Horror cinema has always been a reflection. The truth at the core of such classics such as Evil Dead and Get Out is that despite the terror and the chaos falling apart around our main protagonist’s feet – they endure, they survive, they combine forces, until the inevitable selfishness of the human need to survive kicks in and our main characters turn against themselves. It is this, of course, that spells their downfall – and at the heart of any old school horror film we see that the darkness that resides within the soul of the protagonists are eventually what tears them apart, not, in fact, the monsters themselves.
Now put a pin in that for a moment. Because we need to do the same with escapist cinema, with a focus here on the dystopian. It’s a proven fact that sci-fi and fantasy films increase in popularity in times when political terror is rife. Of course, this is at heart down to the audience’s need to escape – a step out of their horrid world and into the world of the other is welcome, for an hour and a half.
Yet the opposite is true of a dystopia – in times of terrible political climate this genre becomes the mirror we all need.
Fictional dystopias are our way to explore the furtherment of these terrible political times. They’re warnings, they’re cries for help, they’re extensions of situations in which we find ourselves unable or unwilling to haunt. Take, for example, the frequency with which political marches adopt motifs from popular culture – most recently Handmaids at anti-trump rallies, or moving further back the adoption of the V mask by anonymous.
So what do you get if we cross the two?
That, my dearest friends, is The First Purge. Yes. You read that right. The First Purge, the 4th instalment in popular if not slightly trashy Purge series. But we need to talk about exactly how clever this instalment is, from all angles – and why it’s clever trickery propels it so far past it’s predecessors into the most-politically nuanced statement of celluloid since the Handmaid’s Tale.
It’s no secret that our world is hurtling slowly toward a fucking apocalypse with every grey day. Wotsit Hitler is in power, chopping and changing his words with every moment. It’s of cultural significance that our society has stood up, wised up and started to protest this mad tangerine psychopath and everything he stands for – but it’s also of cultural significance that those of his right wing persuasion have found the power in what he says to become more vocal, with hate crime, racism, and the rich/poor divide growing greater with every growing second.
So what is there to do with a dystopian horror franchise when faced with this scenario?
Three words. Stand up, wise up, speak up.
The Final Purge does all of these with it’s most recent instalment. It’s an example of what if that glows incredibly, puts it’s money where it’s mouth has been for the past 5 years and answers every question you had about every prior instalment. Guess what? This insanity came from a society so similar to ours right now. It’s it’s own harbinger, it says, look – if we’re not careful this is where we could end up. Or, is it, where we are now?
Perfectly subtle in it’s acceleration, we’re presented with a Staten Island that is so much like our Staten Island today. Impoverished, poor, cheap housing. Manipulation of the poor is apparent – offer us five grand to stay inside? Damn, I’ll take it. Sure, fit me with a tracking devise, I’ll show you I stayed inside. It’s to make sure you play by the rules, right? Wrong. It’s so they know where they are so they can kill you. Just like our current surveillance culture? Bam. They’re not out there to keep us safe. They’re out there to find you when you’ve done wrong. Just like your co-worker Sharon who thinks they’ll never find her cos she doesn’t put her birthday online, you know they know everything about you – and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.
It’s almost two hours of perfect horror soothsaying. There’s the white, female psychiatrist who is being hideously manipulated by the government, who’s cruelly executed when she realises what’s going on. There’s a drug-dealer who’s set up to be the bad-boy who eventually saves the neighbourhood and the day – because guess what? Drugs aren’t the problem, the American government is. Sounds familiar.
Just when you’re thinking, am “I drawing too many conclusions here?” there’s the mid violence foray where our female protagonist Nya, out to save her son literally gets lassoed and grabbed by the pussy. In my screening, a sobering cheer that went up all around the cinema as she screamed “pussy grabbing motherfucker!” and got away.
There’s the introduction by the totalitarian government of hit squads to stir up more trouble, the manipulation of the media outlets into thinking the situation is playing out one way when in fact it’s another. Sound familiar? Exactly.
And it does so subtly. No new turn seems out of place. I am sure, if some lonely traveller adrift from another screen were to walk in at the climax of The First Purge, no doubt they’d laugh at the blood-stained Ku Klux Clan uniforms and Aryan leader dressed in a latex SS uniform. But the thing about The First Purge is it illustrates this acceleration of our current political climate so well that by the time we are faced with such horrors, it seems harrowingly real, instead of laughably out of place.
One thing’s for sure, in times of terror, our horror and dystopian films need to step up – and boy, does The Final Purge do this; with absolutely transcendent and persisting style. Of one thing I am sure, the screaming gaggle of fifteen-year-old girls in my screening will go home, discuss the movie with glee. Hopefully, they’ll take with them the exposure of our contemporary political climate and it’s very real possibilities that’ll in years to come help influence the way they vote.