Saturday, July 7, 2018

Double Features: 'The First Purge' (2018)

No motion picture exists in a vacuum. Every week on Double Features, film critics William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold watch a new release and offer their individual picks for the perfect film to watch right afterwards, illuminating the themes, the artistry and the history of each movie.

This week's new release: "The First Purge," the prequel to the violent, political and highly lucrative "The Purge" franchise, which details how the dystopian future began, with a horrifying experiment on Staten Island. Y'Lan Noel ("Insecure"), Lex Scott Davis ("Superfly") and Marisa Tomei ("Spider-Man: Homecoming") co-star, in a film directed by Gerard McMurray ("The Burning Sands").

Here's what the critics picked...!

William Bibbiani's Pick: TWO THOUSAND MANIACS! (1964)

Box Office Spectaculars

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The "Purge" movies aren't just about a national holiday where all violence is legal, it's about the inherent violence in our nation. Not everyone participates in The Purge, but enough people are sufficiently angry, and willing to take any excuse to act on it, that the nation feels consistently divided. Often, it seems, at literal or figurative war.

Goremeister auteur Herschell Gordon Lewis explored that divide with about as much subtlety, and even more gruesomeness, in his cult classic "Two Thousand Maniacs!" It's a film about a group of yankees who stumble across a southern town, which is in the midst of a historical festival centered around the tragedies of the Civil War. The yankees are the guests of honor, but they soon discover - to their horror - that every single person in town plans to sacrifice them, publicly and violently, as penance for the North's sins.

Hanging on to old grudges, regardless of who started it, can have generational consequences. "Two Thousand Maniacs!" is forthrightly about the way Americans cling to animosity and perpetuate it throughout the centuries. Those who think society has become enlightened are proved, depressingly, wrong. And the catharsis that certain citizens feel when acting on their oppressive urges is anything but satisfying to everybody else, who suffers as a result.

It's ironic and frankly a shame that "Two Thousand Maniacs!" speaks so little about the racial divides inherent to America's past, and focuses instead only on a North/South, Conservative/Liberal division which - to be fair - doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon either. In that respect, "The First Purge" tackles the issue with a bit more honesty, but their both ultraviolent and non-too-subtle examples of the horror genre putting America on the stand, and finding a large portion of the country guilty.

Witney Seibold's Pick: SOCIETY (1989)

Wild Street Pictures

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The evolutionary arc of the “Purge” films has been a fascinating phenomenon to witness. The first “The Purge” was based on a fascinating idea – that, in the future, the government will instate an annual 12-hour period wherein many violent crimes, including murder, are legal, under the notion that purging your negative emotions will calm you for the rest of the year – but it played out as a mediocre home invasion film. Critics and audiences immediately noticed that “The Purge” was largely about wealthy white people wanting to murder off a poor person.  That “emotional release” thing was a front for something more sinister. 

In the three sequels since, the class politics of the series have become only more pronounced, depicting, with varying degrees of effectiveness, a future wherein the government is populated by wealthy white moralizing monsters, and the POC underclasses are fighting against the system that openly wants them dead. “The Purge: Election Year” remains the best of the series, but “The First Purge” makes explicit that Purge Night was never, even for a second, about releasing one's anger. The New Founding Fathers always wanted you dead. The messaging is obvious, but salient nonetheless. 

Several horror films have satirized the notion of a white ruling class feeding on outsiders, but none have been as explicit about that as my selection for this week’s B-feature, Brian Yuzna’s 1989 classic “Society.” In this underseen gem, a young WASPy white guy named Bill discovers, via a rogue audio recording, that his wealthy WASPy family might be engaging in orgies – perhaps incestuous – and committing murder.  The bulk of the film is comprised of his investigation into moral corruption in Beverly Hills, followed by a climax that… that… 

Well, let’s just say the climax of “Society” is one of the most bizarre fucking things you’ll ever see in a film that was released in mainstream theaters. Making more than good on its promise of incest orgies, the climax involves something called “shunting” and a lot of awesome special effects by Japanese creature maestro, Screaming Mad George.  “Society” is a commentary on the depravity of the wealthy played in a glorious, vomitous key. It would be a great political counterpoint to “The First Purge.”

Top Photo: Blumhouse

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