There are no new stories, they say, only new ways to tell them. Certainly, there’s little innovative in “The First Purge,” the prequel to James DeMonaco’s ongoing dystopian horror series. Written by DeMonaco but directed this time by Gerard McMurray, it strains every sinew to exceed the gory sensationalism of its predecessors, creating a new chapter in the annals of barrel-scraping. This is the most walk-outable film I have seen in ages.
The low-budget saga, which has produced four outlandishly profitable chapters in five years, combines elements of high-fatality thriller and sociopolitical parable, which made its 2013 debut feel clumsy but fresh.
It was set in a near future when an authoritarian regime called the New Founding Fathers of America had risen to power wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. The regime has instituted the annual Purge, which has lowered the national crime rate, eliminated poverty, suppressed the NFFA’s political opposition and given citizens a cathartic means to express their inner rage by creating a new holiday. Every March 1, from 7 p.m. to 7 the following morning, Americans are legally allowed to rape, kill, steal and destroy whatever they wish, with no public services to interfere.
Presented like a small-scale home invasion saga, the first film starred Ethan Hawke as a Southern California security expert who had made a fortune selling protective products to shield rich people’s mansions. When his son opens their doors on Purge night to let in a wounded man crying out for help, a great deal of trouble comes in behind him.
The timeline for 2014’s “The Purge: Anarchy” and 2016’s “The Purge: Election Year” moves through rising public opposition to the Purge and NFFA’s Machiavellian strategies to keep their “important work” steamrolling along. DeMonaco made the personal survival stories into allegories of a blood-spattered war between America’s worst impulses and better angels. And he made no secret of whom he is rooting for. The bad guys wear conical Klansman masks or wave flags that look awfully close to Nazi insignia. If that trolling was too subtle, “Election Year” opened late in the presidential campaign advertised with the tagline “Keep America Great.”
This edition of the franchise steps back in time before the newly elected NFFA has nationalized the Purge. We watch New York City’s least beloved borough, Staten Island, being used as the petri dish to monitor the first phase of “the experiment,” triggering street parties, thrift shop costumes, a rising body count and a second-grader’s story structure.
Attributing blame for this film is difficult. McMurray handles the directing duties crudely. The film depends on exciting action scenes but delivers none, with the sole exception of a crackerjack three-way beatdown on a winding staircase, a minute-long thrill ride that must have been made by an inspired second-unit director.
McMurry makes little effort to tell the tale from a new perspective. Copying the horror hit “Get Out,” it frames the gore through the view of people of color. Unfortunately, the hero and leading lady, hunky Y’lan Noel and lovely Lex Scott Davis, are as attractive as statues of polished ebony but less expressive.
Outperforming the rest of the cast by a comfortable margin is Mugga (an alum of “Orange Is the New Black”), playing the heroine’s seen-it-all neighbor whose line readings are such sassy fun that she must have improvised them.
DeMonaco’s script is written in a strange rambling style, a collection of staccato diatribes and scenes of assorted creative sadisms leading to sudden death. It resembles the very stream-of-consciousness narrative you would get if a mental hospital offered a screenwriting fellowship. Unless the next film in the franchise outdoes it, “The First Purge” will be the gold standard by which horror movies that were really bad ideas are judged.