Why The Purge movies are the best horror franchise
What do you want from a sequel? What do you need for the stink of "four movies and a TV miniseries in five years" to waft away enough that you can take a series on its own terms and forget that a movie was rushed into becoming a franchise because it made more money than its producers expected? Right now, The Purge is the only series regularly justifying its existence, and it's doing it in a climate where every profitable idea is instantly bled dry.
If you're able to live outside the imaginary genre/drama binary, it's probably been a while since you've turned your nose up at the idea that anybody could accomplish anything worthwhile by making a sequel. Even then, you would be forgiven for having reservations about an instant franchise produced by both Jason Blum and Michael Bay. As happy as those of us in the genre gutter can be when there's, say, a third John Wick movie in the pipeline, or somebody with talent has expressed interest in taking Hellraiser in a new direction, we've also seen franchises get stretched into nothingness by the insincere, and we can worry.
You look at Jason Blum's track record with his breakout hit, Paranormal Activity, see that he's produced five movies in the main series, a Japanese edition, a main series-adjacent entry targeted to Latinx audiences and a VR game and get the sense he's okay making cut-and-paste sequels until his audience finally gives up. If magic happens (see: Paranormal Activity 3), it happens, but it's incidental to Blum's desire to just crank shit out until you've learned your lesson about buying a ticket every time he cries "The Nun 2: Origins: A Conjuring Tale." Michael Bay is, well, the man who kept making Transformers movies until their mythology was so complicated that we were learning Harriet Tubman only pulled off the Underground Railroad with the Autobots' help. He's made Transformers sequels at a slower clip than he's produced entries in the Purge anthology, but when he makes a Transformers one, he makes it three hours long and with the story density of five Marvel crossover events.
But The Purge. The Purge takes place in this world we only ever see from a few characters' perspectives and only ever for a ~12 hour span of time. We get bits and pieces of how this universe functions, but it's usually in passing, and never enough to answer even half your questions. So few movies make it to one sequel, much less three, with such a loose sense of in-world history. It's like Blum and Bay cancel each other out.
The premise is famous-- America collapses, a new government forms and makes all crime legal for one night every year, which fixes the economy and the crime rates on the other 364 days of the year-- and it famously doesn't make sense. Rather than over-explain everything and try to convince the audience that murdering the homeless would lead to a more stable economy, The Purge uses its sequels to explore different ways people respond to Purge Night. We see things through the eyes of a rich family profiting from the Purge, lower class workers fending for themselves, politicians trying to end the holiday and government thugs trying to enforce it. Other series fall apart when they reveal why things are the way they are. The Purge just says "there's a group called the New Founding Fathers" and then lets you imagine the rest. This year's Purge movie was a prequel, and its vague backstory fill-ins are as close as the series has come to "...and that is why Jason wears a blue shirt under his jacket" revelations.
The Purge doesn't just pivot between perspectives, it pivots between horror sub-genres. The first film takes place entirely in its protagonists' house and functions as a home invasion story. Bigger budgets led to forays in action-horror, Battle Royale-style death game set-pieces, extreme paranoia, slasher and even a little found footage via in-universe TV news clips. The anthology approach allows all this to feel cohesive.
One of the more prominent standards between movies, besides Slipknot masks and actors imported from HBO series, is a blunt take on politics. This most recent movie, The First Purge, was the most blunt so far, with a MAGA hat teaser poster and a scene where a woman protagonist messes up a would-be molester, shouting "Fuck you, pussy grabber!" The intro calls out the NRA as a major reason the New Founding Fathers took power. Rich white people profit politically and fiscally from black pain.
I honestly find that bold, and can't think of many other movies dealing with this stuff so head-on in 2018. The world is falling apart right now and The Purge is the only film franchise addressing that. J.K. Rowling can go on Twitter and compare Black Lives Matter to her wizard resistance, and we can all squint until things are so fuzzy that Thanos and Trump look like counterparts, but so much of that feels like grasps at social relevance that just isn't there. The Purge is not nuanced. It isn't particularly smart. But it is a movie that straight-up implicates the NRA in America's growing fascism, and that is more than most #resistance filmmakers can say they've done. And if a movie points fingers but doesn't offer solutions, that's fine with me. There are scenes in The First Purge where a poor black man goes Jason Bourne on roomfuls of KKK members. He chokes the life out of a man in a minstrel show mask. That's all I need. That's my catharsis.
This could all come crashing down. I haven't watched the TV series, which is halfway through its ten-episode run as of publishing, but maybe it tanks everything. Four movies is a high number by most metrics, but my Cinema76 colleagues have written about George Romero's 50-year "of the Dead" run of movies and the Freddy Krueger nine-film cultural phenomenon. I can't know if The Purge will age as well as those have. Maybe that red hat "Make the Purge Great Again" poster will be less blunt than it is corny in five years. Right now, The Purge is going strong. Remember all the good the purge does.