What makes a movie premise irresistible? It’s typically different from how movies are pitched to studios and agents. Trying to sell a movie can look like a math problem, suggesting that Plot A + Setting B x Twist C = Story D. But the best films are often the ones that get right to the point.
For example, what if all crime was legal for 12 hours? It’s a big enough idea that any reasonable person has questions, even if that question is just “What?” You want to know more. That’s the reason James DeMonaco’s 2013 movie The Purge spawned sequel after sequel — and a TV show to boot. While the franchise has run into some sprawl, the first movie is as tight a horror thriller as it was on release.
The Purge’s premise isn’t entirely original; DeMonaco happily admits his plot was inspired by the 1967 Star Trek episode “Return of the Archons.” In it, Kirk and Spock visit a dictatorial planet where, at a time known as Red Hour, a period of uncontrolled debauchery called the Festival begins. But DeMonaco junks most of this sci-fi premise. The events of The Purge take place in an American suburb, and the protagonists are a family of everyday nobodies.
The Purge’s scant world-building comes in dribs and drabs. A brief text scroll describes an America in 2022 where life is good and crime is almost non-existent. Well, except on one night. After showing a series of Purge-related murders, the movie jumps to the Sandin family. Patriarch James (Ethan Hawke) is driving home after another great day at the office. His Purge security company is rolling in dough, and he’s the top salesman.
His wife Mary (Lena Headey), isn’t doing quite as well. Their son Charlie (Max Burkholder) keeps scaring her with his creepy robot doll, and teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) is being moody. Plus her neighbor Grace (Arija Bareikis), who’s hard at work on foreshadowing duty, keeps mentioning how everyone in the neighborhood resents having to pay her husband’s company for his security systems.
The Purge begins with a calorie-free dinner and some red wine. James’ security system, which appears to be mainly metal plates in front of doors and windows, goes into place. Then the Emergency Broadcast System starts to play, breaking down the rules of the Purge set down by, in another drabble of worldbuilding, the New Founding Fathers of America. Like any good official warning, it goes out of its way to mention that murder is among the crimes that are now legal.
What makes The Purge work is its scale. There are endless places the concept could go, many of which are explored in the sequels. But sticking with the Sandins allows for a home invasion to feel like a sociological experiment. There’s a sense of betrayal as they watch their neighbors gather for a Purge Party they said wouldn’t be happening, an ominous mix of suburban drama and raw fear.
While the concept doesn’t really make any psychological, political, or sociological sense, accepting the Purge’s existence makes for a series of compelling and believable dominos. Perhaps the greatest is the fact that when the family is threatened by a group of preppy Purgers, James is forced to admit that his security systems actually suck. The movie doesn’t deal with this much — we never see his security fail for anyone else — but admitting that his entire business was unprepared for the reality that would be knocking on his door is perhaps the most prescient part of The Purge.
Looking back on The Purge amid the release of 2021’s The Forever Purge, a surprised DeMonaco told SlashFilm that he thought the movie would only “play at the Angelika in New York, the Laemmle in LA, and that's it, like the Michael Haneke film, like Funny Games, something like that.” But The Purge clearly tapped into American urges and fears — and DeMonaco makes it very clear that this is specifically an American story.
Wouldn’t this country be simpler if we could just get rid of the people we don’t like? The Purge argues that it’s never that simple.