This year, the annual (or, more accurately, biennial) Purge ceremonies were delayed. While we were initially set to receive our fifth (and supposedly final) installment in the Blumhouse horror series earlier this summer, The Forever Purge was one of several films pushed back to 2021. Though it's not surprising, the news still came as a disappointment for fans. Over the course of the past seven-plus years, the Purge films have built a loyal audience, resulting in one of the more consistently successful (at least, financially speaking) movie/show franchises of the past decade.
Though fans will have to wait to see how the filmmakers wrap up this dystopian American series, we can use this time to reflect back on the previous Purge movies and rank them from worst to best. Our opinions might not mirror yours, but here's what we think.
4. The First Purge (2018)
Prequels are tough. While they can be worthwhile ways to establish world-building and bring clarity to later installments, it's hard to keep the audience invested when they know the outcome. With The First Purge, it's intriguing to learn — from a political standpoint — how the first Purge was put into motion. Even though it eliminates some of the mystique, it also brings some interesting commentary on how the U.S. government can mistreat the poor and disenfranchised, particularly in larger cities like, in this case, Staten Island. But it's hard to ignore how listless this prequel is when you compare it to the past few installments. While it offers insight into the foundation of this annual crime-filled tradition, it ironically doesn't bring anything new to the table, resulting in an underwhelming and unorigina retread that comes with a predictable and therefore dull conclusion.
The First Purge is notable for being the only Purge chapter (to date) that's written but not directed by James DeMonaco – the creator of the franchise. In my opinion, this is a mistake. While his ideas laid down the groundwork for every installment in The Purge series, he's been a demonstrably better director than screenwriter. Typically, these films get bundled whenever their blunt, occasionally artless thematics get in the way of their entertainment value. That's sadly the case here, too. While the filmmakers offer key insight for the nationwide introduction of The Purge, the movie itself lacks the thrills and engagement that are more often found in the other installments. Like every Purge story, there's great potential in The First Purge. Unfortunately, this prequel is disappointingly squandered by lackluster ambitions, despite its strong cast and intriguing thoughtfulness. Also, the complete waste of Marisa Tomei's time and talents? Unforgivable.
3. The Purge (2013)
When examining this horror series as a whole, The Purge deserves credit for laying the foundations of the franchise. It establishes the rules, introduces us to the state of this alternative America, and it gives us an intriguingly focused, commendably economical (in terms of its low-budget approach) gateway into this broad-reaching futuristic dystopian premise. Unfortunately, there isn't much that The Purge does better than the sequels that followed. The writing is clunky, which is an unfortunately common problem in every Purge movie, and the direction isn't as confident as what's featured in the follow-ups. Additionally, the considerably wealthy family we follow in this introductory film isn't the most relatable, likable, or endearing batch of protagonists. Their closed off, bunkered down perspective also isn't especially engaging or illuminating for what our country would look like if the Purge ravaged the land for one lawless night.
With all that said, Ethan Hawke's patriarchal performance does go a long way here. Especially in an expanding franchise where the acting isn't always the greatest asset, minus some notable exceptions (and we'll talk about more in a bit), Hawke's grounded investment and dramatic gravitas helps to sell the urgency of this concept-heavy premise —particularly in a low-budget horror-thriller that's expansive conceptually but limited in its filmmaking. Plus, there's something admirable about the simplicity of its home invasion-style narrative. While it's not especially noteworthy in terms of filmmaking, in this ever-growing canon it does a solid job of building a sense of danger and dread about the dangerous, unknowable personalities lurking outside of our main characters' walls, doors, and windows. Additionally, Rhys Wakefield's toothy villainous performance is consistently menacing throughout. But as we've noted before, the concept itself is ultimately more enticing and promising than what we're given in this introductory movie.
2. The Purge: Anarchy (2014)
With an expanded budget and broader scope, The Purge: Anarchy took criticisms from the profitable (albeit not critically acclaimed) original movie to heart and allowed itself to explore its world and play with genre and tone. The results were a sequel that's stronger than its predecessor, benefited by a more robust story, more rewarding characters, more thrilling and suspenseful sequences, and, as an added bonus, a better sense of humor to boot. But what really makes The Purge: Anarchy stand out compared to the original is the addition of Frank Grillo as a flawed-but-investing action hero wrestling inside a nation indulging in its worst impulses. While Ethan Hawke did a lot of the heavy lifting in the previous Purge, Grillo's leading man presence brings a greater sense of purpose to the larger vision. His character's desire for redemption helps the franchise itself grow.
Additionally, while James DeMonaco's work as a screenwriter still leaves something to be desired, he has notably improved as a director — complete with a surprisingly pretty graceful transition into a bigger canvas with some striking visuals, more inspired costumes and masks, and an admirable handle on the action set pieces throughout this L.A.-based continuation. While certainly not flawless, much like our hard exterior lead character, there's a clear desire to expand and improve, and it's certainly an advancement. While Anarchy doesn't feel like the definitive Purge film, its sense of assurance and its room for experimentation makes it more noteworthy than other sequels that often settle into their grooves following their initial success. Anarchy is eager to use this higher-budget sequel as a launching pad for its loftier ambitions, particularly with its world/character-building and its expansion on the original's themes. Overall, this sequel was a step in the right direction.
1. The Purge: Election Year (2016)
As you'd expect from the title, The Purge: Election Year is the most explicitly political Purge story, which might've turned some viewers off. Though it can be ham-fisted in terms of its proclamations, this third installment in The Purge trilogy is easily the best. Taking the elements that worked in the previous film while also providing more of a sociopolitical punch, Election Year is a pointed and unabashedly critical sequel with arguably the strongest cast in the franchise, while also providing a conclusiveness to this story that will likely be undermined (in some fashion or another) by the next Purge movie. Nevertheless, Election Year is James DeMonaco at his most confident work as a screenwriter and director in the series, providing a number of memorable set pieces, striking imagery, engaging characters, and greater dramatic stakes.
It also helps that The Purge: Election Year is the most entertaining installment in The Purge canon. Balancing the horror and the action elements found in the first and second installments, respectively, this genre-mixing feels like a natural elevation for the franchise and it gives it a bit of a John Carpenter feel in the right moments. Certainly, Escape From New York was a big influence on this series — this one probably more so than any other Purge movie to date. Once again expanding on the themes found in all of these narratives, Election Year avoids any sense of ambiguity as far as what it's aiming to say, making it easily the most scathing, unrestrained Purge chapter — particularly in its critical view of the ruling class. While it's not without its own flaws, this is the best one yet.
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Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.