When Horror Films Reflect Reality: The Purge, Nazism, and Trump

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Photo: Michele K. Short/Universal Pictures

In the four years since The Purge first hit theaters, writer-director James DeMonaco’s relatively modest original concept has become a runaway franchise hit, with three films to date making more than $200 million at the box office, plus a fourth on the way. The latest to hit theaters, The Purge: Election Year, was so pitch-perfect and horrifyingly prescient that it actually predicted (or inspired?) the current president of the United States’ campaign slogan. (Keep America Great in 2020, everyone!)

In other words, DeMonaco is now on top of the (horror) world, and he’s taking full advantage of his position. As he works on the fourth installment, The Purge: The Island — this time just as a writer — DeMonaco is developing the property into a TV series. He’s also just released his first book, called Feral, with co-writer B.K. Evenson, a horror novel published through Blumhouse Books (a new imprint attached to the studio that produces The Purge franchise) about a pandemic that has either killed every man on Earth or turned them into beastly creatures. And this fall, DeMonaco is acting as a judge in the inaugural Inkshares Horror Contest, helping find the next big voices in horror by judging manuscripts submitted to the small Oakland imprint by unknown authors. At the end of the contest, the top three most preordered books on the site will be published by the company, and guest judges like DeMonaco will be able to nominate additional works for publication as well. “Horror’s always been this weird little subgenre that people don’t want to take seriously in literature,” says DeMonaco. “I love Stephen King, Peter Straub. There’s a few names that we know, but it’s like, there’s three guys we can name, and one of them’s Stephen King’s son. So to go out there and try to find these new voices, I think it’s very exciting.”

While talking with DeMonaco about the Inkshares collaboration, Vulture caught up with the director about how he’s reworking The Purge for TV, what sort of politically relevant horrors fans can expect from the The Island, and why he thinks Nazis are the “scariest people in the world.”

Election Year was conceived and completed before the election. Did you think seven months into this administration, the movie would feel more upsettingly on the nose?
No, and that’s what’s unbelievable. I wrote it right after Purge. They came to me: “Do you have an idea?” I’m like, “Yeah. I’d like to do one about a woman senator who’s running for president who wants to stop the Purge.” Trump wasn’t even around. I don’t think his name was even thrown out there as a joke. When we started shooting it started becoming real, and then when we were editing, we actually started saying, “Okay, this is a weird parallel thing that’s going on.”

Election Year was a startling sort of coincidence in the final stretch of the campaign, but I didn’t think it could feel scarier. And in our new reality, it does.
It does. And that’s really sad in a way. Listen, I wish we were in a different society where it felt like we were watching Soylent Green — completely ridiculous. That’s what you hope, and it’s sad that there is any kind of reflection on society. I always see pictures of Trump [paired with] pictures of The Purge movies.

Well, he took your slogan for Election Year.
“Make America Great Again.” Oh, God! We came up with that first. He stole a line from this grotesque conceit, you know?

In the second two Purge films — as opposed to the first, which follows an all-white family — you feature people of color who are either the primary victims or the leaders of the underground resistance. As a white man, how do you make sure you approach these stories that hinge on people of color or women with sensitivity?
Sebastien Lemercier is an amazing producer. We always talk about how the only way to change the system is to make successful things with a black lead or female lead. It’s the only way to do it. At first we were saying, it’s not a race movie, it’s more about class. But ultimately race is class.

It’s inextricable.
Exactly, so it was natural to have this great palette of white, black, Puerto Rican people. What we’ve seen for the last 50 years of film is a predominantly white male point of view, and I’m a white male. I’m an Italian from New York, but I always say the human condition is — hopefully — the one thing we all share. We can have various points of views if it’s truthful, if you talk to enough people and do your research.

Does the next Purge movie continue with diverse casting?
Purge Four’s cast is 90 percent black.

And the director, Gerard McMurray, is also black.
Yes. [He has] a great movie out of Sundance called Burning Sands. I met with 20 guys, and he lived through Katrina, and Katrina was one of the early influences on The Purge itself when I saw the treatment of the people in the Ninth Ward by the government. That was part of what fed into the first Purge. So we met with Gerard, it was just the perfect fit. But the writing of the script was me, and it’s 90 percent black people. So yeah, you get a little daunted. Like, “What am I — Italian guy from Staten Island — what am I bringing to this?” But hopefully I’m telling the universal story. That’s number one. But then the details of that … Our job as writers and directors is to talk to the right people and hopefully get the right information and then appropriately put it into the piece. It definitely takes more when you’re entering into someone else’s point of view.

Right now you’re also working on The Purge TV show. Are you finding the new medium suits the franchise’s narrative?
The movies are more like events. In the TV show, I think we’re slowing it down, and we’re using this flashback structure to enter into the non-Purge lives of these people. We’re going back six months or two years or into their childhood to see some things that might’ve fed into their decision-making on this particular Purge. The long form is actually allowing it to become more of a character study, which is kind of cool, instead of a singular event of surviving the night. We have a black female lead. We have a young Puerto Rican brother and sister. We have an Asian character. It’s opening [the story] up, in a way. Ten hours is allowing us to get deeper into character, and deeper into why people would actually consider violence as an option. We’ll see it next year.

