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Blu-ray Review: The First Purge

October 2, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The fourth entry into the popular horror franchise, The First Purge is a prequel that explores the origins of the annual event that sees all crime including murder being legalized for twelve hours across the United States.

The film opens with a burgeoning third party known as the New Founding Fathers of America taking over the country, and enacting the Purge under the guise of a simple social experiment to cut down on skyrocketing crime rates, but with the real intention of using it as a way to both control the poor and deal with overpopulation.

The film unfolds over the night of the first Purge, which is set to take place in an impoverished and predominantly black community on Staten Island, with a low income apartment tower at the centre of it. Participation is not mandatory, and protests are abundant, but residents are encouraged to take part in the Purge through the promise of financial compensation, with their violent actions being recorded through contact lens cameras.

Spearheaded by a sociologist (Marisa Tomei), who initially justifies it as a way to study aggression and how people respond when they are legally allowed to act on their worst impulses, things take a turn for the worst when the NFFA sends in special operatives to help incite violence and ensure that the Purge is successful. The experiment ends up encircling local activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade), who both live in the apartment building, as well as the community’s head drug dealer Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), who gets a chance to do the right thing and prove himself as a hero.

The political commentary here is anything but subtle, and often written in broad strokes with mostly one-note characters, but this is not to say that the film’s underlying themes of race and class aren’t still largely resonant and effective, even if The First Purge still mainly functions as a pretty straightforward slasher flick. The film spends a lot of time on exposition before stuff totally hits the fan in the second half, meaning that it takes a while for the action to really kick in, but this also allows for some more interesting moments that explore the deeper ramifications of this social experiment.

The screenplay by series regular James DeMonaco, who stepped down from the director’s chair after helming the first three, clearly has a bit more on its mind than just creative kills, although it delivers plenty of those as well. New director Gerard McMurray still manages to conjure up some stylish images that play off the franchise’s usual iconography of masked assailants wreaking havoc, this time working in the uniquely unsettling imagery of people wearing Klan hoods and blackface masks to heighten themes of racial division. The filmmaker stages some decent action sequences along the way, leading up to a mildly derivative but still entertaining final showdown in the apartment tower.

It has some of the problems that you would expect from being the fourth entry into a horror franchise, but The First Purge still does some interesting things with the admittedly thought-provoking premise that has been fuelling this series for the past five years, and the result is a fairly entertaining mix of exploitation and sociopolitical allegory that does a fine job building upon the overall narrative.

The Blu-ray also includes a single deleted scene, as well as the three very brief featurettes A Radical Experiment, Bringing the Chaos and The Masks of The First Purge.

The First Purge is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 98 minutes and rated 18A.

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