There are very few things that appear in genre films that are as frustrating, disappointing and outright enraging as wasted potential. When a scenario as high-concept yet formidably accessible is presented to the audience and then squandered goes beyond the material being good or bad, changing the focus entirely from what is to what could be. And yet, in a film like Universal’s The Purge, which has so many flashes that promise a great horror film that entirely embodies its excellent concept, the viewer is left feeling restless, saddled with a film that merely strives to be entertaining, but barely so.The first sign of wasted potential on The Purge may be the execution of the core concept itself. As the marketing on the film has emphasized, the film takes place over the course of a 12-hour “annual purge”, in which all crimes are legal as to allow people to vent out their frustrations and hatreds and continue motivating them to regulate their lives otherwise. And yet, during this “purge”, the film never ventures outside of the home of the Sandin’s, allowing the action to take place around the spatially schizophrenic household and only see the true boundaries of the “annual purge” on security camera footage seen on the news, often in the background of the scene. Considering how heavy-handed the socio-political message of The Purge is, this decision to limit the perspective, reeking of a budgetary decision, is the first glaring sign of the potential wasted within the film, as the post-dystopian Warriors-esque world around the Sandin family is much more fascinating and worthy of exploration.
Yet the story of the Sandin family is what the audience gets, and to be honest, there is much that is likeable about The Purge in its current state. First of all, despite the storytelling flaws and dialogue issues, the film remains as an effective, unexpected horror flick that has as many cheer-worthy moments as it does jump-scares. Much of this effectiveness is thanks to lead actors Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey, who sell their dialogue with the right amount of passion and determination as their best work, and the villainous turns by Rhys Wakefield and Arija Bareikis are impressive despite their blunt, tell-not-show dialogue. Furthermore, the cinematography from Jacques Jouffret should be commended, as it is his voyeuristic, blue-hued lens that helps sell the “reality” in which The Purge takes place. If The Purge is another production from Jason Blum that hinges its reputation on being entertaining, pure and simple, then The Purge can be chalked down as a success.
But as a film, even on the levels of pure cinematic entertainment, the wasted potential once again drives The Purge into the ground. As strong as the lead acting is in the film, the performances from Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane as the Sandin chilren are less-than-stellar, massively underserved by a misguided and unfocused script that is unsure how to properly use them in the context of the situation. Whereas Kane’s characters best moments come in sporadic bursts of unexpected violence, Burkholder is often insufferable, with so little motivation given to his character besides empathy. Another blow to the constitution of The Purge is the arc of the story in general, turning what could have been a claustrophobic or paranoid look into a society gone mad where everyone is an enemy into a by-the-numbers home invasion thriller, albeit devoid of personality or technical innovation. Speaking of, the tropes of the genre are out in full-force, including out-of-focus background reveals, drawn-out pre-kill rituals and last-minute hero moments that inspire more sighs than gasps or cheers.
It’s this old-fashioned thinking that defines The Purge, stalled in the less-than-complimentary stage of having violent deaths of faceless characters provide the core of the films shocking moments. If there are any lessons to be learned from the “new school” of horror films, especially Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead, is that pain is a woefully underused and effective aspect of conveying relatable horror through a limited cast. By running a character through a gamut of injuries, the audience feels every cut, bone-break and affliction as depicted, with the narrative being served as the character now has more obstacles and thus more danger in which he/she cannot shake. However, by sticking to the traditional horror methodology in walloping deaths, the limited cast rarely feels like they’re in immediate danger and when they are, there is much less dread associated with their potential demise.
Despite the blatant and aggravating flaws on display, The Purge is not necessarily a terrible movie, albeit unworthy of a full-blown recommendation. There is solid work on display all around courtesy of director James DeMonaco, and even though the tension often is given a generic, expected payoff, the moments of comeuppance are still enjoyable. It’s a dreary film that pulverizes eye-rolling social messages, but with lowered expectations and a monumental suspension of disbelief, The Purge works. But the fundamental flaw with The Purge is that the films that could have been made from such a unique, brazen concept will always be better than the film that was made.
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from MontclairStateUniversity, where he recieved an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.