Over the past decade or so, intellectual property (IP) has become the most precious commodity in Hollywood. Within mainstream horror, a genre particularly heavy with remakes and adaptations, the mentality seems broadly to be that once you have the IP, everything else will follow. The Purge franchise has gotten impressive mileage out of this principle, taking a condensable idea loosely recycled from Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and a 1967 episode of Star Trek — what if, for one night a year, all crime was allowed? — and spinning it into five films and a two-season TV show.
The compelling paradox of the premise is this: If crime can be made “legal,” what is it in the first place? It is one of the many questions raised and left to the sidelines in The Forever Purge, the latest instalment of the series, in which a renegade group of loyalists decide to continue the violence beyond the allotted twelve hours with the aim of “cleansing” the United States of racial minorities. We follow an unlikely grouping of wealthy and working-class citizens as the overspill of violence prompts a mass exodus of Americans into Mexico and Canada; after much fighting they make it over the border, while news reports hammer home the novelty of this role-reversed refugee crisis.
Craig Zobel’s The Hunt, released last year by the same production house and inspired by another famous short story, is also centered around elites hunting and killing people, but in this case the terrain is a culture war. In a self-consciously contemporary update of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, we see a cabal of politically correct but bloodthirsty liberals kidnap and hunt down conservative “deplorables” who have spread conspiracy theories about them online. The former are hysterical, paranoid, obsessed with optics, while the latter are indignant, wary, and bigoted. Terms like “snowflake,” “privilege,” and “crisis actor” are thrown out from both sides and hang heavily in the air.
As the protagonist (an army veteran and our sole apolitical figure) seeks an escape from a custom-built human hunting ground, we learn that this “game” is intended as retribution not only for the elites’ personal grievances but for the election of Donald Trump. If the Purge’s brand of violence is intended to be the expression of the violent impulses that fester in society’s id, the addled psyches of The Hunt’s liberal CEOs have reconciled the same violent impulses with the moral convictions of their superegos. In one particularly overwrought joke, one of the killers worries it would be problematic if there weren’t at least one person of color among their targets.
Like the Purge films, The Hunt carves society into two camps of people, the hunters and the hunted. But while The Forever Purge tells you exactly what parallels to draw with class and race in Trump’s America, The Hunt is less didactic — if only because its convoluted political commentary makes very little sense. As soon as the film shoddily maps the class-war element onto contemporary political divisions — which it appears to understand only in terms of Democrats versus Republicans — it devolves into near incoherence. The result is a battle between two straw-man ideologies that the audience is supposed to look over with a smirk, recognizing how deluded both sides are.
The film’s satire manages to be both facile and difficult to untangle, partly because it does not have a name for the opposite of elites — this class is fractured into bigots and normal people just trying to get along, just as The Forever Purge splits it into those who seek revenge on their bosses and those who only want to protect their families. In The Forever Purge, political small-talk phrases from the last five years — including references to “confusing times” and the world “changing all around us” — drive home this failure of language to articulate the real circumstances of the violence.
To be sure, it would be heavily misguided to expect politics to be a central, mechanical part of these plots rather than a lacquer brushed over them. Both films are clearly playing to the market’s current taste for social commentary in its horror action thrillers. But the specific kind of vacuum at the core of their political arguments is telling — it owes to their claiming a level of self-awareness they do not actually possess. Despite the nods and winks, they have almost nothing to concretely say. You get the feeling that the films have been reverse engineered from the starting point of the discussions they were hoping to provoke; nowhere is this more clear than in the manufactured controversy that surrounded The Hunt’s delayed release, after concerns were allegedly raised about its potential to exacerbate partisan tensions in the 2020 election.
These films seem aware that horror is often read retroactively as expressing the culture’s darkest fears at the time, and try to knowingly preempt such readings. In reaching to be both imaginatively dystopian and allegorical of current events, they fall limply somewhere in the middle. The directors seem wary of audiences misunderstanding potential parallels with the real world, and so ensure the films are populated with cultural referents. As a result, the speculative elements of their plots do not stray far enough from the real world to offer a real vantage point on it. But particularly in a culture already prone to mapping cultural products directly onto politics, an allegory has to be able to stand on its own.
These are the kinds of films that “raise issues” and “address themes,” and in the end leave you with reflections no deeper than what you had gleaned from the elevator pitch. Both films end with the heroes killing their hunters and escaping, taking with them the knowledge that America is more spiritually corrupt than they had previously thought. In their offering up of the fantasy of resistance, they are quite fitting documents of the moment — just not in the way they think.