The Screening Room | Sloppy directing obscures vital message in 'First Purge'

The Screening Room | Sloppy directing obscures vital message in 'First Purge'

In 2013, James DeMonaco's "The Purge" seemed like another throwaway entry in the horror genre, a slickly made and at-times-effective thriller in the Blumhouse Pictures mold — cheaply but professionally done, with just enough scares to satisfy fans of the genre.

After raking in nearly $90 million on a budget of $3 million, it was a no-brainer to revisit this world — where Americans are allowed to break the law for 12 hours without fear of being arrested — and two sequels followed, both helmed by DeMonaco's steady hand and increasingly pointed scripts.

That "The Purge: Anarchy" (2014) and "The Purge: Election Year" (2016) each made over $100 million globally speaks not necessarily to the quality of the films but perhaps more disturbingly to the audiences' willingness to embrace this concept as well as the catharsis it provides.

I certainly hope that's not the case, but then again, I'm not sure of much anymore. I would rather think that viewers are able to identify with the disenfranchised characters in these films, which have increasingly become their focus, unlike the first entry.

The latest in the franchise is "The First Purge," a prequel that takes us back to the time when this annual bacchanal was first introduced, in a world with far too many similarities to ours for comfort.

Amidst a failing economy, massive unemployment and racial unrest, the electorate has rejected the traditional political parties and rallied around a third, the New Founding Fathers of America, electing its candidate president. As part of its effort to bring the people of the country together again, the party decides to conduct an experiment concocted by sociologist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei). She posits that the best way to deal with stress is to give people a chance to release it.

As such, she suggests if people were allowed to run amok — murder, rob, rape, whatever — for 12 hours with no ramifications, this would make for a more civilized populace. The powers that be agree and decide this should be done on a trial basis on Staten Island. And to make sure there will be participants, the government offers up $5,000 to anyone who will agree to be out on the streets once the free-for-all begins.

DeMonaco's script, which contains more than a few scenes that could be cut, draws comparisons to the Trump administration and timely social concerns with broad strokes. The vision of a nation in turmoil is efficiently created through the use of fake news footage, while the presence of large groups of white men in Nazi and KKK regalia violently killing people of color speaks to the rise of intolerance we're experiencing. It's a timely message that, ironically and regrettably, has become more accurate as these films have been produced.

It's unfortunate that DeMonaco only contributed the script this time around, as this is a sloppy and horribly directed movie. In his feature-film debut, director Gerard McMurray is incapable of constructing an action sequence that's comprehensible. The camera is never still, moving without reason and focusing on nothing, and coupling it with a rapid-fire editing pattern produces nothing but visual chaos. This approach generates nothing but headaches; coupled with an all-too-deliberate pace, it makes for a repetitious and tedious exercise.

The fine work from Lex Scott Davis as the activist Nya and Y'lan Noel as local drug kingpin turned protector Dmitiri provides some respite, yet McMurray's approach undercuts their efforts. This is a shame, as the theme of "The First Purge" is one that should be front-and-center now more than ever. Unfortunately, its message is obscured by poor craftsmanship and cheap sensationalism.

'The First Purge' (★★ out of four)

Cast: Y'lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Marisa Tomei, Luna Lauren Velez, Kristen Solis, Rotimi Paul and Mo McRae.

Directed by Gerard McMurray; produced by Michael Bay, Jason Blum, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller; screenplay by James DeMonaco.

A Blumhouse Pictures release. 98 minutes. Rated R (strong disturbing violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use). At the AMC-Champaign, AMC-Danville Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16 IMAX.

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Fun "Hotel Transylvania III" a pleasant surprise (★★★ out of four). I think my affinity for the "Hotel Transylvania" films stems from my love of the Universal Monsters. Any excuse to see some incarnation of Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolfman, the Mummy and their creepy brethren on screen has my interest, especially now that the failure of last year's underrated Tom Cruise feature "The Mummy" has put any chance of seeing these characters terrorize viewers on the big screen off for the foreseeable future.

Yes, it's a far cry from watching Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, but I'll take what I can get, and surprisingly, "Hotel Transylvania III: Summer Vacation" has far more charm than any third feature in an animated series has a right to. A new location — a cruise ship instead of a dusty old castle — goes a long way toward energizing this entry, as does a genuinely sweet tone that focuses on the long-suffering Count Dracula (voice by Adam Sandler) perhaps finding love again after being a widower for a century.

Noticing that her bloodsucking dad might be feeling a bit of ennui, Drac's daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) thinks a change of pace would do him good, so she arranges for him, her and the rest of his buddies to go on a cruise through the Bermuda Triangle, the final destination being Atlantis.

Wayne the Werewolf (Steve Buscemi); his wife, Wanda (Molly Shannon); and their pups make the trip, as does manmade monster Frank (Kevin James) and his wife, Eunice (Fran Drescher), and Murray the Mummy (Keegan Michael-Key) and Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade).

Yet with all his creepy buddies around, Drac ends up only having eyes for Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), the ship's cruise director. She's drawn to him as well and it looks like true love is in the air until ... turns out she's the great-great-granddaughter of vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan), who happens to still be alive in the hold of the ship on a secret mission.

Yeah, it gets complicated and becomes a great deal of fun as director Genndy Tartakovsky obviously is a student of the classic Chuck Jones and Tex Avery cartoons from the '40s and '50s, which relied on imaginative sight gags. They abound here, they work more often than they don't. The highlight is a flashback sequence that shows Drac and Van Helsing going toe-to-toe many, many years ago. It resembles the old Road Runner-Wile E. Coyote cartoons, and the only thing missing is an Acme anvil as the Lord of the Undead dispatches his enemy in one visually hilarious way after another.

There are more moments like this in the film's strong second act, and each creature gets his/her/its chance in the spotlight, Tartakovsky effectively mining laughs by exaggerating their unique physical features.

The third act is pretty standard, but by that point, the movie has built up enough good will that it doesn't matter. Besides, the kids won't know the difference, and the adults who've accompanied them will likely find themselves having grinned more than they ever expected heading into this fun piece of summertime frivolity.

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