The Purge: review

Purge posterTHE 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 (Ethan Hawke) keeps a watchful eye on the strangers outside.
James (Ethan Hawke) keeps a watchful eye on the strangers outside.

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.”
Purge neighborsIn 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.
Ryse Wakefield as the smiling "Polite Stranger"
Ryse Wakefield as the smiling "Polite Stranger"

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.

SINISTER (2012): Review

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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.

Oooh - scary, kids! Or maybe not so much.
Oooh - scary, kids! Or maybe not so much.

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.
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Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) watches home movies of the murders.

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.”)
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Mr. Boogie is ready for his close-up

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.

Paranormal Activity comes to life in Blumhouse of Horrors

“Sinister” producer Jason Blum discusses the difficulties of transferring cinematic horror to a live Halloween event.

Halloween haunted house attractions are no longer much concerned with childhood memories of dilapidated old mansions rumored to be inhabited by ghoulies and ghosties. Today, Halloween haunts are increasingly influenced by movies; this year, for example, Knott’s Berry Farm’s annual Halloween Haunt and Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights feature walk-through mazes based on such franchises as THE EVIL DEAD, CARRIE, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and THE WALKING DEAD.
Add a new name to this list of Halloween horrors inspired by the silver screen. One of the most anticipated haunted house events in Los Angeles this October is the Blumhouse of Horrors, a new live attraction from Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, the company behind the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies, INSIDIOUS, and SINISTER (which opens nationwide on Friday). These films eschew the modern torture porn approach to the horror genre in favor of supernatural shivers. Some of that subtly is on view inside the Blumhouse of Horrors, although gore fans will find a drop or two of their favorite grue as well.
The Blumhouse of Horrors shares some elements with Delusion: The Blood Rite, another L.A. haunt that mixes drama with scares. Set within a real location (the old Variety Arts Theatre in downtown Los Angeles), the half-hour Blumhouse tour attempts to present a story – in this case, of a magician whose final performance ended with his mysterious disappearance from the stage, along with another man’s wife. Blumhouse of Horrors is not as heavily scripted as Delusion: there are a few dramatic vignettes, but not all of them relate directly to the main story; the characters we see represent the souls of all who died within the premises, whether or not they have anything to do with the magician and his lover. Still, producer Jason Blum believes there may be potential to spin the haunt’s back story into its own feature film.
Whether or not the appeal of Blumhouse of Horrors is strong enough to generate a feature film – remains to be seen. Blum himself says he won’t know until the box office results are tallied at the end of October. In our video interview, conducted on a press-preview night, while the kinks were still being worked out of the ghostly chains rattling in dark hallways, Blum talks about the transition from cinematic horror to the live variety and the challenge of attracting timid audiences to visit something really scary – downtown L.A.

Producer Jason Blum
Producer Jason Blum

Below, you will find a partial transcript of the interview – which is to say, our rambling questions have been shortened, while Mr. Blum’s answers remain intact.
Question: How did you make the transition from producing horror movies to producing a live Halloween event?
Jason Blum: We make almost all of our movies in Los Angeles. We use the same crew from movie to movie. A couple of years ago, we were on the set at launch, and we were talking about, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do all these scares that we do in our movies – to try and do them live. That conversation resulted in where we are today. It was a long road to get here, but we finally made it.
What are the lessons you learned from horror films that you can apply in Blumhouse of Horrors?
Jason Blum: You scare people in the same way, whether it’s a movie, a tv show, or a live event – which is, you distract them over here, and come at them with a jump scare [from another direction]. Secondly, we rely in our movies very much on narrative. I think the story is really important. I think scares are scarier if the audience is involved with a story, so with the haunted house, we tried to come up with a story first and build the scares around it. Hopefully, people will experience it that way.
Are there certain kinds of scares that work better in a live situation, when the audience is not separated from them by a movie screen?
Jason Blum: There are good and bad things about live. The bad thing is when you mess up, you don’t get another try. In a movie or a tv show, you can either re-edit it or shoot it again. But the good things are that the scares are three-dimensional, and we can do them and watch people’s reaction, and change our story or change our scares a little bit, and keep going. That’s very gratifying as someone who is a scare-maker.
What was it like for you to talk through the Blumhouse of Horrors the first time? Did some thing work better than expected, or not as well?
Jason Blum: There are surprises in both directions. That’s a really fun thing about this: there are certain things that do work way better than you expect. And certain things that when we were describing it – “Oh this is going to be the best thing!” – don’t work at all. That’s been a fun kind of discovery process.
So, will this be a work in progress – tinkering all month long?
Jason Blum: Yes, it will. I hope that we’ll do more of certain things and less of others, and learn from the people who go through. Hopefully people will come back and see something they didn’t see before or experience something new.
Chicken and the egg question: Which came first, the story or the location?
Jason Blum: The idea to do a haunted house came first; building came second; story came third. But the story came from looking at the building and working a story in that would work in this location.
Did you develop the story on your own or work with others?
Jason Blum: I didn’t come up with anything in here on my own. Our company provides a framework for people who are more creative than me, who are great at what they do, and we let them do it and encourage them to do it. Jennifer Spence and Tom Spence, are a production designer and an art director who have worked on many movies for us, and they were the creative forces behind this.
With INSIDIOUS, SINISTER, and now Blumhouse of Horrors, what lessons have you tried to carry through from the first PARANORMAL ACTIVITY?
Jason Blum: What I learned from the first Paranormal Activity, and what we’ve tried to recreate in Insidious, Sinister, and now this haunted house, is how important story-telling is to horror. Most people think horror is about scares; most people put scares first and story second. We really put story first and scares second.
The Variety Arts Theatre in downtown Los Angeles - now thats scary!
The Variety Arts Theatre in downtown Los Angeles - now that's scary!

