New Founding Fathers (NFF), the political party that began the Purge and seeks to maintain their control on the nation.
The most disappointing aspect of this film is the Purge itself. We have had two films where we receive so much focus on the Purgers and the chaos they cause, and yet this film mostly takes place on Purge night but I rarely felt like our protagonists were in danger. The couple of Purger groups we see leading up to Purge night, and thus know our protagonists will encounter and have to deal with, turn out to do a whole lot of nothing. We don’t even see them kill other people, they just show up during the Purge and are quickly dealt with.
This lack of a threat is even true when it comes to the mercenaries – the sniper can’t get what should be an easy kill shot, the minigun-equipped helicopter somehow doesn’t kill everyone when it shoots up the van packed with all of our protagonists. The bad guys are closing in? Worry not! It turns out shop owner Dixon used to be in a gang and our protagonists just so happen to be surrounded by a group of Purgers that are part of that same gang and thus agree to help them out. It often times feels like nothing but pure deus ex machina.
Additionally, this outing felt more conservative with the violence. The prior movies weren’t wall-to-wall gore, but some of the shots and angles used this time struck me as odd for an R-rated horror thriller. Much of the death or injuries happen at a distance, off camera, or amongst quick cut editing. For example, we see a couple of mercenaries get surrounded by armed Purgers, cut away to Danzinger listening to them getting shot over the radio, and later on he stumbles upon their rather normal (as in non-gory) bodies. It was almost as if they didn’t know if they wanted to be rated R or not.
This isn’t to say it should have been incredibly gory, or that it needed shocking violence, but showing some amount of violence can spark some tension and fear in the viewer. Look at Green Room, that movie rarely focused on the violence, and yet it was used in such an effective way that it made an unnerving situation a truly terrifying one. Additionally, some of the tension is also broken by mediocre dialogue and predictability, making this the least scary movie in the series thus far.
However, all of that doesn’t mean this is a bad movie. An imperfect movie, sure, but not bad. The action sequences are still pretty fun, but more importantly, the world building done with this movie far surpasses the prior films. For the first time, we are given an in-depth look at the NFF and the political world that allowed a Purge to be established in the first place. We see the resistance fighters against the NFF and the steps they take during the Purge night to help protect people that can’t protect themselves. There are even foreign tourists who come to America just to celebrate Purge night and murder legally, because “it’s the American way”. All of these little things help reinforce our suspension of disbelief regarding the Purge itself, making it more of a believable event.
While not a great horror thriller, nor action thriller, The Purge: Election Year never really seemed to know what it wanted to be. The more horror-type antagonists (the Purgers) don’t do much past look flashy, and the action-type antagonists (the mercenaries) don’t seem to do a whole lot either. We witness plenty of death, but much of it feels reserved and toned down. There is also a hefty amount of dialogue and characters that are rather cliché, and there is rarely a sense of dread or worry for our heroes.
What this film truly excels at is further establishing the world in which a Purge exists, giving us depth and motivations behind all of it. If you are not a fan of the prior films, this one will certainly not change your mind, and if you’re new to the Purge series I recommend watching Anarchy first. The people that will get the most out of this one are those who have enjoyed the series from the beginning, or at least Anarchy. If they make another one, which they did hint at via a newscast at the end, I certainly hope they return to what they do best by focusing more on the horror/thriller aspects of The Purge.
Andy Snyder is a writer and regular contributor for Happy Dragon Pictures. He loves video games, films from all over the world, screenwriting and kittens.