THE PURGE had a happy weekend at the theaters and a not-so-happy weekend in the press, drawing healthy box office but getting slammed by most critics. Somewhat reflecting the confusion, the Cinefantastique Online gang of Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons are of mixed opinions about this tale of the United States undergoing a night of officially sanctioned violence, with reactions to the film ranging from “surprisingly tense with a powerful social subtext” to “the worst kind of cinematic exploitation.” Come join us as we dig into this low-budget exercise in speculative horror, discussing where director James DeMonaco succeeds and fails in meshing commentary with thrills, and pondering what happens when these people have to face each other the morning after.
Also: What’s coming to theaters next week.
A video review of THE PURGE, including film clips and excerpts from the trailer. The film’s premise (an annual 12-hour lawless free-for-all) is incredible, but THE PURGE stands as an effective political parable, earning 3 out of 5 stars on the Cinefantastique Review scale – that is, recommended viewing.
Please note: If you are wondering why the video shows up twice in this post, the second version is necessary in order to make the video show up in Cinefantastique’s podcast feed for iTunes.
THE PURGE is a tense thriller with a novel if incredible premise that combines bits of THE STRANGERS, PANIC ROOM, STRAW DOGS, the STAR TREK episode “Return of the Archons,” and Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (or at least an echo of the short story’s underlying concept, as inspired by the William James essay “The Moral Philospher and the Moral Life”). By reconfiguring its old formula – eliminating some elements, adding others – Blumhouse Productions (working in conjunction with Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes) has crafted its best film in years, erasing memories of the terminally declining PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sequels and spin-offs. The result may not be perfectly satisfying, but the film earns the overused praise, “thought provoking.”
The usual Blumhouse spooks are gone, but the company’s traditional running time (under 90 minutes) and low-budget setting remains the same: the majority of the action plays out inside a single-family dwelling, a homestead under attack, the family within buffeted by brutal forces that cannot be kept at bay by locked doors. The premise this time is that, nine years from now, the United States is enjoying an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity, thanks to the annual “Purge,” a twelve-hour period in which crime, even murder, is legalized, allowing the populace to release its simmering tension and hatred before returning to blissful normality for the rest of the year.
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is a prime beneficiary of this status quo: he sells security systems to rich clients, who want to avoid being caught up in the Purge’s violence. Business is so good that he and his wife, Mary (Lena Headey) have added an extension to their mansion, incurring the envy of their neighbors. All is not well, however: son Charlie (Max Burkholder) is too young to understand the “necessity” of the Purge, and daughter Zoe (Adelaide Kane) is moody because her father disapproves of her older boyfriend, Henry (Tony Oller). Shortly after James puts the house on lockdown, Charlie raises the defenses to allow entrance by a frightened “Bloody Stranger” (as the character played by Edwin Hodge is referenced in the credits). This draws the attention of a gang led by the Polite Stranger (Rhys Wakefield), whose preturnatural poise masks a murderous desire to Purge his soul by killing the man who has taken refuge inside the Sandin’s home. He offers James a terrible choice: either turn over the Bloody Stranger , or the Polite Stranger and his friends will find a way inside and kill not only their intended victim but the Sandin family as well.
THE PURGE promises a chaotic free-for-all of citywide wilding; what it actually delivers is smaller in scope but bigger in concept: social satire that is sharper, and laced with far more conviction, than THE HUNGER GAMES. The film presents a clearly immoral situation that has been normalized and accepted, thanks to jingoistic patriotism, mixed with a touch of religious fervor. Those who benefit rationalize the Purge’s existence because of its benefits to society – by which, they mean benefits to themselves; those who stay safely locked inside, avoiding the ill-effects of the Purge, show their “support” by placing symbolic flowers outside their houses, as if that somehow forms a bond of solidarity with the less fortunate, who cannot protect themselves.
