If there is one certainty which can be guaranteed in any horror franchise, beyond shocks, narrative twists or enduring quality, it is unnecessary sequels prequels and remakes, otherwise how else would Michael Myers, Freddie Krueger and Jason Vorhees alone have amassed over thirty theatrical releases between them? Thus it is no surprise, the trilogy having been brought to a relatively satisfactory close in Election Year with the overthrow of the New Founding Fathers of America, so their backstory is now examined in The First Purge.
It is Staten Island where the overnight experiment in lawlessness is to take place, proposed by psychologist Doctor Updale (Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s Marisa Tomei) and overseen by NFFA Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Limitless‘ Patch Darragh), the residents paid $5,000 to remain during the Purge with additional financial incentives for participation, a sliding scale of perks and prizes for murder.
A deprived borough fully feeling the endemic unemployment and collapsing economy inherited by President Bracken when the NFFA swept to power, their radical agenda endorsed by the NRA who are funnelling weapons and ammunition into the neighbourhood, the residents of Staten Island are torn: morally they know it is wrong to participate, but the money is simply too good to refuse.
Activist Nya (Training Day‘s Lex Scott Davis) arranges protests; she is surprised when local drug kingpin Dmitri (The Hustle‘s Y’lan Noel) sides with her, his position being that anything which will bring instability to the already precarious community will be bad for everyone, but Nya is furious when she finds her younger brother Isaiah (Doctor Who‘s Joivan Wade) has not only been dealing on street corners but was slashed by a junkie and she wants nothing further to do with Dmitri despite his offer of protection.
As night falls and sirens call beginning the first night of legalised violence, the people of Staten Island defy expectation: instead of rioting, they throw Purge Parties open to all, with only minor instances of disorder and violence, a few grudges settled on the streets. Doctor Update is confused, but Sabian knows the future of America and the NFFA depends on the success of the night and has prepared contingencies.
In order to be truly successful and stand alone, a prequel must surprise, must offer twists and revelations not apparent from the subsequent stories already told rather than affirming presumptions already held by the audience; in this The First Purge is a failure, only confirming what could have been assumed, that the “experiment” was manipulated by the NFFA to their own ends from the very start, a way of getting the unwanted poor to eliminate each other, a problem which solves itself.
Fortunately, although it offers little to expand the established premise, a melding of the street setting of Anarchy and the political background of Election Year, The First Purge has taken the best elements of these and presents a well-crafted action thriller led by a strong ensemble cast who convince of their emotional investment to their homes, their lives and each other; as little as they may have, to them it is everything.
Scripted by series creator James DeMonaco who directed the three previous films, he has handed over the reins to Burning Sands‘ Gerard McMurray who gives a fresh perspective to the proceedings; while race was always an element in the Purge, it was principally told through a white cast or a mixed cast with white leads, but The First Purge makes the division explicit and undeniable as a black director tells the story of rich white politicians who choose the lives and deaths of a poor black community.
Through the opening scenes, all but one of the interviewers is white while all the subjects are black, and it is becomes apparent that the questions are not to determine suitability for inclusion in the experiment but to profile the demographic and track their behaviour, otherwise why would an obviously violent, unstable drug addict such as Skeletor (Mapplethorpe‘s Rotimi Paul) be handed his monitoring contact lenses and ceremonial blue flowers of participation without question?
In contrast to the proud residents of Parkhill Towers, Doctor Updale is woefully underdeveloped, blank-faced in response to the horror she has suggested but this may be intentional, the scientist clinically isolated behind her data by her white lab coat, though set in a country where high schools, cinemas and concert halls now double as shooting ranges, while for now the Purge remains fiction, with marauders dressed in Klan regalia and PVC fetish Nazi uniforms and Nya referring to a would-be rapist as a “pussy grabber,” make no mistake that this is America.