Dealing in real world horrors, The First Purge may be the scariest chapter in the action-horror franchise to date. STACK spoke with director Gerard McMurray and star Lex Scott Davis about this topical and edgy prequel.
Currently numbering four films and a television series, The Purge has become a fictional American institution. But how and where did this annual event, during which crime and murder is legal for a 12-hour period, actually begin?
The First Purge provides the answers. A housing project on Staten Island is chosen as the test site for a radical social experiment conducted by splinter political party The New Founding Fathers of America. Caught up in the night of mayhem that follows are local activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and gang leader Dimitri (Y’Lan Noel), who uncover the sinister truth behind The Purge.
To tell this origin story, James DeMonaco – franchise creator and director of the previous Purges – passed the torch to indie filmmaker Gerard McMurray, whose debut feature Burning Sands (2017) had impressed producer Jason Blum.
“Jason was an advocate for me to direct a Purge film,” McMurray tells STACK, “and James was right there by my side. He was a great collaborator. We connected in a really creative way through our love of the franchise, and he let me make it my own.”
Finding his own voice as a filmmaker within the franchise proved to be the biggest challenge for McMurray.“What is it like for a black man, or any person of colour, on Purge Night? That’s what I wanted to show, but I also wanted to have fun within the genre.”
Lex Scott Davis as Nya
Star Lex Scott Davis notes that having a director onboard with a background in independent films brought an element of authenticity to the world of The First Purge.
“Making sure it was authentic to Staten Island and an African American person from Staten Island, and applying that to the script says a lot about the director,” she says. “It’s authentic to the culture while still staying in the established guidelines of the Purge franchise.”
Grounding the events in reality is vital to a series as topical as The Purge. As a political allegory, The First Purge certainly acknowledges the Trump era, as well as the violence that erupted in Charlottesville while the film was in pre-production.
“I wanted the film to speak the truth,” explains McMurray. “The Purge movies are horror, and I wanted to show what horror looks like; real world horror, not ghosts and supernatural things.
“Class is another big thing; the people who are poor and on the streets on Purge Night. That speaks to everybody and I think that’s why everyone likes the franchise – they can all see themselves in some way in the Purge films.”
Davis agrees: “To be able to get to know these real people in a real city before this crazy night existed makes it a lot more relatable to an audience, and more real because those masks are part of American history and different hate crime groups. The scare tactic is that these images being depicted are offensive to American history.”
Beyond the politics, violence and horror, McMurray believes the franchise remains incredibly popular because it’s emotionally resonant.
“It’s not PC – The Purge just goes there, you know. It says what people want to say but can’t say, about how things are now, about the era we’re in. The idea of the Purge is crazy, but it speaks to the whole world, not just Americans.”
“It’s the ultimate scenario,” adds Davis. “What would you do on a night like this? I think that’s what keeps fans coming back, and on the edge of their seats.”