As drama, THE PURGE is built on an unbelievable premise: do we really accept that the population would let bygones be bygones after seeing loved ones brutally murdered by strangers and even acquaintances who were allowed to go free? Fortunately, credibility is not a problem, because the film works on the level of a parable, a variation on James’ theme that a blissful utopia where millions were happy at the expense of the suffering and torture of some far-off soul would be a “hideous thing.”
In the film, this suffering is inflicted on far more than a single soul, but it is embodied in the form of the Bloodied Stranger, a homeless black man (whose briefly glimpsed dog tags suggest a war veteran) whose plight moves Charlie to a human act of pity, with devastating consequences. For once, James Sandin is confronted with the reality that he has kept at bay, compartmentalized in his mind. At first, he is more than willing to sacrifice this lamb to the gang lurking outside like the zombies in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but his children are unwilling to accept the sacrifice their father is willing to make on their behalf, thus forcing James to rethink his assumptions.
The way this plays out is not always as clear and sharp as it should be. The geography of the Sandin house is never clearly established, which makes the action unclear (things in different rooms seems to be happening at the same time, but no one ever notices tell-tale voices or – more obviously – gunshots). Zoey’s moping catatonia is hardly endearing, and her schoolgirl outfit (skirt, white blouse, and tie) look less like a real uniform than a sexy schoolgirl costume. Last-minute reshooting may have left a few seams showing, with characters disappearing for extended periods: the Bloody Stranger (who clearly will have to have a large role in the film’s resolution) is sidelined far too long, even after James has relented his initial decision to toss him outside; meanwhile, James is given more STRAW DOGS-type action as he defends his home against the invaders. And writer-director james DeMonaco serves up approximately half a dozen variations on a scene that should never appear more than once in any film: a helpless, unarmed audience identification figure, about to be killed, is saved by a gunshot from an off-screen figure.
To its credit, THE PURGE does not lay out a moral to the story in a schematic way, leaving some room for interpretation. Although some characters are clearly bad, our “good guys” are no saints. James and Mary may not participate in the Purge, but they live with it happily – at arm’s length -and make a pretty penny off of it, even if they do not truly deserve their wealth. (One of the film’s sly jokes is that James is a bit of a con-man; his security systems are far from fool-proof, leaving even his own family at risk.) Despite the even-handedness, one suspects that the film is at least partially a jab at the concept of a religious right-wing political ascendancy. Rhys Wakefield’s artificially strained smile of politeness recalls Mitt Romney’s nickname “The Smiler,” and one briefly overheard news commentator suggests that the real purpose of the Purge is to thin society’s ranks of the poor and the unemployed – i.e., the “Takers” so reviled by the Right.
In the end, the good, upstanding folk of the restricted neighborhoods turn out to be at least as blood-thirsty as the supposed criminal underclass; they pretend that their temporarily de-criminalized behavior is a cleansing spiritual act. Clearly, class and racial lines are being crossed in a way that breaks down the “us versus them” mentality behind the Purge. Those who survive are willing to reconsider the system, or at least refuse to abide by its immoral strictures, while the embodiment of that system must finally pay the piper. It’s not a bad moral at all, and it vastly improves on the usual Blumhouse “twist,” in which everybody dies because it’s “unexpected” – regardless of whether that ends the story satisfactorily.
Teenagers expecting to vicariously enjoy a feature length riot in the streets may be disappointed by THE PURGE, but the film does what good speculative fiction should do: it asks, “What if?” THE PURGE may not be absolutely brilliant, but DeMonaco is clever enough to let his intriguing question speak for itself, provoking us to consider our own answers.
THE PURGE (Universal Pictures: June 7, 2013). A Blumhouse and Platinum Dune Production. Produced by Jason Blum and Michael Bay. Written and directed by James DeMonaco. Rated R. 85 minutes. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Tony Oller, Arija Bareikis, Tom Yi, Chris Mulkey, Tisha French.
Michael Fassbender tries out his Magneto powers… Director James DeMonaco discusses THE PURGE… Trailer for INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2 seeks to unsettle…
Direct from the lavish Cinefantastique Studios in NYC, Dan Persons brings you up-to-date on what’s happening in genre media.
