‘The Purge’: somewhere Shirley Jackson is smiling

purgeThe movie business press was stunned by the performance of the new Universal horror film, “The Purge,” last weekend.

Made for around $3 million, the picture opened in the number one spot with a $36.4 million gross. Left with egg on their faces were the producers of the $58 million comedy, “The Internship,” which grossed less than half of what “The Purge” did and came in at a feeble four in the top ten.

A B-horror movie isn’t supposed to dominate the box office during the most prime of summer months at the nation’s multiplexes, but “The Purge” has earned its success the old-fashioned way by delivering the goods — it’s the first shocker worth talking about in a long time.

The film is written and directed by James DeMonaco from a deliciously simple premise. It’s the year 2022 and the U.S. government is sanctioning an annual “purge” — when local and federal law enforcement officials look the other way for 12 hours, allowing the populace to commit any crimes it desires.

For the haves, it means 12 hours of fabulous “reality” TV viewing in their heavily guarded and gated communities — i.e. watching members of the lower classes maiming and murdering each other.

DeMonaco has produced something that could be read as one of the most virulently anti-American films of recent vintage, an appalling display of the bloodlust built into the culture and purge4a scathing critique of the way our government has more or less sanctioned a permanent (and vast) underclass warehoused in urban squalor far from the plush preserves of the 1 percent.

The plot combines elements of Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery” (about an annual human sacrifice in a small New England village), with bits of “Straw Dogs,” “Night of the Living Dead” and a few other horror classics. But DeMonaco has blended these elements into a fresh use of a disreputable genre for social commentary.

B-moviemakers often get away with a lot more than those who work on big-budget pictures that are slowly developed and then endlessly focus-grouped so that any upsetting notions are left on the cutting room floor. “The Purge” is a rough little movie — marred by more than a couple of plotting problems — but like “Night of the Living Dead” and the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” it has surprising satirical and political elements in it.

Seeing the movie at a Manhattan multiplex over the weekend, it was quite amazing to witness this cunning, slightly-futuristic thriller work its sadistic ways on an audience.

When wealthy security expert Ethan Hawke and his wife Lena Headey and two children provide shelter in their McMansion to a black man a white mob is hunting for sport, “The Purge” gets into the sort of queasy race politics that B-movies used to exploit in the 1970s.

So few Hollywood pictures explore contemporary racism that you can feel the audience being jolted by the way this horror movie digs into the topic. DeMonaco keeps us off balance as we wonder how far he is going with the volatile material (as it turns out, he goes right to the edge of the abyss).

The casting is perfect, especially in the case of the film’s truly unsettling primary villain — the young, handsome WASP (Rhys Wakefield, above) who demands that the barricaded family turn over the “animal” they are sheltering in their house. Wakefield is beyond creepy, with his calm demeanor and lunatic grin — worthy of comparison with Richard Widmark in “Kiss of Death.”

Then, near the end of the movie, Arija Bareikis turns up in the house, as another blood-thirsty, Bible-quoting WASP, and she’s even scarier than Wakefield. People around me in the theater were crying out for her to be killed (and I can’t say that I blamed them).

“The Purge” is manipulative and more than slightly tasteless, but it is also a sensationally effective horror movie.


Joe Meyers