The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Set two years after Anarchy, The Purge: Election Year concerns a world very similar to ours. There is, however, one very big difference. On one night a year, all crimes – including murder – are legal for twelve hours. By the time Election Year rolls around, the Purge has been a staple of American culture for going on twenty years. This entry in the series concerns Senator Charlie Roan, the first person to seriously threaten the existence of the Purge, and the people who get sucked into her orbit on the titular night. It’s a wild, nasty ride all the way, and entirely unafraid to target American politics – and politicians – with its story.

I’ll be honest up front: the Purge series is one of my all time favorites and I think Election Year is the best horror movie I’ve seen this year. Whether it holds up past July is another thing all together.

Election Year is an ambitious feature, tackling on more world-building , characters, and carnage than ever before. Previous entries in the series had focused on the experiences of individual characters versus society as a whole, an ambitious jump for any film – let alone horror – to make. Election Year switched mostly to hand-held cameras and an abundance of close-up shots, keeping the viewer focused tight on the characters even as the story stretched out further with its implications. For the first time in the series, the characters have a chance to do more than survive the night: they have an opportunity to strike back. The means in which they chose to do so create the central conflict of the story. Do the people, largely poor and non-white, wait for politics to eventually turn? It’s already been twenty years. Or do they resort to the same violence that has been used against them? Can peaceful resistance ever work against a foe that is gleefully unafraid to murder their opponents, and any attempt at resistance is labeled as an attack on both national sovereignty and individual freedoms?

As I said, the allegory in this film is about as subtle as a hammer. And you know what? That’s good. Election Day has something to say and doesn’t beat around the bush.

This is a film about a female presidential candidate fighting against the systematic oppression – and indeed execution – of poor, marginalized people. She is standing up to a system that justifies itself through religion and by adopting a historical narrative that distorts the facts for their benefit. Throughout the film, she is repeatedly saved and protected by a black businessman (and former gang member), a Mexican immigrant, and a black woman. Hmm. What could the filmmakers possibly be gong for here?

Well, let’s just say it’s no coincidence that the tagline for Election Year is “keep America great.” Remind you of anybody?

I could take a long time going through the minutia of Election Year‘s politics, but that will be for another time. Sufficient to say that it’s interesting, and very relevant to the current political climate.

However, as interesting as its ideas are, Election Year gets bogged down by them in spots, choosing to develop concepts rather than people. The weakest link in the story is the character meant to draw everything together: Charlie Roan. The problem is that she’s not a character so much as a concept that the film – and characters – can build up or demonize as they wish. The fact that she happens to be a person underneath her ideals is brought up briefly, but never really explored with any depth. This becomes a problem later on, when she meets up with some of her constituents who are carrying out her politics in a decidedly violent fashion – and using her name to justify it. There would be an excellent place for Senator Roan’s politics to collide with Charlie Roan the character, except that the latter never really shows up. She’s sympathetic enough, but never undergoes any character development or arc. This is frustrating, since the film is centered on her and follows her storyline at the expense of far more interesting characters.

In essence, what was Anarchy‘s greatest strength is one of Election Year‘s bigger problems. The Purge series has done its best work as a character piece that explores larger societal themes through the experiences of individuals. The audience cares for the characters, thus they become invested in the world that those characters inhabit. In Election Year, it feels like the filmmakers became more interested in the world than the people inside it, focusing on an underdeveloped lead and Frank Grillo’s Leo Barnes, already established from Anarchy.

While I’m a fan of Grillo’s, I didn’t find his character as compelling this time around. Like Roan, Barnes simply doesn’t have a character arc. He has some interesting moments of reflection and banter early on – especially concerning his personal history with the Purge – but those threads are never tied together.

All and all, Election Year isn’t quite as well written or polished as Anarchy. It’s good, it’s a hell of a lot better than most horror films you’d see in theaters these days, and it’s got some interesting things to say. The action is solid, there are some genuinely well-timed jump-scares, fun characters (just not the leads), and some truly excellent cinematography. The costume department also deserves a shout out for delivering a lot of understated but genuinely horrifying pieces. The Purge: Election Year is a good movie. But, for better or worse, the ideas swallow the story in more than a few places.

Intruders (2015)

 

A trio of robbers enter a house only to discover that the agoraphobic owner is still home – and has a very interesting security system. Intruders has an excellent setup, surprising amounts of character development, a fun and creative set, and functions almost like a haunted house film. Just what ghosts are hiding under all the clutter – and what’s in the basement? The characters were well cast and gave strong performances all around. Especially notable was Beth Reisgraf as Anna, whose silence spoke volumes.

All that being said, the conclusion fell flat towards the end – it just wasn’t creative enough to match the excellent setup.

Intruders is an intriguing watch almost until the ending, which could have used an additional draft or two. It tries, hits most of the marks, and has some interesting things to say. Give it a watch.

Tiger House (2015)

 

Kelly’s been having a string of bad luck. First her boyfriend accidentally shoots her with a crossbow and ends her gymnastics career – and, incidentally, any chance she had of raising her economic status. Her boyfriend’s mother hates her. And that pregnancy test is raising some uncomfortable questions.