Universal Pictures releases this speculative thriller from Blumhouse Productions, which posits that on one night every year, laws are rescinded, allowing society to “purge” its violent tendencies and then live peacefully the rest of the time. (Sounds a bit like the “Festival” time from “The Return of the Archons,” a first-season episode of STAR TREK.)
James De Monaco wrote and directed. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey head the cast, supported by Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, and Tony Oller. Rated R. 85 minutes.
Release Date: June 7, 2013
I might as well say it right at the top: SINISTER – the new film from PARANORMAL ACTIVITY producer Jason Blum – is not very…well…sinister. If we define the word as meaning, “ominous, forbidding, portending of doom,” the film starts well enough, with suggestions of dark and sinister events to come; but soon other words creep into mind: stolid, sluggish, tedious. Unfortunately, the word that will seldom if enter occur to you is scary. From opening titles to closing credits, SINISTER turns out to be a long, dull trek, with shudders that are few and far between.
It is not as if the screenwriters did not try. The opening scenes set up the story very well, cleverly using a confrontation with a local sheriff to lay out necessary exposition without resorting to any obviously expository dialogue. The sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) is unhappy that true-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is moving into town, with plans to dig up details on an unsolved murder that the local population would rather forget. Oswalt, we soon learn, had his fifteen minutes of fame ten years ago, with a book titled Kentucky Blood, and in a desprate bid to recreate that success, he has moved his family into the actual house where a mass murder of a family took place. (Three guesses on how well this will turn out!)
In a novel twist on the “found footage” genre, Oswalt actually finds some footage – old Super 8 millimeter films in the attic, portraying not only the murder of the family but other, earlier murders. With the help of a local deputy, Oswalt traces the connections, which eventually lead to suggestions of the supernatural: a child-like drawing indicates the presence of “Mr. Boogie” at the scenes of the crimes, and Oswalt sees a shadowy figure in the background of the home movies. This eventually leads to a Skype conversation with a college professor (an unbilled Vincent D’Onofrio) who serves as the traditional “Johnny Explainer,” elaborating on the mythology of an obscure diety known as Bughuul – known for spiriting children off to another realm and devouring their souls.
Unfortunately, the script of SINISTER trips over its own honesty. In laying out the clues, it provides a virtual roadmap for the conclusion; anyone paying attention knows exactly where the story is headed. Which might not be so bad, except that Oswalt for some reason cannot see what is obvious to us.
Seriously: each murder is distinguished by the fact that one family member, a child, went missing. Add that with the childish drawing of the murder, and the fact that Bughuul is known for corrupting children – and what conclusion does that lead you to? Similarly, Oswalt early on realizes that the victims in his current home had lived in a house where the previous set of murders took place. So is there any reason to be worried when Oswalt finally decides he’s had enough, and moves his family out of the haunted residence? Because, you know, if PARANORMAL ACTIVITY taught us nothing else, it’s that ghost are not restricted to specific locations; they target people, wherever they may go.
I’m sorry if all this seems spoiler-ish, but in fact this is just the way SINISTER is laid out. Morever, we have ample reason to see that Oswalt is setting himself up for a fall. Despite much talk about wanting to provide a good life for his family, and also about wanting to see justice being done, it is abundantly clear that the author’s real motivation is greed – a point underlined when he decides not to share his found footage with the police. You just know that kind of moral transgression cannot go unpaid. (And if you think there might be some sort of dramatic arc in which Oswalt learns his lesson, then you probably have not watched any horror films for the past fifteen years.)
Even with a running time stretched to interminable legnth, SINISTER never manages to tie all its elements together. Why Super 8? you ask. But you will not find out. Presumably we’re supposed to assume it relates to the time when the first murders took place, but why did the murders begin then? (One keeps supposing that the timeline will be pushed even further back, suggesting that these killings have been going on for centuries, but nothing every materializes.)
