The President of the United States effectively got a movie shelved.
It’s a weird thing to say. Hell, it was a weird thing that happened. But there were two things that were especially weird about the situation to me, even though they probably shouldn’t have been. The first was how easily it was done. The Hunt, a movie made by Blumhouse Productions and distributed by Universal Pictures, respectfully halted advertisement after a few all-too-common mass shootings occurred. Maybe this tiny, respectful act is what caught the attention of the right wing media, because suddenly there was a slew of purposely misleading articles intended to rile up the stereotypical Fox News viewers about the contents of the film. That’s what led to Donald Trump vaguely tweeting about the film, and that was somehow enough to get it canned.
The second most surprising thing about the situation was how conservatives seemed to massively misinterpret that film (and, presumably, most films in general). Of course, some of them were being willfully obtuse in order to pursue an agenda, but there are absolutely people who believe that the people being hunted as prey in an adaptation of “The Most Dangerous Game” are the bad guys.
This situation made me think about the fact that these people got the wrong movie cancelled. Blumhouse is a company that seems to makes low-budget horror with little oversight, and because of that, they end up making a lot of films with messages, both personal and political. The First Purge (2018) is one of those movies, and it’s the film that these MAGA chuds should have set their sights on if they wanted to condemn a film for taking aim at their political party and the system it helps to prop up.
Get Out (2017) might be the first Blumhouse film you’d think about when you think of recent “message horror,” but The First Purge has an even more radical message. It’s an exploitation film in every sense of the word, and it’s angry, purposeful, and straight-to-the-point. It was refreshing and legitimately surprising when The First Purge not only fully engaged with its own premise but was also willing to engage with the world as it is.
That wasn’t always a given with this franchise. I was never a big fan of the series until The First Purge. The three preceding films make a decent action/horror trilogy, but their biggest weakness was always the fact that they never fully explored their inherently silly but interesting premise.
The first Purge film—as in The Purge (2013), not The First Purge, which is actually the fourth film—is an okay movie that doesn’t come close to taking advantage of its premise and chooses an upper-class suburb (the most boring place possible) to spend its runtime. Lena Headey and Ethan Hawke anchor it with very good and very committed performances. The next two are a step up, mostly because it expands the universe and shows us what Purge Nights are like on the streets where average people live. Also, they both star Frank Grillo, and I’ll watch literally anything he does and enjoy it a little bit. In The Purge: Anarchy (2014) Grillo is basically playing The Punisher, and in The Purge: Election Year (2016) he’s got a kinda “John-McClane-doing-an-escort-mission” vibe. The ones that star Grillo at least deepen the barebones universe that The Purge set up by showing Carmelo (Michael Kenneth Williams) and the other anti-Purge resistance members, and the fact that the government brings in hired guns to ensure people are actually killed during the Purge.
Following Frank Grillo’s character—whose name is Leo, but I’m going to continue calling him Frank Grillo—is closer to the action than the upper-middle-class family from the first film, but he’s a police sergeant and then a Presidential candidate’s head of security, and he still isn’t the most interesting person to follow in this type of situation. The people you want to focus on aren’t the predators; they’re the prey. That’s what right-wingers didn’t seem to get—or refused to acknowledge—about The Hunt: you aren’t actually supposed to relate to the people who are committing mindless acts of violence.
The First Purge is a prequel that shows us … you guessed it, the first Purge. Director Gerard McMurray—who also directed the recent The Twilight Zone episode called “Replay” and associate produced Fruitvale Station (2013)—pays off the entire franchise by showing us a direct connection from where we, the audience, are now in relation to the characters of the film through his slick, evocative visuals. The themes of the film couldn’t be more obvious, laying everything bare by finally having a majority black cast and telling the story through the eyes of the people who are most affected by the Purge Night.
“This socioeconomic group is not reacting the way I predicted, the question is ‘why?'” Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), the architect of the Purge Night, says when the poor people who stayed behind on Staten Island for the trial Purge Night seem to predominantly hide or party, with a few committing petty crimes, and only a tiny fraction actually spilling blood. It’s a funny and telling line. Dr. Updale is treating these people like an alien species whose wants and desires need to be quantified somehow. And she’s kind of right, or at least the movie is right to show how clueless she is, because those with money and power are so far-removed from the everyday that they might as well be using a microscope when they deign to look down on the regular folk.
That’s why it’s so funny to me that The First Purge seemed to mostly go unnoticed by the type of people whose job it is to defend the system which thrives on the subjugation of poor people and people of color. This is a film that has a political party called the New Founding Fathers of America, which might as well be the Tea Party-wing of the Republican Party. This is a film that draws direct parallels between the KKK and police officers.
The government ends up having to bus in mercenaries to raise the body count of the Purge Night in order to show that it’s successful. What follows is a montage of state-sanctioned violence, specifically with a shot dissolving from a blood-splattered, Klan-robed killer transitioning into a shot of killers in cop uniforms circling an injured black man in a baseball stadium.
Because what’s more American than that?
The First Purge’s audacious willingness to actually use imagery like Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, and the Charlottesville Church shooting borders on tastelessness. Which is kind of what you expect from a true exploitation film, and that’s what The First Purge is. The movie throws propriety out the window in order to get its point across. One of the heroes of the film is Dmitri, a Staten Island drug lord, who strangles a mercenary wearing a blackface mask to death. We watch as Dmitri kills the man with his bare hands, symbolically “purging” the right type of person for the first time that night.
Aside from the on-point social commentary and palpable anger, it’s also just a fun movie to watch. The simple, lo-fi effects really add to the scares—whoever thought up the glowing contact lenses as a motif deserves a pat on the back—and I was actually surprised that this movie cost more than the previous entries in the series. It feels like the kind of cheap sequel that didn’t have much oversight so it was actually able to say something.
Nya (Lex Scott Davis), an anti-Purge advocate and resident of Staten Island, reassures another character who comments on how fucked up the world is by telling her, “there is something wrong, but we have to keep trying to fix it.” It isn’t just an empty sentiment; it’s a call to action against a government that preys on the mentally ill, the poor, and the forgotten, all while protecting the rich and the powerful. That’s the sentiment that makes this movie much more damning to those in power than another adaptation of “The Most Dangerous Game” ever could be. Shelving The Hunt is ultimately pointless, as 2019 has a whole slew of films about class warfare like The First Purge (Ready or Not, Knives Out, Parasite, etc.) that taps into something very real and very raw.
It’s something that people who were upset about a trailer and a vague synopsis refuse to understand, and something that even the President of the United States is unwilling to understand: that just because you’re the winner doesn’t mean you’re the good guy.