Released during a surge of slick horror films that took place inside the perceived safety of the protagonist’s own home, James DeMonaco’s The Purge (2013) was a flawed curiosity that replaced spooks and monsters with a political system that set the American people against each other. It wasn’t until 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, however, that the series really hit its stride as it pulled the characters into the streets and constructed a context in which the titular, annual killing spree is used to suppress the poor and the homeless.
Now, in Election Year, DeMonaco takes the story to the highest level of American politics. Frank Grillo returns as Leo Barnes who, having spared the life of the man who killed his son in the last film, is now Head of Security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell); an idealist who is battling the ruling party for the Presidency in a bid to end the Purge.
After an assassination attempt, Barnes and Roan find themselves on the streets, backed up by Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), a shopkeeper trying to protect his deli, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), who works with Dixon and Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel), a once infamous purger who is now an EMT, helping people when other services are shut down. Once the group is formed, much of the story follows a similar pattern to Anarchy, with the rag-tag survivors moving from ‘safe-place’ to ‘safe-place’ while fending off various threats.
However, what makes Election Year stand out is the smaller, world-building touches DeMonaco adds to the film. We encounter ‘murder-tourism’, elaborate booby traps and tragic events brought about by increasingly trivial indiscretions. With the focal group, he scripts a microcosm of the wider situation, as Dixon believes that Barnes non-nonsense approach is disrespectful.
The grim action is caught beautifully by series cinematographer Jacques Jouffret, who creates contrasts between the greying, deprived streets with the lush colours of American flags and lit by flames and gunshots. Composer Nathan Whitehead also returns, combining jolting horror troupes with eerie moments of calm.
As with Anarchy, the weakest link is the heavy handed fashion in which DeMonaco plays with politics. Unabashedly liberal, with parallels galore made between the NFFA and the NRA, as well as American’s right-wing with the fundamentalist Christian society, the director fails to give any real character to the background players on either side. Those is favour of the Purge are portrayed as god-fearing lunatics or greed-driven psychopaths, while the opposing militia members, led by Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge), are two-dimensional – hardly doing justice for black characters on screen.
That said, The Purge is a series that seems to become more relevant as time goes by. Given the recent spate of shootings by white police officers against young, black men and the meteoric rise of Donald Trump, the lines between white and black, rich and poor seem more prominent than either and DeMonaco’s series continues to disconcert with its extreme portrayals of the consequences.