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posted: 6/6/2013 6:00 AM

Thriller 'Purge' verges on hokey

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  • James (Ethan Hawke) watches the horror unfold outside his home in "The Purge."

    James (Ethan Hawke) watches the horror unfold outside his home in "The Purge."

  • Video: "The Purge" trailer


Director James DeMonaco gets sole credit for writing "The Purge," yet this derivative home-invasion thriller/political treatise/domestic horror tale bears all the signs of a movie designed and executed by committee.

The minimally thrilling "Purge" constantly falls back on cheap horror shocks to keep us on edge. (People abruptly jump into the frame, accompanied by loud noises. A character even pops up behind a closing refrigerator door, a favorite genre cliché.)

What "The Purge" wants to say about guns in the hands of the American public gets a little iffy. Pro-gun and anti-gun groups can equally claim this futuristic drama supports their sides of the issue.

What "The Purge" wants to say about our future elected officials comes through loud and clear. Enough of them have read Shirley Jackson's horror story "The Lottery" to devise an annual day of shocking ritual to solve America's problems with poverty, violence and homelessness.

In 2022, street violence has virtually disappeared. The unemployment rate hovers at one percent. America has been "saved" by desperate leaders who establish the annual "Purge," 12 hours in which people can commit any crimes, including murder, and not be arrested or prosecuted.

The Purge proves Aristotle's theory of catharsis so well that America has truly become a kinder, gentler nation -- for 364 days a year -- while giving the well-off carte blanche to personally eliminate the homeless and the poor.

News commentators discuss how the Purge targets the poor, unable to afford sophisticated security systems like the one in the upscale house of James and Mary Sandin (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey).

We catch up with them just before the Purge begins, before "lockdown" commences and the homeowners seal up their houses with security systems, many sold to them by James himself.

On this night, James and Mary's sensitive young son Charlie (Max Burkholder) opens the front door to save a scared, wounded man (Edwin Hodge) begging to be let in. The man instantly vanishes into the house.

The neighbors (at least they call themselves that) come knocking, demanding the Sandins turn over the wounded man to them, or they will also be killed.

These neighbors wear scary masks just like the ones donned by the twisted homicidal home invaders in 2008's "The Strangers." Why?

The masks look creepy, but by employing these superficial artifacts, DeMonaco undermines the real horror: ordinary people -- the seemingly nice, passive-aggressive neighbors we meet at the movie's beginning -- inexplicably becoming amoral beings possessed of bloodlust.

A soft-spoken blond guy (Rhys Wakefield) resembling a young John Malkovich with a Joker-like grin leads the masked neighbors, who have apparently watched too many Italian horror films.

They swing on a children's swing set in ghostly motion and "act" scary, at times causing a Tuesday night screening audience to burst into ridiculing laughter.

If "The Purge" wanted to show us a horrifically realistic view of a future America gone horribly wrong, where are all the weapons dealers and survival businesses that would have sprung up to capitalize on this annual event?

For a suspense thriller, "The Purge" whips up the prerequisite gory violence, but comes up remarkably short on suspense. (Early on, I wrote down my prediction of what would happen at the end. Unfortunately, I nailed it.)

Several times during "The Purge," audience members broke into applause whenever James and Mary dispatched the invaders.

The hardier applause went to the more graphic killings, suggesting that if nothing else, "The Purge," despite its many dramatic shortcomings, may be on to something after all.

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