SINISTER is also plagued by the usual inconsistencies seen in the horror genre, in which things happen just because we need them to. So after learning that Bughuul is little known today because most images of him were destroyed by early Christians, we see Oswalt burn Bughuul’s home movies, only – you guessed it – to have them miraculously reappear. Guess Super 8 celluloid is more resilient than ancient frescoes and canvases!
All of this might have been at least partially forgiven if SINISTER had at least offered a few memorable scares, or at least a shiver or two. Instead, the 110-minute running time is padded with endless scenes of Oswalt wandering through the dark corridors of his suburban home, while the audience waits for something – anything – to happen. More often than not, the pay-off is the sight of the Super 8 projector running by itself, suggesting that Baghuul really really likes to watch his old movies again and again. The only truly disturbing scare is not directly associated with Mr. Boogie: Oswalt’s son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) is genuinely unnerving during a sequence in which, suffering from night terrors, he emerges unexpectedly from a box, as if undergoing an epileptic seizure. This one moment easily upstages everything else in the film.
Hawke manages to acquit himself as well as can be expected, in the largely unsympathetic role. Especially in the early scenes, he captures the desperation of a man deliberately exposing himself to abominable horrors – hoping that he can make a buck without losing his soul (or at least his mind) in the process. Also noteworth is James Ransone as the helpful deputy, known only as “Deputy So-and-So” because he offers to be the guy whose name you always see on the acknowledgements page at the beginning of Oswalt’s books, the “Deputy So-and-So, without whom this book could not have been written.”
The rest of the cast are professional enough, and Dalton does a good job of looking disgruntled but legitimately so – not just a one-note antagonist. Unfortunately, much of the action the characters perform is hard to believe, and many of them drop out of the action for so long it is impossible to guild credible character arcs; Oswalt’s wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) is particularly hampered by inconsistencies.
In the end, all SINISTER has to offer are a few standard-issue scare techniques: shadowy figures in darkness; a freeze-frame image of Bughuul that comes to life when Oswalt is not looking, etc. But when director Scott Derrickson (THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE) tries to pull out all the stops, he plays a bum note: the souls of the children pursuing Oswalt (during his umpteenth trip down the dark corridors) just are not terribly terrifying, and their closeups only emphasis the lack of shivers. (They all look like kids dressed up for Halloween, and you want to say, “Oh, how cute! Now go have fun trick-or-treating.”)
As if sensing the dearth of horror, SINISTER offers one final “shock” shot of Bughuul’s face lunging into frame before the closing credits. It’s almost funny: in its desperate attempt to deliver a good scare before sending the audience home, the scene virtually defines the cliche: “too little, too late.”
SINISTER (2012). Produced by Jason Blum. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by C. Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley, Rob Rile, Tavis Smiley, Janet Zappala, Victoria Leigh, and Nicholas King as Bughuul.
Summit Entertainment releases this “frightening new thriller from the producer of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films and the writer-director of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE.” Ethan Hawke stars as a true crime novelist who discovers some disturbing home movies that plunge his family into a nightmarish experience of supernatural horror.
Director: Scott Derrickson. Script: C. Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, James Ransone, Clare Foley, Fred Dalton Thompson, Michael Hall D’Addario, Juliet Rylance.
Release Date: October 12 (pushed back from October 5)
DAYBREAKERS is a film of glistening surfaces – modern architecture, billboards, automobiles – all lit in the subdued hues that “heaven to gaudy day denies.” Set mostly at night, this science-fiction-horror film shares some stylistic affinity with DARK CITY (1998), which also used a cinefantastique premise to justify taking old school film noir aesthetics to dazzling new extremes. From the opening montage of an empty city, awaiting the awakening of the vampirized populace, the film looks like a production designer’s dream, as the camera glides over city streets, bus stops, and advertisement posters, inviting us into this strange, new, yet oddly familiar world. It’s an effective strategy that seduces you into engaging with the film, but there is a pitfall: the ultra-cool world of night is so beguiling that one barely regrets the loss of daylight, robbing the the story (a quest to find a cure for vampirism) of at least some of its dramatic impetus. Fortunately, this is a small price to pay for enjoying the visual pleasures on display.
