October! Masks, scares, and treats alike are lighting up the big and small screens! Which brings us to our first edition of If I Had Made That Movie …
This weekly column will focus on movies that I think could’ve been better and how. Since it’s October and it was recently released on DVD, I’ll start with The Purge (2013).
The Purge, written and directed by James DeMonaco (Assault on Precinct 13 remake), starring Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight) and Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), was a sleeper hit this year: $3 million budget, $87 worldwide box office. However with a rotten score of 38% (19% top critics) and a 5.5 IMDB rating (over 39,000 users), it’s clear the film didn’t resonate with audiences or critics.
The Plot in a Nutshell (spoilers!)
America, 2022. One day each year for 12 hours all crime is legal. The purpose is to give Americans a catharsis, which has economically and socially “benefited” the country. Our protagonists, James (Hawke), his wife Mary (Headey), and their children Zoey and Charlie, are attacked by a group of psychotic purgers because they’re harboring a homeless veteran the group is after. When the family refuses to surrender the veteran, the purgers attack the house. James kills most of them before he himself is killed. The family’s jealous neighbors intervene only to try to kill the family themselves. The veteran helps the family fight off the neighbors without killing them but leaving them in shame.
The movie is a simple home invasion story. The purge is mostly used to push a social/political message and to have a reason why the family can’t call for help. Remove the set-up, stick the family in a cabin in the woods, it’s essentially the same plot (a la The Strangers or You’re Next).
Whether the premise is believable or not, the biggest problem with the movie is the actual home invasion doesn’t happen until the last 10 minutes. Most of the movie is focused on the family looking for an innocent man hiding in their house while the purgers wait outside. It’s obvious the family won’t kill the innocent veteran so this un-suspenseful element drags the plot. The focus should be fighting the purgers.
Most home invasion movies like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976 & 2005) have the antagonists relentlessly attacking, creating a continuous struggle for the protagonists, forcing them to act and think. With rising tension usually accompanied with both sides losing some of their own until the final showdown, it’s a persistent struggle to survive. All of which creates suspense because the characters are never out of danger.
I would have the neighbors as the purgers. This would create an emotional and more disturbing connection between the two sides. Imagine if your own friendly neighbors suddenly showed this sadistic side of themselves (scary, right?). The purgers would taunt the family about their neighborhood BBQs and children’s sports teams, which they would use to lure the family into giving up the veteran. This would cause the family to think about what’s more important: their relationship with their friends or the principle of protecting an innocent man.
I would also put Zoey’s boyfriend as one of the purgers. In the movie the boyfriend sneaks into the family’s house, pulls a gun on James, and is killed. This doesn’t affect the plot, making his character unintelligent and unimportant. If he were a purger it would create a conflict between Zoey’s love for her family and her love for her boyfriend.
This makes the ending stronger since it eliminates the deus ex machina and allows the family to save themselves through their own efforts. However, James’ ability to fight off the purgers on his own is slightly unbelievable. If he were a veteran himself then it would show his deeper belief in personal defense, give him an emotional connection to the homeless veteran, and explain his ability to fight.
Added up it becomes a more emotionally engaging film with deeper internal and external characters conflicts and a more intense story. It creates a connection between the two sides, creates a more philosophical discussion between all characters, and focuses the movie on the main conflict instead of holding it off until the climax.
Now, to get really re-imaginative, if the movie had a bigger budget I would have the family, or at least a married couple, stuck right in the middle of purge. Purgers would destroy the house, forcing the protagonists to run without a destination but a will to survive the night. The family would kill one of the purgers, creating a personal vendetta and a continuous antagonist.
This would be a modern take on Homer’s The Odyssey or Walter Hill’s 1978 cult classic The Warriors. The family would witness the destruction of America like an apocalypse, meet a multitude of good and bad characters with their own philosophies of the purge, and find themselves in variety of situations. It’d be a chase/journey movie with the protagonists and the audience never getting a moment’s rest.
Thank you all for reading and I look forward to re-imaging another movie with you next week!