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The Purge movie franchise, explained

The Purge: Election Year.
The Purge: Election Year.
Universal Pictures
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

For centuries, Americans have touted the virtues of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." US history is peppered with stories of heroes and heroines doing the right thing — standing up for oppression, standing up for justice, and standing up for one another. The country is built on the idea of taking care of one another, a place where the "huddled masses" yearn to be and can be free.

The genius of the Purge franchise is that it imagines — or reveals — this American spirit as a fantastic fraud, suggesting that deep down, Americans want to kill their neighbors, friends, and family and the only thing stopping them are these dumb things called laws. That we’ve been waiting years and years for the perfect loophole to squeeze our crimes through.

And now, with the third Purge film, Purge: Election Year, in theaters, it’s as good a time as any to examine the popularity of the franchise that’s not only macabre but almost too appropriate for 2016.

What is The Purge?

The Purge is a movie franchise named after its own dystopian premise: Each year, America has a 12-hour Purge (from 7 pm to 7 am on the designated Purge day) where anyone can commit any crime they want (murder, rape, burglary, cow tipping, etc.) and not face any kind of criminal charges. The catch is simple: You’re always in danger of being killed. The event has become an annual tradition because people realized that since the introduction of the Purge, the country’s socioeconomic ills — crime, unemployment, a weak economy — have disappeared.

The movies are a mashup of sci-fi, horror, and home invasion films; each of the three films chronicles what goes down during a different 12-hour Purge. And what’s novel about this approach is that while all of the movies share the same umbrella franchise and the same exaggerated dystopian premise, each one has tweaked the formula to better address the cultural and social issues of its time.

The first film, released in 2013, came on the heels of the first Hunger Games movie but also the 2012 election — mixing and matching themes like inequality and the privilege of the 1 percent with the government angst present in Suzanne Collins’s novel and film.

The second film, 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, incorporates the idea that the Purge is actually eliminating the poor and introduces a plot in which wealthy people use their power, money, and influence to bid on people to kill during the Purge.

And now, with just a few months to go until the 2016 presidential election, the newly released third film, Purge: Election Year, focuses on political issues and weaves in references to current news topics like Black Lives Matter/police brutality and the National Rifle Association/gun control.

Are the Purge movies successful? What makes them so successful?

The Purge movies are hugely successful gems. Like the Paranormal Activity films, the Purge films are shot with minimal budgets and take in exponentially more money than it costs to make them.

According to Box Office Mojo, the first movie cost around $3 million to make and took in around $64 million during its run in US theaters; its global haul was around $89 million. The second film cost around $9 million to make, and it raked in $71 domestically and $111 million worldwide.

And according to Rotten Tomatoes, the franchise is on an upward trajectory when it comes to critical reviews. (Reviews for Purge: Election Year are still coming in, so this may change.)

What made the first film so successful in spite of bad reviews was a combination of the timing of its release and its place within the hugely profitable trend of dystopian fantasy wherein a government forces its citizens to battle to the death.

The original Purge has more in common with home invasion horror films like You’re Next or The Strangers than it does with The Hunger Games, but the movie’s marketing really leaned into its dystopian roots (a hugely savvy move), embracing the idea that a new America was dawning. In the trailer, you learned more about the current state of the US than you did about the family at the center of the film:

The second film did better with critics, because it built out the franchise’s dystopian world a bit more. The story digs into its own mythology and fleshes out the people behind the Purge (the New Founding Fathers) while also taking a closer look at the effects of the Purge on anyone who doesn’t happen to live in an expensive bunker of a house.

The franchise’s integration of themes like privilege and inequality is crucial to its success.

If you survey the more recent hits to come out of various horror subgenres, home invasion movies aren’t as popular as they were just a few years ago, when films like Funny Games (2008), The Strangers (2008), and The Last House on the Left (2009) were generating plenty of buzz.

These days, the most popular and noted horror movies The Conjuring franchise, The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch — tend to have a more supernatural or paranormal tilt, and I’d argue that they’re thriving in part because of their escapist quality. It stands to reason that the inundation of real-life gun violence and terrorism in America has made human horror villains a bit less appetizing.

Yet the Purge movies are still standing. And I believe that’s because they’ve pivoted into satirical horror stories about the government, about inequality, and about racism that resonate more powerfully than shallower tales of people who just want a free pass to break stuff and be violent.

How does The Purge: Election Year compare to its predecessors?

The third film focuses on a senator (Elizabeth Mitchell) who wants to abolish the Purge, not only because she herself was once a victim of a Purger who killed her family but because the Purge targets the poor. Naturally, this makes her a big target, and so she has hired Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), one of the protagonists of the second film, to protect her.

We’ll have a full review of the film up soon, but what struck me most about Election Year was how much it dips into America’s current news cycle and culture wars. There are parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement, and pointed takes on right-wing evangelicals and the NRA (who else is supplying all the Purgers with guns?). There’s also a bit of Nazi/white power symbolism at play, perhaps as a nod toward the support that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has received from white supremacists.

Plus, in a telling bit of international mockery, Purge: Election Year is actually called American Nightmare 3: Elections in France.

Based on the momentum of the franchise (in both critical acclaim and box office earnings) and the early word from critics, The Purge: Election Year is shaping up to be the most successful film in the series thus far. According to Box Office Mojo, Election Year’s production budget was an estimated $10 million (a mere $1 million more than that of the second film), and if the numbers and growth hold, it’ll be a hugely profitable. And that all but ensures a fourth film that will undoubtedly take on the shape of whatever political demons we see in real life.

Purge: Election Year is in theaters now.