Basically a riff on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, DAYBREAKERSexpands upon a concept suggested by, but never fully explored in, Richard Matheson’s novel or its filmic adaptations: that of a vampire society. In this future, the majority of the Earth’s population has been transformed into blood-drinkers by a plague. The few remaining non-vampires are stored like the human batteries in The Matrix, slowly drained of their remaining drops of life, which are served in increasingly diluted portions at the equivalent of coffee bars. As the blood shortage grows more dire, hungry consumers begin to riot. Meanwhile Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), a scientist working for the world’s biggest blood supplier, works round the clock, searching for a cure. But does his boss, Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) really want a cure, or would he prefer to retain a permanently addicted customer-base, hopefully fed upon a synthesized substitute?
The plot runs on some fairly familiar fuel: Dalton abandons his company to form an alliance with an underground group of humans, one of whom, Lionel “Elvis” Cormac (Willem Dafoe) has mysteriously recovered from vampirism. Dalton’s former friends, family and allies think him a turncoat, and in a typical display of dramatic irony it is his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) who is charged with bringing him back into the fold. Can Dalton find a cure; and even if he can, will the public be willing to surrender immortality? And if they do surrender, will it be without a bloody, climactic fight? (If you guessed no to the last question, you win.)
Fortunately, the plot mechanics are in the service of an intriguing idea. Taking a science fiction approach to the material, instead of focusing only on the horror of blood-drinking, writer-directors Michael and Peter Spierig use vampirism as a metaphor for capitalism. Without ever turning DAYBREAKERS into a simple-minded screed (a la the recent FURRY VENGEANCE), they use their story to offer satiric commentary on consumer culture and the corporate overlords the nuture and feed it. In a way, the film is less about the allure of immortality than it is about the laws of supply and demand, depleting natural resources until artificial ones must be used instead – at much higher cost, because they can be patented, and when the natural stuff is gone, the consumer has no choice but to buy the alternative, at whatever price.
Although the battle lines initially seem clearly drawn, the screenplay offers a few nice character touches that prevent the story from slipping into a simple “us versus them” scenario; these nods toward character development also help keep the drama alive, so that the film does not slip into being a thinly disguised anti-capitalist manifesto. Particularly touching is brother Frankie’s late revelation about what he vampirized his older brother (he was frightened by the thought of living on without him), which engenders unexpected sympathy for a previously one-note Judas character, so that we actually feel a pang of regret over his ultimate fate.
In keeping with DAYBREAKERS’ film noir style, the performances tended to be muted, almost to the point of being dour. Neil does a good job at projecting the smiling good-guy facade of a cut-throat businessman, and Hawke seems tailor-made for his role; there’s not a lot of depth required of him, but he makes the surface look interesting.
The exception is Dafoe, whose “Elvis” Cormac character is supposed to breathe some life into the proceedings. A working-class auto detailer (he used to make a living customizing cars to protect drivers from sunlight), Cormac is a bit one-note (we’re supposed to like him because he’s straight-forward and he loves his classic cars), but Dafoe is a good enough actor to make us like him even though he is little more than a generic type.
The critical mass missing from this equation is the joy of sunshine and warmth, the thrill of rolling down the convertible top and letting the wind rush through your hair as you race down a long road on a sunny day. The Spierig Brothers more or less take for granted the superiority of ordinary human life over the vampire’s night-time existence, so much so that they never bother to sell the idea emotionally. When Dalton finally effects his cure, it works as a plot point, but we don’t really feel it in our gut the way we should. Like many artists who work in the realm of cinefantastique, they seem better at exploring the darkness than bathing in the light. The result is a good film, not a great one. Perhaps next time out, they can strike the perfect balance between (in Byon’s words) “all that’s best, of dark and bright.”
DAYBREAKERS (copyright 2009, released January 8, 2010). Written and directed by the Spierig Bothers (Michael and Peter). Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Karvan, Mungo McKay, Emma Randal, Michael Dorman.