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Movie review: ‘The Purge’ relies on Halloween funhouse frights

Dennis King Published: June 10, 2013

It’s America in 2022, and “the New Founding Fathers” are in charge. They’ve instituted a system of social engineering that’s virtually eradicated unemployment and violent crime, and, yet, recognizing the darker side of human nature, they’ve set aside one night each year in which the populace is allowed a bloody, cathartic venting of anarchy and murderous rage.

Ethan Hawke
Ethan Hawke

That’s the unlikely – nay, utterly preposterous – premise of “The Purge,” writer-director James DeMonaco’s hazily satirical, sci-fi home invasion thriller whose one big idea is buried beneath a clumsy onslaught of genre clichés and tired old fright-movie tactics.

Following the well-trod path of several better movies, from Sam Peckinpah’s classic “Straw Dogs” to John Carpenter’s “Assault On Precinct 13” (which DeMonaco remade in 2005 with Ethan Hawke starring), this film starts with a pretty good idea – that even in well-ordered, security-obsessed suburbia, we’re never as safe as we hope to be.

But when the lights go out and the bloody-minded crazies emerge from the night, DeMonaco’s tale quickly stumbles and loses its way.

Purge night is the one government-sanction night of the year when people are allowed, actually urged, to indulge their vilest impulses. With certain restrictions limiting weapons of mass destruction and protecting higher ups in the government, people are encouraged to take to the streets to plunder, burn, maraud, rape and kill as they please – with no fear of repercussion.

Of course, this being America, the one-percenters such as James Sandin (Hawke) and his family – wife Mary (Lena Headey), older daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and younger son Charlie (Max Burkholder) – are free to lock themselves in their McMansions, arm their high-tech security systems and wait out the mayhem.

Convenient for the nouveau riche Sandins because dad made his money selling state-of-the-art computerized security systems to skittish homeowners.

But as the crazies take to the streets, things go quickly awry at the Sandin house when Zoey’s wayward boyfriend violates the security system and sensitive Charlie spots a homeless man running for his life from some rampaging preppies and opens the barred doors to let the poor man in.

Next thing they know, the Sandins are besieged by murderous gang of rich kids (wielding deadly implements and wearing fright makes, no less) who demand that John turn over the homeless man or they’ll take out the bloodlust on his family. That’s when Hawke butches up and morphs into action-movie mode.

What follows is a murky and rather pro forma series of eerie-creepy fright moments – nervous tiptoes down dark corridors, sudden starts, lurking shadows, things that go bump in the night. None of which particularly matters because the story rests on such a nutty premise and violates its own internal logic so many times that pretty soon you feel as though you’re just wandering through one of those kitschy Halloween funhouses from one shock to another.

Any allegory or satire that DeMonaco aspired to – concerning the fragility of social order or the illusion of techno-safety – is finally purged in “The Purge’s” doggedly predictable pursuit of manufactured, claustrophobic terror.

- Dennis King

“The Purge”




2 stars

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Adelaide Kane, Max Burkholder

(Strong disturbing violence and some language)


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