The new horror film “The Purge” is a modest success, more like “Sinister” than like “Fright Night,” but without either one’s supernatural element. What is causing the problem for the middle class family of four in the new film is a nationwide social experiment.
The idea is that in the near future the government will make crime legal for twelve night-time hours, one day each year. From dusk to dawn, armed thugs roam the streets (apparently all on foot) vandalizing and murdering. Then with this sort of behavior out of their systems, the theory goes, they will be more docile and productive.
Pa (Ethan Hawke, who is beginning to look as if he belongs on a rustic Ozarks porch, with a long rifle and a tall hat) has benefited from the legal adoption of the Purge. He sells home security systems, most of them in his own “gated” neighborhood, and he’s done quite well with that. Well enough to have made some of the neighbors jealous.
But the family has its troubles, too. Teenaged daughter Zoey is devoted to a beau too old for her. He sneaks into the house just before the family turns on its remote camera system and lowers its steel shutters. Then slightly younger son Charlie opens a door to let in a stranger, bloody after an encounter with a squad of preppy thugs, too.
The neighbors tell the blazer-wearing ax wielders that their target is being sheltered by our heroes. So Pa’s house is surrounded and the gun-toting spokesman of the plaid tie squad gives the family a deadline for giving up their visitor.
As Pa and Ma (Lena Headley, originally seen doing housework in three and a half inch heels, June Cleaver-like) search the house, looking for the refugee, Zoey’s beau suddenly emerges and engages in a shoot-out with Pa. That’s a surprise. Beau is killed.
Charlie helps the refugee to hide out for a bit. Then he is captured by the older members of the family. But Ma and even Pa can’t quite force themselves to send the bleeding refugee out to sure death at the hands of the mask-wearing preppies. They decide instead to arm themselves and fight it out when the invasion comes.
This action takes maybe an hour of the film’s hour and twenty minutes. So the crisis contains almost all of the fighting and slashing and jumping around. Still, to be fair to director James DeMonaco, there is a little humor in the first hunk of the movie and a few interesting images, and the first hour really doesn’t go all that slow.
But it was long enough that the young woman who sat down next to me had to check her “smart” phone three times. When I clicked my tongue, she put the gadget up. But she got it back out again by and by. I want to take issue with those who say cell phones are the new cigarettes of our society. They annoy me more than smokes ever did.
When I wasn’t being annoyed by my neighbor, I was mostly diverted by “The Purge’s” mix of ideas from Sam Peckinpaw’s movie “Straw Dogs” and Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” If “The Purge” didn’t ever scare me, it did provide some of those moments that always make horror movie fans come alive as a group, to shriek out warnings and cheer the killing of villains.
And I suspect a fair percentage of the ticketholders feel like I do about people who turn on painfully bright cellphone lights in the dark of a movie theater. If the girl in the next seat would have gotten an ax to the back during the screening, some moviegoers sitting behind her might have cheered. And then that would have gotten the poison out of their system and they could have lived peacefully and decently until they next attended a horror movie.