Is there a concern that you have set yourself a high hurdle to clear? Some people are afraid to make a special trip downtown, so perhaps “good” won’t be good enough to draw an audience?
Jason Blum: I think we have to be great to get people to come here. I didn’t want to lose money doing this, but profit was not the main reason we did this. We did this to develop a muscle in a different medium for the company. I think it’s a challenge. We have a guess how many people we hope to get in here, and if you ask me in a month I’ll tell you if we hit it or not.
Are you planning to resurrect Blumhouse of Horrors next year?
Jason Blum: I can’t think that far ahead. I’m just trying to make it to November 3rd right now!

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CONCLUSION

If the Blumhouse of Horrors keeps improving, it could rank among the best Halloween attractions in Los Angeles. Currently, its strength lies in the wonderful location, whose authentic atmosphere lends an aura of conviction to the action. However, the story-telling at Blumhouse of Horrors falls short of Delusion, and the ending (at least on preview night) was strangely anti-climactic. Here’s hoping the witch’s brew is fully double-boiled, toiled and troubled by the time Halloween rolls around.
The Blumhouse of Horrors is set in the Variety Arts Theatre, 940 South Figueroa Street, Los Angeles, CA 90017. Performances dates are October 4-6, 11-13, 18-20, 25-27, 29,31, November 1-3. Hours are 6pm to midnight. Tickets are available at the official website: $29 for general admission; $55 for VIP (front of the line).

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY producer will haunt Los Angeles this Halloween

Apparently, scaring people in movie theatres is not enough for Jason Blum, whose upcoming SINISTER is due to hit screens on October 5. The Hollywood producer, whose Blumhouse Productions is the company behind PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS, will take to scaring his fans in person this Halloween season, when he opens the Blumhouse of Horrors in the old Variety Arts Theatre in downtown Los Angeles on October 4. (One can only imagine the company synergy involved in having the live event start the day before SINISTER opens nationwide. UPDATE: SINISTER has been pushed back to October 12.)
An article in the Los Angeles Times explains the rational behind the Halloween attraction: Although Blum does not expect to lose money on the event, nor does he expect profits to match those of the successful PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films. Instead, Blumhouse of Horrors is a way of connecting with fans, building the brand name of the company, and possibly laying the groundwork for spin-offs and tie-ins:

And like any good producer, Blum is thinking multimedia. The story of a magician who absconded with a beautiful woman more than 80 years ago and still haunts the theater owned by her husband could live on past Halloween.
Blumhouse of Horrors artwork
“There may be a movie or a TV show or a reality idea here,” Blum said.

The back story of the Blumhouse of Horrors is that the theatre owner’s wife wanted to be the magician’s assistant, but she literally disappeared from the stage on closing night back in the 1930s, never to be seen again. Since then, the theatre has been closed, until now. Visitors who want to explore the mystery will weave their way through the Variety Arts Theatre from top to bottom, encountering scares provided by a a 25-person crew, many of whom have worked on Blumhouse productions. At a cost of several hundred thousand dollars (i.e., not quite what Blum spends on a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY film), the Blumhouse of Horrors will feature a cast of fifty ghosts and ghouls haunting the corridors and stage of the venerable Los Angeles landmark.
Blumhouse of Horrors runs from October 4 through November 3, with performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, plus Halloween night and the two nights prior (that is, Octber 29-31).
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