What you need to know before you see The First Purge

Although The Purge: Election Year seemed to offer up a logical conclusion to James DeMonaco's dystopian film trilogy, the films' creator isn't done scaring the pants off anyone with a finger on the political pulse just yet. For its fourth outing, The Purge series is heading back in time to the very first Purge event staged by the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) to showcase how and why such a brutal holiday became so ingrained in society to begin with.

The First Purge will arrive in theaters on Independence Day 2018, and the timing of that release is no accident; the film is expected to be as direct with its real-life sociopolitical parallels as the prior installments — if not more so — and the picture's promotional campaign hasn't been shy about leveling criticism toward the current state of the American union. Here's what you need to know about The First Purge before you head out to your local theater to see it on July 4.

Contained mayhem

Whereas the original Purge trilogy took place after the titular night of terror overtook the entire United States, The First Purge will center on a single area: Staten Island, New York. That setting just so happens to be where James DeMonaco grew up and witnessed the kind of violence that would later inspire certain aspects of the Purge framework, and it's also why this film was originally dubbed The Purge: The Island.

As its title indicates, The First Purge will center on the inaugural evening of violence, when people are still unprepared for the levels of depravity it will unleash. According to producer Andrew Form, the story will be more individualized than prior installments as a result of its limited setting. "This Purge is about a neighborhood," he told CinemaBlend. "It feels more personal than the other Purge movies." Indeed, as the film's first trailer indicates, certain members of the neighborhood will stand in vocal resistance to the concept of the Purge. However, as we already know from the first three films, their efforts are doomed to failure; indeed, the film's official summary seems to indicate it'll only bolster the spread of the Purge. "When the violence of oppressors meets the rage of the marginalized," it teases, "the contagion will explode from the trial-city borders and spread across the nation."

A sponsored spectator sport

The villainess who creates the "experiment" of a night of legal lawlessness in The First Purge — Dr. Mae Updale, portrayed by Marisa Tomei — claims in the film's trailer that the idea isn't a political device so much as a psychological one, reasoning, "If we want to save our country we must release all of our anger in one night." However, the socioeconomic disparity of those affected by the experiment will strongly contradict her claim.

For example, many of this Purge's participants will have been bribed into sticking around. As DeMonaco told Vulture, "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." The trailer may have given us a clue about that twist, too, since it hints that ex-military members will be hired to enter the experiment and slaughter people to help raise the entertainment stakes for audiences tuning in (which leaves even Mae questioning her decision to initiate this ritual).

A surprising source of inspiration

Frank Grillo's Leo Barnes, a.k.a. "The Sergeant," as well as Edwin Hodge's Dante Bishop, a.k.a. "The Stranger," may have arrived as accidental, or at least hesitant, heroes over the course of the first three Purge films, but this time around, DeMonaco isn't pulling any punches when it comes to who's leading the good guys.

Y'lan Noel's character, William, is shown in the trailer gathering the neighborhood troops to rebel against the Purge — and seems to have some well-developed fighting skills. According to DeMonaco, the character is an anti-hero who was originally inspired by Clint Eastwood's role in Unforgiven: Will Munny, a former assassin who's recruited to serve up some vigilante justice and proves to be quite effective at taking lives. "More than the previous films, there's a singular hero in this movie. This is one man's journey," DeMonaco teased. "So it's this very cool, modern, kind of badass who redeems himself through the story."

New blood behind the lens

DeMonaco wrote and directed all three of the original Purge films, but this time, he's taking a back seat to allow another director's eye to guide the franchise. The script is still DeMonaco's creation, but The First Purge is being helmed by relative newcomer Gerard McMurray, whose Sundance debut Burning Sands (a dramatic feature about the violence of fraternity hazing rituals, which landed at Netflix) caught DeMonaco's eye.

He also told Vulture that one of McMurray's real-life experiences informed the decision to hire him to helm The First Purge. "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," he explained. "So we met with Gerard, it was just the perfect fit." As for why he gave up the reins in the first place, DeMonaco reportedly just didn't want to immerse himself in that world of visual violence yet again, despite writing the screenplay.

A greater diversity

Even before hiring McMurray, DeMonaco knew he wanted to make sure that The First Purge's story, which features a predominantly black cast, was lensed by someone with a minority perspective. DeMonaco admitted to feeling unsure about his place in even penning such a story, telling Vulture, "You get a little daunted. Like, 'What am I — Italian guy from Staten Island — what am I bringing to this?' … 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."

DeMonaco added that it's been important to him since the second film, Purge: Anarchy, to put people of color at the center of his films. "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," he explained. "At first we were saying, it's not a race movie, it's more about class. But ultimately race is class." That philosophy informs much of DeMonaco's story in the fourth round of purging.

Intentional real-life parallels

With The Purge: Election Year, there were some unintentional, albeit eerie, overlaps with current events, including the similarities between Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan and the film's own "Keep America Great" (which DeMonaco says came first). With The First Purge, however, the parallels are no longer accidental.

The first poster made that clear from the start, depicting a simple red ball cap bearing the film's title and a striking resemblance to Trump's signature hats. "I think of all the movies, it's definitely the most topical. It really is a creepy reflection of what's happening right now," DeMonaco explained, adding that the NFFA will use similar language and cultural anxieties as those in the current administration: "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." One of the key motives of the NFFA? Relieving the economic anxiety to "help a dying economy."

The visceral thrills remain

There's no doubt that DeMonaco and the rest of The First Purge's creators made a movie with a severe political bent. As DeMonaco himself admitted, he structured the story so that it might "have some kind of message and create some kind of discourse on what's happening in society." Indeed, the inclusion of real-life CNN host Van Jones on the cast, in a very meta role as an investigative reporter who questions the tactics of governance in play with the Purge, only amplifies the realism. 

However, for those who've tuned out the 24-hour news cycle and want a plain old popcorn-and-gore horror theatrical experience, there's to be plenty of that as well. As DeMonaco promised, "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."

Back in time

In addition to The First Purge, fans of the film franchise will also soon get a television series further expanding the story courtesy of DeMonaco, Syfy, and the USA Network. Previously, it was unclear where The First Purge would fit into the timeline of the TV show, but DeMonaco cleared things up in a chat with Entertainment Weekly when he revealed that while the spinoff series will involve some flashback sequences, they aren't so much pre-Purge as they are scenes of preparation for the Purge.

"We get to see who these people are when it's not Purge Night and the events that led them to where they are on the particular Purge night that we are following," he explained. He also revealed that the show will take place several years into the Purge, long after the events of the The First Purge set the event in motion.

Don't count out some key cameos

Although all the billed cast members of The First Purge are newcomers to the series, these films have been known to resurrect some friendly faces. Consider, for example, the reappearances by Grillo and Hodge in the original trilogy; it may have taken a while for some fans to recognize Dante Bishop as the Stranger who gets saved by the Sandin family in film one, but that callback to the first film was a treat. Grillo, for one, hasn't counted out returning for the fourth film, as he told Collider he'd consider returning to the role "if DeMonaco was still involved and they came up with a great idea." Meanwhile, DeMonaco has already confirmed that some film characters — though he didn't specify which — would be crossing over into the television series, so fans of the Purge should probably keep their eyes peeled for some potential Easter eggs and/or role reprisals in The First Purge as well.