There aren’t many modern horror movies that have had the impact of “The Purge,” which revolve around an idea so disturbing and insidious it feels like it’s been around forever. (Or at least since the 1967 “Star Trek” episode “The Return of the Archons.”)
"The Purge" takes place in a near future where an extreme conservative fringe party has taken over the American government, instituting a new national holiday where all crime is legal for 12 hours. Although the rationale for “Purge Night” is ostensibly to vent society’s hostilities to make the rest of the year more peaceful, in actuality it’s a grotesque attempt to convince Americans to partake of self-inflicted genocide, curtailing the population and empowering white supremacists.
The best films in “The Purge” franchise find a healthy balance of terrifying action and refreshingly direct moral parable. The worst are nonetheless intriguing explorations of social collapse amidst literal class warfare. And all of them paint an intriguing picture of America’s potential downfall, filtered through the glorious excess of exploitation filmmaking.
5. "The Purge” (2013)
It’s unusual for the first film in a successful franchise to be its weakest link, but James DeMonaco’s introduction to the dystopian future of “The Purge” does a pretty poor job of introducing the world of the series. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey play a suburban couple who’ve gotten rich off selling Purge-centric home defense systems, but this year their sanctum becomes the focus of an unexpected siege after they take in a wounded man on the run from wealthy maniacs. The film’s narrow focus on the ultra-privileged -- not the real victims of The Purge -- and its budget-conscious failure to dramatize the chaos in the streets make it an effective tease for future sequels. But it’s not satisfying on its own.
4. “The Forever Purge” (2021)
The apparent conclusion to the "Purge" series takes place in Texas, where undocumented immigrants live in uneasy equilibrium with the white landowners who hire them, after the New Founding Fathers have reclaimed political power and reinstated the Purge. The problem is, half the country doesn’t want the Purge to end, so one night of ultra-violence gradually becomes wholly apocalyptic. Everardo Gout’s film smartly subverts conventional western genre motifs but its criticisms of Manifest Destiny are undermined by its willingness to let the characters who benefit the most from social inequality -- the very critique at the heart of this franchise -- off the hook.
3. "The Purge: Anarchy" (2014)
DeMonaco’s first "Purge" sequel is an incredibly efficient mayhem machine. Frank Grillo stars as a cop determined to use Purge Night to take revenge for his son's death but gets sidetracked when his conscience intervenes, forcing him to protect innocent citizens from hordes of masked killers, some of whom have a secret agenda. The world of "The Purge" expands with "Anarchy," which reveals terrifying truths about why this holiday exists in the first place and sets the stage for more meaningful social commentary in the future.
2. "The First Purge" (2018)
Gerard McMurray’s prequel to the franchise takes place on Staten Island, where the first Purge Night will take place in front of a throng of Americans who don’t know what to make of this experiment. What starts out as a giant block party soon devolves into chaos when external forces decide to artificially inflate the body count and jumpstart a horrific social revolution. "The First Purge" takes a while to get going, but the film’s emphasis on how an inhumane concept emerged from a heartless bureaucracy and became normalized has uncomfortable parallels with other, real-life institutional nightmares, offering greater depth and poignancy than most of the other films.
1. "The Purge: Election Year" (2016)
"Election Year" has it all: action, commentary, and -- uniquely, in this franchise -- an iota of hope. Elizabeth Mitchell plays a liberal presidential candidate who promises to outlaw Purge Night, so the New Founding Fathers announce a special holiday where even politicians are fair game. The topicality of DeMonaco’s third "Purge," which was released during the Clinton/Trump campaigns, may seem borderline tasteless, but the film's confrontational political allegory taps directly into the divisive rhetoric that changed the political landscape. The ending suggests that change is possible, but it also horrifyingly suggests that the damage inflicted upon our social norms could be permanent, foreshadowing violent insurrection if the balance of power ever shifts away from the oppressors. Chilling.