As a horror fan, I’ve put up with a lot. I’ve stood idly by and accepted the twists of fate, such as “The Curse of the Thorn,” that Hollywood producers use to rewrite history. I’ve watched as horror threw science to the wind with reckless abandon as Jason was brought back to life via metal barbs and a well-timed lightning strike. Through it all, I’ve never given up on these movies; even at their worst, they have their moments of charming lunacy and unbridled spectacle. Well, this week, that all changes.
Horror has always been a touchy subject, with endless debates about the effects of violence on young viewers or their questionable attitudes toward women, but those aren’t the issues that I’m approaching today. One of my friends constantly asks me, “Well, with all the horror in the real world, why would you turn to fiction?” The answer? I believe in context. In order for a horror film to be truly effective, it must speak to the dominant fears of the place and time that produces it. For instance, there is no debate that the alien invaders and radioactive monsters of the 1950s were brought on by America’s fear of nuclear holocaust at the hands of the Russians. Horror has always, in one form or another, served as commentary.
Then what, exactly, is The Purge trying to say? For those unfamiliar with the film, it takes place in the near future (2022, to be exact) during a 12-hour period where the government declares, essentially, a free-for-all. Emergency services are suspended and some crimes, though few, remain illegal, but anything goes for 12 hours. Is it “everybody is capable of evil, even your neighbors”? Not a highly original message, but a poignant one. Is it “society needs to embrace the darker side of human nature”? Possibly. The thing that I can’t find myself overlooking is the reasoning.
Why does this nation need this 12-hour period? Well, in short, because things are too good. Unemployment and crime are at an all-time low. This “Purge” allows citizens to vent their negative emotions, in order to remain healthy, happy, and productive citizens of the world.
Now, I’ve always believed in the power of suspension of disbelief, more commonly known as “shut up, it’s just a fucking movie.” Hell, growing up on the slashers that I used to love, it’s impossible not to suspend disbelief. Plenty of movies are impractical or absurd, but there’s just something about The Purge that I can’t swallow.
The film is set up in a semi-realistic society. It has to be. The only thing scary about it is the idea that it could happen anywhere. On the other hand, the “why?” of it is so far-fetched that it can’t possibly take place in our reality. I mean, unemployment is under 1%? Particularly when our nation is still struggling with unemployment and the dollar is only slowly growing in value, there’s no element of this set-up that rings true for the viewer. The setting of 2022 just adds to the unbelievability. The attempt to make The Purge “relevant” dooms the film from the very beginning.
The problems with the idea are numerous, but essentially it has no place in the here and now. The greatness that this future society is experiencing is so far removed from our present reality. However, the idea of The Purge relies on its audience’s sense of our reality to provide the fear. The film is at odds with itself in the worst possible way.