If you saw the The First Purge over Independence Day you may be asking yourself What the heck do I watch now? Welcome back to Perfect Pairings, a recurring editorial column that matches new theatrical releases with complementary horror films for a perfect at-home Double Feature. If you’ve been looking to broaden your knowledge of the genre or discover a new favourite, you are in the right place.
In many ways The Purge series is incredibly unique. An unlikely horror franchise that has grown more politically charged with each successive entry, The Purge films have proven surprisingly intelligent and topical for what is essentially modern-day exploitation films. In this regard the franchise, and more specifically this latest entry, stand alone; there’s no direct spiritual companion that checks all of the same boxes. The most relevant example that I could find is John Carpenter’s seminal 1976 film, Assault on Precinct 13.
The First Purge (2018)
To push the crime rate below 1% for the rest of the year, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) test a sociological theory that vents aggression for one night in one isolated community. But when the violence of the oppressors meets the rage of the marginalized, the contagion will explode from the trial-city borders and spread across the nation. Because there are more parties being thrown than people being killed, the NFFA take matters into their own hands.
Assault on Precinct 13
An unlikely partnership between Highway Patrol Officer Ethan Bishop (Aaron Stoker), two criminals – Wells (Tony Burton) and Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) – and station secretary Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) is formed to defend a defunct Los Angeles precinct office against a siege by a bloodthirsty street gang.
The First Purge‘s status as a prequel to the original 2013 film is intriguing because it portends to offer an explanation of how this macabre social experiment first began. We know from the second and third films that the Purge was perverted by the greedy capitalistic machinations of the NFFA who sought to solidify their position of power while eliminating the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized. The former group is unequivocally white and privileged; the latter is primarily composed of low-income African-Americans.
The plot of The First Purge clarifies that the concept of a 12-hour crime spree free of punishment was co-opted from a social experiment proposed by Dr Updale (Tomei). Moreso than any of the previous three films, the latest entry in the franchise makes explicit the connection between the Purge and the systematic targeting of poor, racialized communities. The Staten Island setting and the introduction of armed militants who seek out marginalized groups reinforces the inherent racism and elitism in a far more forceful and obvious fashion than the earlier films.
Assault on Precinct 13 offers a similarly murky origin story for a violent social riot. The film opens with the two instigating incidents: the brutal ambush of a group of armed gang members by the police, and the tangentially related murder of a gang member by a grief-stricken father whose daughter is caught in the crossfire. These events intersect when the gang tracks the father to the abandoned police precinct with the goal of killing both him and the police.
The most striking difference between Assault and The First Purge is where the film’s sympathies lie. In Carpenter’s exploitation film, the gang members aren’t characters – no one is identified by name or distinguished at an individual level in any way. In this way, the film not so subtly lumps all of the gang members together into an anonymous mass, which is problematic from a 2018 lens because the gang is predominantly black and Latino. This is in stark contrast to The First Purge, which explicitly identifies the privileged white leaders of the Purge as the villains, and aligns audience sympathies with the targeted black community, despite (or perhaps in spite of) the fact that its lead male protagonist Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) is a drug kingpin.
It is important to note that Assault isn’t a racist film. Carpenter is simply more interested in the relationships that unfold within the precinct, a creative decision that comes at the expense of developing the predominantly racialized gang members outside into full-fledged characters. Assault eschews an “us vs them” dichotomy; the film is about how the rag tag group of disparate individuals must come together to survive the attack on the precinct (not unlike the characters from The Purge: Anarchy).
There’s still a significant racial component to Assault‘s narrative. Bishop is profiled by the outgoing precinct captain when he enters the building (so much so that the racist hides all of the weapons in a lockbox before he leaves). Carpenter’s film is also explicitly about outsiders; both of his male leads fall outside of the norm – Bishop is that rare black police officer in 1976 in a position of power, while Wilson is a jailed felon. In this way, both The First Purge and Assault foreground “unconventional for Hollywood” protagonists, which only reinforces how progressive the exploitation and horror genres are.
Finally, both films are linked by the idea of a traditionally rational, rule-abiding world that immediately unravels in the face of senseless violence. Considering the increasingly divisive political and social climate in the United States of late, it is hardly surprising that The Purge franchise has leaned into the growing racial and economic unrest in its recent entries. More surprising are the great lengths that some audience members are willing to go to de-politicize the franchise, bitterly chastising reviews that address The First Purge‘s very obvious political elements and suggesting that there is no inherent messaging in “dumb exploitation horror films”.
Watching the two films, it is evident that both Assault on Precinct 13 and The First Purge highlight the capacity of the genre to engage audiences in critical dialogue about race and class while simultaneously satiating our desire for exploitative violence. What more can you ask for during a summer heat wave?
What is your Perfect Pairing for The First Purge? Let us know what you’re watching this weekend in the comments below, on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!