Horror is a broad genre, and there are many reasons why those of us who are loyal to it come back again and again no matter how many times we are disappointed. Some horror films are useful because, after 90 minutes of being confronted with a fictitious evil, we walk away with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the evil in the real world, and the evil that resides inside of us. With others, we go for the sake of seeing master filmmakers teach us lessons in how to create suspense and feelings of terror, and can appreciate the artistry behind this. If the great Alfred Hitchcock could recognize the fact that good horror is a legitimate form of artistic expression, film snobs don't have much ground for a counter argument. There are also movies which are appreciated purely as an adrenaline rush, an exercise in mindless entertainment to distract from the drudgery of the day to day world. All of these kinds of horror are valid.
The Purge is a film with an identity crisis. It tries at various times to be all three of these things, and while I admire the scope of its ambition, the execution is slightly beyond its reach, and it fails on all accounts.
There are times when the film seems as if it is taking a page from Ira Levin's novels of the terrifying mundane. There were occasional glimpses of the evil that resides beneath the thin veneer of suburban complacency as in The Stepford Wives, and moments where it was hinted that, thematically, it was going for the Rosemary's Baby approach of cautioning us against the evil next door. But writer/director James DeMonaco, unfortunately, lacks Levin's mastery of plotting and his ability to craft subtle, mounting terror. Other times, it seemed as if he was going for more of a moral and political cautionary tale, trying to emulate some of the dystopian fables of Orwell and Huxley. We are told often about how the act of "purging" is great for the glory of god and the glory of the United States and we get some political drone chanting, but the whole thing feels very surface level and arbitrary. There were also many opportunities for the film to make some important statements about class and race, and hold up a mirror to our own capacity for violence and bloodshed, but it shirks these responsibilities under, I assume, the excuse of it being an action movie and not a political statement.
And it is in this third angle of approach that the film comes closest to succeeding. The action, for the most part, is good, and there were times when I was nervous and excited. Ethan Hawke, who, after this and Sinster, is starting to impress me as a horror actor, did a commendable job with the limited material he was given. He makes an unlikeable main character somewhat sympathetic, and his scenes work. I was disappointed in Lena Headey in the role of the wife. She's not bad, but never really seems to get deep into her (admittedly limited) character. I don't enjoy typecasting, but it was frustrating knowing what she is capable of, and with the exception of one satisfying moment at the end, seeing her not deliver here. The rest of the actors were forgettable, and occasionally commit one of the mortal sins in horror of being unintentionally humorous through over/under acting.
DeMonaco does create some moments of genuine fright and suspense, but again, he's a victim of his own ambition, and even these scenes pale when compared to other straight up home invasion films like Bryan Bertino's surprising 2008 hit The Strangers. Even the things that work, like the creepy masks, are things we've seen before in similar films. There is a huge element of "Oh, this again?" with many of the scare tactics, which is another grievous offense in this genre. Again, I'm not saying films should necessarily limit themselves and try to only be one thing at a time, and if a film is going to fail, I'd rather it fail because the director overreached. I just think that with a little more fine tuning, there was a pretty decent film here rather than a throwaway mediocre one. To succeed as a suburban nightmare (and to really give the ending --which I liked -- a more powerful punch), a few more minutes early on establishing the tenuous and shallow relationships between the neighbors would have made it work. As a moral/political tale, some time spent delving into the history of the purge, and examining the repercussions of children that have been born into that world contrasted against adults that have consciously adopted it and its values would have been nice. As straight up suspense/action, well, throw the rest of that shit away and up the body count.
I commend DeMonaco for trying something new here, and I don't think that overall The Purge is a bad film. My greed-and-bullshit detector for films like this is generally accurate, and I'll take this any day over vomitous money grubbing nonsense like Texas Chainsaw 3D for at least attempting to do something different. I walk away disappointed at what feels like a missed opportunity for something greater, but fans of horror should give it a shot and judge for themselves. At best you'll find some cool moments and have a good time. At worst you'll have a good time making fun of it. Rating: C-