Tiger House is perfectly passible in every regard as a home invasion horror film. It’s well acted, surprisingly well written, and just creative enough to keep the audience engaged. And if it wasn’t being compared extensively to a much better film, then Tiger House might actually be considered a pretty solid entry into the subgenre. Unfortunately, nearly every review I’ve come across has connected Tiger House to Adam Wingard’s You’re Next. To be fair, the films have their share of similarity, both involving a young, poor female protagonist whose much wealthier significant is the target of a home invasion, and who utilize violence and common sense in order to best their opponents.

Yes, You’re Next is better. And despite the fact that Tiger House came out four years later, it’s still going to look bad in the comparison. Sadly, there’s not much that can be done about that. Let’s move on.

Tiger House follows the usual home invasion plot, with all the expected turns and a few twists I didn’t see coming. The characters are much more developed than I’ve come to expect from a home invasion horror film, well cast, and exceptionally well written. Screenwriter Simon Lewis deserves kudos for this one. There are several moments of silence and several monologues from unexpected characters that elevate the story from your standard slasher to something more. That being said, Tiger House isn’t quite smart or unique enough to rise above the crowd. Home invasion horror is a well-established subgenre at this point; to be good, you have to be really good, not just better than average. For better or worse, Tiger House has a lot of competition in the genre, and hasn’t established itself enough to stand on its own.

That being said, I’m curious about Tiger House’s storyline as it concerns violence as baptism/rebirth. Now, this is something that shows up a lot in horror films, and in stories that even vaguely follow the Hero’s Journey. Going into darkness and emerging victorious usually means the protagonist will quite literally have to fight somebody with knives. Look at basically every slasher ever made for examples. I’ve written extensively about this before, but essentially, home invasion films are different. Nearly every home invasion horror film treats violence as a corruptive force inevitably places the protagonist on the same moral level as the villain if they show even the slightest competency at killing people. This is not common in horror films on a whole, but it’s a trope of home invasion horror. There are several reasons for this, which are interesting to discuss, but that’s another discussion.

What’s interesting is that violence isn’t seen as a corruptive force in Tiger House, but rather like a natural disaster; it’s shattering, but also a force for change and renewal. Consider the crossbow that symbolically killed Kelly’s gymnastics career is the same weapon that she uses to defend herself from the armed invaders. It’s particularly important that not only is the same crossbow involved with all of the incidents, Kelly also saves and reuses the same bolt that maimed her. The bolt that ended one aspect of her life acts quite literally as the tool of her salvation. Here, like with the majority of horror, violence is presented as a life-altering force. However, unlike with most home invasion films, it is not an inherently “bad” one – and Kelly is never seen as corrupted because she survives by using it.

I do wish the rebirth metaphors had been explored a bit further – it’s important, for example, that Kelly’s new life will involve a child – because Tiger House had the subtext and metaphorical “meat” to be a really good film if it had gone a few steps further. Sadly, the subtext doesn’t really do much other than just…be there. Briefly.

As it stands, Tiger House is good but not great, worth looking at but perhaps not a repeat viewing.

I’m still not sure why it was called Tiger House. At first I thought I’d missed something, but after looking up a few other reviews, I can only conclude that something was lost in the transition from script to screen. Oh well.

Kristy (2014)

A young college student at the end of her rope finds herself alone on campus during Thanksgiving Break, and under siege by a violent cult. A dark, moody twist on the home invasion subgenre that can’t quite manage to find its footing before the end.

To be sure, Oliver Blackburn’s film is a technical achievement; the shots are beautifully composed and Haley Bennett delivers a smart, understated portrayal of the lead, Justine. The soundtrack felt a bit on the nose at times, as did some of the camera work, but I thought it made for a compelling visual image. It’s rare that I see a film that manages to convey such an eerie sense of isolation and silence in an industrial space like a college campus. Again, the camera work and some of the sound effects pushed a little too hard – the audience can make its own conclusions, people – as if the director thought that the point was too vague to catch. A scene that comes to mind is the close up on a collage of photographs with the eyes scratched out, which the camera lingers on for several seconds too long to really add any atmosphere.

Which, if we’re being honest, indicates a larger problem with the film.

See, Kristy has things to say about isolation and appearances, but doesn’t trust that the audience will understand the point. Justine is targeted because on the surface, she appears to have it all. She goes to a fancy college (she’s in horrible debt and afraid of losing her scholarship), drives an expensive car (it belongs to her roommate), and has a circle of good friends (who leave her alone on the holidays). Kristy seemed more interested in giving fragmented, confusing views of the beliefs that the cultists chasing Justine hold without really exploring any of the themes it has brought up. We have a “blessed” victim targeted by cultists who resent her apparent success – except that the victim’s life turns out to have some darker undercurrents. This should have made for some excellent tension.

Only problem? Kristy doesn’t do anything with this. The themes just sit there, leaving the film as an extended cat and mouse chase as Justine eventually outsmarts her pursuers and – as expected – triumphs over them. Yay? Justine is sympathetic enough as a protagonist and has an excellent screen presence, so the audience wants her to survive, but Kristy doesn’t really have anything to say after she does. Its interesting when compared to other home invasion films, especially with it’s themes about appearances and privilege, but doesn’t explore them enough to stand on its own. It’s worth seeing if you’re interesting in home invasion films and where the subgenre is going, but don’t expect anything mind blowing.