Will everything tie together in a shared universe? Is there a Senator Charlie Roan in the TV series?
Yes, it does. We have a couple of cameos going. The TV show takes place between the first Purge and the last movie. We’re kind of right in the middle of all the Purge timelines, so it’s before Charlie Roan. It’s way after the New Founding Fathers of America have come into power. But in the next Purge movie, Purge Four, the NFFA has just come into power and come up with this crazy conceit of the Purge to help a dying economy. So if 20 Purges have taken place, or 15, we’re probably on the seventh or eighth in the TV show. It’s an established thing that people have gotten used to. I think people will be happy when they see that characters go in and out. Minor characters from the movie do little pop ins, and hopefully we can keep expanding on it.

There’s more purging to be done.
There’s so much political craziness in this world that there’s always more purging to be done. It’s very scary.

Is there any other plot details we can tease out of you about Island?
It takes place on Staten Island which is cool — the first experimental Purge. Next July 4, it’ll be coming. Okay, let me think what I can give. I said it’s the first experimental Purge, which I don’t know if I was supposed to say, but now I’ve said it, so you have it.

I have it.
I think of all the movies, it’s definitely the most topical. It really is a creepy reflection of what’s happening right now. The bad serendipity is something I think people will be intrigued [by], to say the least, and scared and saddened by. When we first did it, Sebastian and I read something Scorsese said a long time ago about what he called “smuggler’s cinema”: He said it was what the guys in the ’50s and ’40s were doing when they were being forced to make genre movies, army movies, and Westerns because they wanted the studio contracts. So what they did was smuggle their own ideas into the genre that they were forced to do. All these political ideas in these great films were starting to emerge, but they were hidden. We were saying, “Let’s do the same thing with The Purge movies. Let’s make a very entertaining film, but within the entertaining genre trappings, let’s have some kind of message and create some kind of discourse on what’s happening in society.” And I think that’s the fun of them. The people who want to can see the parallels to our society and the reflection upon our government and talk about that after the movie, or they can watch it as just a real fun, kick-ass action-horror film.

I think Island is the most crowd-pleasing of the films. It’s so kick ass in its third act. What’s fun, too, is there’s an anti-hero. More than the previous films, there’s a singular hero in this movie. This is one man’s journey, William, an anti-hero inspired by Eastwood in Unforgiven, so it’s this very cool, modern, kind of badass who redeems himself through the story.

There’s such potential for Island to be devastating with the idea of an experimental Purge. Nobody will be desensitized to consequence-free killing yet.
Exactly. I was wondering how you get people to stay for the first Purge, and what they do is they start monetizing it. People from Staten Island can easily go to Brooklyn for the evening, so what they do is start promising very decent sums of money for the very poor people in the neighborhood. It becomes a monetization of murder and violence, incentivizing killing and keeping people around for them to be victims. So you see the inception of how grotesque the idea of the Purge is, the manipulation upon the society. That’s where it becomes, sadly, I think, very topical right now with the current administration — and also terrifying, because, as you said, no one’s prepared for what’s about to happen. In fact, some people don’t think anything’s going to happen and then there’s this great twist [regarding] how they manipulate the evening.

Ah, yes. The people who don’t think anything could happen. We know them.
Yeah, exactly. We know them. So I think people will have fun. They start shooting in two weeks, which is so exciting.

Election Year was the movie I watched right before talking to you. Considering what we just saw happen in Charlottesville, I was obsessing over the fact that the mercenary killing detail assigned to take out the reformer senator are a bunch of Nazis. I was wondering why you picked Nazis to be the people who would be protecting this murderous New Founding Fathers regime.
On a very simple, visceral level, I find Nazis to be the scariest people in the world. I really do. It’s like living under a credence of hatred. Why would you choose to live [like] that? The absence of soul, the absence of love, “go to hate” as your mantra. It’s just uncanny to me. And latching onto people who have lost a war. That’s the other weird thing to me about it. The Nazis lost. They failed. Their experiment failed, and so to latch onto losers also speaks to the level of — they’re just searching for something that is so grotesque. So I find nothing scarier than people who identify with Nazis. I knew [they] would emerge [in our present day]. Sebastian always calls me a precog: “I don’t know how you know these things!” He was like, “You said you wanted Nazi paraphernalia on the mercenaries!”

I’ve always been obsessed with how tribal people are. We really are. It would be nice in the perfect world if we would be one great tribe of humanity, but it’s incredible how we’ll always find a way to break down into groups.

The coded language they’re using around “heritage” and “identity” and “history” is so disturbing, and similar to the rhetoric of the New Founding Fathers in The Purge.
It’s unbelievable. Confederate monuments. We have just a crazy person in the White House. But they’ve always been there, that’s what’s amazing. [He] dog-whistled. They’ve emerged now under his guidance, and that’s what’s scary. But they’ve been there. That’s the reason I put them in Election Year. I was very aware that the hatred was still out there, I was intrigued that it wasn’t emerging during Barack’s administration, but they needed someone to say, “It’s time to come out now, guys. Don’t just keep hiding wherever you are.” He’s allowed it, and that’s even scarier. They’re back for part four.

Back like they’ve never left, really.
Exactly. They’ll have different masks but they’ll be very present in the film. We’re bringing them back in a big way.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

When Horror Films Reflect Reality: The Purge, Nazis & Trump