By Landon Evanson
Sequels can be strong, but rarely do they surpass their predecessors. From Halloween (1978) to Saw (2004) to Insidious (2010), horror fans have been treated to worthwhile continuations of source material, but none have come close to topping the original.
That premise doesn’t hold water when it comes to The Purge (2013), however.
When Blumhouse and James DeMonaco teamed to present the concept of a future where for one, 12-hour period each year, all crime including murder would be legal, it not only unleashed the beast cinematically, but opened the door for perhaps the most powerful social commentary theatre-goers have laid eyes on since the heyday of George A. Romero’s Dead series.
That said, audiences and critics alike almost universally felt that The Purge (2013), at least its initial effort, was a disappointment. Fascinating as the concept was, many held the opinion that an opportunity had been lost to truly explore the horrors of what would be known as the annual Purge. Anarchy (2014) and Election Year (2016), however, fulfilled that promise in subsequent films, delving deeper into not only race and class, but government corruption and the concepts of revenge, humanity and the desensitization of a generation that had never known life before the Purge.
With that in mind, and for as exceptional as Frank Grillo, Betty Gabriel, Brittany Mirabile and the ever-present Edwin Hodge have been through the past two installments, none could match a commodity possessed by the original, and the original alone – the gleeful, terrifying entitlement of Rhys Wakefield.
With masked cohorts in tow, the curtain was raised on Wakefield’s Polite Leader at the Sandins’ doorstep shortly after their son had allowed Hodge’s “homeless swine” sanctuary. With a smile and cordial demeanor that one would sooner expect from a hotel concierge, Wakefield’s faux approach spoke to the privilege of white wealth, demonstrating courtesy and camaraderie with the Sandins because of their “elegant home,” while showing absolute contempt for those who were not what the Polite Leader referred to as “our own.”
Wakefield was the personification of prerogative and power. While Anarchy and Election Year also boasted of a central, villainous figure (or figures), those films examined numerous aspects of the evening, whereas the original stayed in one, central location. The first Purge was intended to cultivate an ideology, then slowly expand on that vision. To accomplish that, DeMonaco needed a face to represent what the Purge symbolized, and Wakefield embodied that representation to grotesque perfection.
The Polite Leader laid the ground work for everything he and his followers held true, an antiquated notion that we aren’t unfamiliar with in today’s political and cultural climate. A desired return to a time when America was great, prejudices handed down generation after generation to groups who hold those perceived values dear. It was fitting that the Polite Leader hadn’t quite attained his thirties.
“Mr. and Mrs., the person you are sheltering is nothing but a dirty, homeless pig,” Wakefield declared, “who had the audacity to fight back.”
The Polite Leader and the Sandins were part of the “haves,” while the “have-nots” were there to serve a purpose, not to benefit or abide by the same rules.
“The pig doesn’t know his place and now he needs to be taught a lesson.”
The dichotomy between the Polite Leader’s manners and madness were slowly revealed the longer Hodge was holed-up within the perceived safety of the Sandins’ residence, putting the monster Wakefield housed within on full display.
That Wakefield’s demeanor never changed is what made the Polite Leader so horrifying. While giving utterance to threats and unimaginable acts, Wakefield’s delivery remained poised and conversational, never venturing outside the realm of sinister courtesy.
While Anarchy and Election Year were superior films with superior stories, one scene from the original provided it with an unnerving element that its successors have yet to achieve – the lengths those who feel it is their right to Purge would be willing to go to fulfill that right.
Wakefield summoned Mr. Sandin (Ethan Hawke) to a one-sided negotiation for access to the one they sought. The Polite Leader did not lose his calm exterior, but with unveiled threats, made it quite clear that he and his minions could and would breach the Sandins’ home if they were not provided with what they believed to be their right.
“As wanting is our will on this fine night.” Once again, the scene played out at the Sandins’ front door.
“Thank you for accepting my invitation. Tell me, why haven’t you delivered the filthy swine to me yet?” When Sandin shared that the entire situation was a misunderstanding, that the family believed in and supported the Purge, but their son had made a mistake, Wakefield quietly laughed in his face. The message was clear if unspoken, if you support the “dregs” of society, you are no better than they are.
However, when one of his colleagues stormed up to the sealed door and began shouting demands, the Polite Leader had a Dr. Lecter moment.
For the egregious offense of rudeness, Wakefield shot his friend in the head without so much as a glint of emotion.
Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly.
“Sorry, I don’t condone that kind of behavior. Just keep in mind, Mr. Sandin, he was my friend. And you are not.”
Hawke stared in frozen disbelief at the lifeless body just inches from his front door before his eyes shifted back to Wakefield.
No act of violence on that night, nor the two Purge nights we’ve seen since have matched the chill of that moment.
“Send out he or that, will be thee.”
The original Purge offered a narrow view, but it should be remembered that it was just an appetizer. Blumhouse and DeMonaco offered but a taste of what was to come, and have methodically stretched further and further with each new chapter of the saga, though the spotlight remains firmly trained on race, class, wealth and power.
Will the 2018 edition be as good as Anarchy and Election Year? Time will tell. Regardless of the fourth film’s effectiveness, however, it’s more than likely that it, too will fall short of a character whose demeanor and dialogue overshadow the horror of the annual Purge.