2016 |James DeMonaco | 105 minutes | USA
The Purge: Election Year is the third film in James DeMonaco’s franchise and continues on the trajectory set in motion by its two predecessors: it represents a broader political scope with proportionally less dread. Indeed, if the Purge franchise has had only a marginal grasp on the horror genre, Election Year may represent its letting go (though it is still labeled “horror” in IMDb—albeit secondarily to “action”).
In Election Year, the seeds of the resistance to Purge Night that were growing in The Purge: Anarchy (2014) have come to some sort of blossoming in the form of Senator Charlene (Charlie) Roan, played by Elizabeth Mitchell (also currently starring in Freeform’s new summer horror series, Dead of Summer). Charlie witnessed the slaughter of her entire family on Purge Night eighteen years earlier (indeed, her mother had to choose which of her family members would survive). Charlie is not only, unsurprisingly, deeply opposed to the Purge, but also to violence in any form. She intends to defeat the NFFA (The New Founding Fathers of America) and their Purge platform at the voting booth. Ballots not bullets.
Of course, to get to Election Day, you have to survive the annual Purge Night. Charlie’s political rivals (who have none of her qualms about violence) plan to use the twelve hours of immunity from the law to assassinate Charlie, which propels her and her security guard, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), the protagonist of Purge: Anarchy, out on the streets of Washington, D.C. Forced from their secure bastion (connoting race and economic privilege as well as political position), Charlie and Leo meet up with an array of non-white people who have never been protected from the realities of Purge Night. Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) are protecting Joe’s deli after the insurance company raised the rates on his Purge Night coverage; Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel) is out in an ambulance, taking the injured to a secret triage center (which also shelters the vulnerable homeless); and Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge—the only actor to appear in all three Purge films)—is leading the Resistance movement in its endeavor to kill Charlie’s political (and pro-Purge) opponent.
What has provided the “horror” in the first two Purge films has been the signature masks, which allow anybody—the most banal and seemingly respectable of citizens—to unleash their barely suppressed urges. The masks have served to create the uncanny doubleness that has been an integral part of the Purge mythos, signaling how “normal” people do indeed have such base impulses (envy, rage, revenge, sadism) and would act on them if they could do so with impunity.
This aspect of the Purge franchise’s horror, however, is virtually nonexistent in Election Year: there are a few creepy masked figures, but they play no significant role in the narrative. The only character who does, Kimmy (played with wonderful ferocity by Brittany Mirabile), wears her mask only briefly (and we know who she is anyway, even before she takes off her mask). Kimmy seems psychopathic before and during Purge Night, with or without a mask, so the dread induced by the terrifying duality of the masked figures is to some degree mitigated. Nonetheless, whether she is masked or unmasked, Mirabile offers the most dread-inducing scenes of the film, and I wish that more had been made of her character.
What Election Year is about, instead of uncanny dread, is beating its viewers over the head with its political message: violence is never the answer (and there’s a blatant nod to the NRA as the bad guys). The earnest arc of the narrative detracts not only from the film’s horror but also from one thing that is certainly commendable about the film: its racial diversity. With Election Year, the Purge franchise has become that rare thing—a horror franchise that isn’t almost all (if not all) white. The African American characters (along with one Mexican American), moreover, take on a whole range of roles, from good (most of them) to evil—the wonderful Mirabile. They are for the most part not contained by racial stereotypes.
However, the relationship of the characters of color to the very white and very blonde senator Charlie Roan created some moments near the end of the film that truly made me squirm. One by one, those characters relinquish everything from a healthy cynicism to a committed position on the necessity of violence in order to offer their obeisance (and in some cases their lives) to the senator and her belief that change can happen only by voting, not violence. There’s one nauseating scene in the triage center when Charlie is comforting the mostly darker victims of the Purge, and the single lamp in the frame shines directly on her, lighting up her hair like a halo and emphasizing her blondness and whiteness within the dark frame. This moment represents how what really is a very authentically diverse cast of characters tends to dissipate into the rigidly dichotomized racial narrative of a righteous white woman redeeming the lives of darker and (literally) less enlightened folk.
The problematic racial dynamic is just part of the broader sledge-hammer didacticism of the film (violence = damnation; electoral process = salvation). In fact, Election Year reminded me very much of one of the least successful of George A. Romero’s zombie films, Land of the Dead (2005), primarily because both films sacrifice horror on the altar of progressive politics. I like Land of the Dead well enough—indeed, it’s an interesting film to think and write about (like Election Year). But was it in the least bit scary? No!
Indeed, one can see a similarity not only in these two films, but in the origin films of each franchise. The Purge (2013) is remarkably similar to Night of the Living Dead (1968): both are claustrophobically contained to a single house, where the inhabitants are besieged by uncanny invaders. Both films feature an African-American protagonist (Duane Jones and Edwin Hodge), who must also battle racial power structures in a mostly real, messy, and not overly heavy-handed storyline. By Election Year and Land, though, the politics are utterly simplistic and the characters that much diminished.
All of which raises the question: Can a film be both politically progressive and a horror film? Both Land of the Dead and The Purge: Election Year suggest a fundamental incompatibility. Election Year, moreover, raises the further question: Can an effective horror film ever end with a scene of a well-ordered polling place, citizens shuffling in to cast their vote (for the anti-violence candidate, no less)? Really, what kind of ending is that?? Since Election Year did so well at the box-office in its opening weekend, one suspects there will be a fourth entry in the franchise—but someone’s going to have to do some serious re-igniting of the plot. Can we bring back Brittany Mirabile?