At Film Phage, we like it when a film has a lofty premise; something that at least attempts to distinguish it from the rest of the crowd. This is especially needed in the constantly stagnating “horror” genre. We’ve had found footage, gore-porn, LOUD NOISES and a host of other techniques attempt to make us squirm in our seats. But The Phage always stuggles… possibly because we have no emotions – we’re a cold, emotionless wretch destined to wander the Earth like some shambolic zombie-Phage. Or, it could be that no new “idea” has been that terrifying. Having said that, we do like a bit of sustained menace in our films… something to keep the tension up… so, is The Purge up to the task at hand? And just what do The Purge and The Phage have in common? Read on…
The Purge has a nice enough premise to it. By “nice”, I actually mean quite monstrous, but well thought up. Essentially, in the US of 2022, July 5th is Purge Day. Between 7pm and 7am, the residents of the US are free to commit any crime they like – murder, theft, mutilation… anything they like, and not be charged with a thing. It’s said that this is meant to “purge” people of their criminal urges and malicious intents. But don’t expect any help if you’re attacked; there’s no police, no ambulances and no assistance coming until 7am. The result? Super low unemployment and low crime rates. So, of course, the film is mainly set on the aforementioned night when it all kicks off…
At its centre, we follow the Sandin family – clearly upper-middle class, successful and benefiting from the purge; mainly owing to James (Ethan Hawke), who sells the security systems that people come to rely on. So on lock down in 2022, it’s just him, his wife Mary (Lena Headey), and his two children Charlie (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kane)… or so he thinks. But things certainly go awry when the young, morally conflicted Charlie sees a man pleading for help outside the shutters of the Sandin homestead. He decides to open the doors and let this stranger in… on a night when anything goes. Can the family remain so passive and not indulge in the orgy of violence that they’d ordinarily sit out of?
I genuinely like the concept. I think it’s got some lofty ambition and the social commentary runs through the entire film. What is the real reason for the purge: the release of hatred, or an excuse to kill the lower classes that can’t afford to lock themselves away? It’s an interesting question and I found myself enthralled by the developing tale… up until the end of the first act. After this point, it all became a little too… dull.
The opening is strong, and I definitely bought into the premise, but once we get to the moment where the monumentally dumb Charlie lets a stranger into his house, the film started to fall apart a little. We have some mild tension creep in here, then the threat level is elevated somewhat when others come looking for the sheltered man, but the film never induces terror. I’d be hard-pushed to call it a “moderate level of threat” to be honest. If you want to see a similar film with ramped up tension, then check out the fabulous French horror film Them (or Ils, if you want to be all French about it). Want a British take on the grim face of terror? Then try Eden Lake. I’d even argue My Little Eye from years ago makes more of a go of it. But The Purge? I’d skip on by if you’re looking for any modicum of fear to be evoked.
The problems with the film are in no way due to the acting talents of Hawke and the always-reliable Headey, who definitely carry the film for the duration. Their performances are solid and do exactly what’s expected of them. As some will know, this isn’t Hawke‘s first foray into horror, following on from last year’s LOUD NOISES fest, Sinister. I’d argue that whilst The Purge is more grounded in reality (something that should elicit worry and anxiety from the audience), Sinister had more scares to it. And considering the scare quota of Sinister was about 4, you’re getting an idea of how “scary” this film is. Having said that, you can’t escape how genuinely creepy Rhys Wakefield is in his antagonist role… that smile below… it’s what you’ll take from this movie!
Perhaps the main problem with The Purge is the fact that it bills itself as a horror movie. The studio took the wrong angle here. They’d have been better off playing it out as a thriller. That, or they should have jacked up the jump levels. Sure, I’m glad they didn’t resort to cheap loud noises, but they needed something there. A lofty plot and interesting premise can only carry a film for so long.
Ultimately, The Purge didn’t purge me of my desire to be scared. It still persists. The opening 30 minutes of the film are great, grizzly and thought-provoking, but after that we’re subjected to a rather timid example of “stalkers in a house” – something that has been done to death since… well, since forever. So whilst I must applaud James DeMonaco on writing an interesting idea, it’s a shame it wasn’t more fleshed out from beginning to end.
So, back to the opening… what do The Purge and The Phage have in common? Are we prone to violent outbursts? Do we peak too soon and get really boring the more you read on (don’t answer that!)? Or do we just share a smattering of letters in common? I’d like to think it’s just the last of these options… unless you steal a slice of our pizza… You don’t wanna make a Phage mad now…
Nice review. I just saw this one last night and I totally agree. I was expecting a lot more from such an interesting concept, but it only delivered a couple of cheap “jump scares” and not much else. Hawke did his best with it and I appreciate his effort at least, but yeah, definitely not as scary at it was billed to be!
Thanks for stopping by Minako – much appreciated! Glad to see we’re agreeing on The Purge too. I just wanted more from it all. Although I have to admit, the main antagonist’s smile was pretty creepy. That, however, was the full extent of the terror on show!