Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Purging John Carpenter

Warning - This post is rife with spoilers!


I'm a big fan of the Purge movies, and am looking forward to seeing the newest one, Election Day.  When I watched the first film, I remember thinking, "This is the most John Carpenter-like film I've seen of the new John Carpenter wannabes."  I thought the same thing about the even-better sequel.  They carry on Carpenter's great strengths - pounding synth scores and completely batshit-insane, yet brilliantly simple, central concepts.  On reflection, though, I realized it wasn't just the music or the stories that reminded me of Carpenter films... They're actually remarkably step-by-step remakes, with new titles. 


Assault on Precinct 13 - A traumatized man seeks shelter inside a fortified station which comes under waves of attacks from subhuman gang members. There is a focus on race relations as the black captain and the white convict must cooperate to survive, gaining mutual respect in the process.

The Purge - A traumatized man seeks shelter inside a fortified home which comes under waves of attacks from subhuman Young Republicans. There is a focus on race relations as the white family must decide whether to sacrifice the black victim to save themselves.  

In neither movie do we learn much of anything about the primary target - He's simply there as a magnet to draw down the wrath of the horde.  Assault gives us a middle-class Average White Guy, who attracts the gang's attention by shooting one of their members in anger over the death of his daughter.  We don't know who he is, why he was there, and he's virtually mute for the rest of the film.  The Purge is even simpler - We're given zip about the main target except that he's a black man of lower social class, and presumably that's all that's needed to make him a target for the rich kid psychopaths.  

The interesting thing is the total inversion of the villains. In Assault, it's two working class men defending the middle class against the zombie-like attacks of a subhuman street gang - Characterless, near-mindless killing machines that are invading the safe neighborhoods. In Purge, it's wealthy people with consciences defending the lower class and themselves from the psychotic attacks of... their own young. Assault fears the street gangs consuming the working class, Purge fears the upper class consuming itself and the lower class both.  It's a testament to the times and the decades between the films that there simply is no middle class in the Purge movies.  Everyone is either the wealthy or the working poor or homeless. 

Also diverging are the final messages - Assault is ultimately a much more positive film, despite its grimness.  In Assault, the black guy and the white guy, the hardworking policeman and the "gentleman criminal", come together in understanding and realize that their values are far closer than the creatures they're fighting.  When Bishop insists that Napoleon not be chained, and that they walk out to meet the dawn together, it's a triumphant moment.  The values of hardworking decency have been defended, and even though Napoleon is going back to jail, you understand that the day is won for civilization, for the moment.

Purge is very similar in structure - The black man sides with the white family and in the end, saves those who sheltered him.  The victorious survivors walk out to meet the new day in an almost identical ending scene, except... in Purge-Land, there is no victory.  The chasm between the wealthy family and the poor guy remains, and now the wealthy family realizes the depth of the hate and loathing and jealousy that their own "kind" have for them also.  They've survived the night, but they're living in a nest of people who all want to kill them, just because they're perceived to have a little bit more than the next wealthiest household.  There's no real victory, and only a thin veneer of icy smiles and cocktail parties will cover the seething violence that's being held in check until the next Purge Night.

They make for a fascinating comparison, back to back.  If time and interest permit, look for a follow-up post to this on the virtually identical storylines of The Purge 2: Anarchy and Escape from New York.