What a 1971 mockumentary can teach us about modern horror.
For as long as horror films have been around they have been confronting social issues. From James Whale’s Frankenstein films in the 1930s to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a film often characterized as a “social thriller,” the genre has displayed a vested interest in examining who is considered monstrous, who is viewed as the other, and who is seen as disposable. No disrespect to Peele, but I’m not a big fan of the term “social thriller” being used to rebrand horror. Horror has always taken on social issues, sometimes overtly and sometimes subtly, sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully, but it’s always been there.
To articulate how and why the horror genre examines social problems, we shouldn’t be trying to rebrand these films. Instead, we should try to expand the idea of horror itself. One movie, a 47-year-old pseudo-documentary, comes to mind as an example that should be discussed with other great horror films: Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park.
The 1971 feature is about a British film crew following detainees at Punishment Park, a stretch of land in the California desert. People on trial for crimes related to counter-culture protests are given a choice: spend three days in Punishment Park, or serve a prison sentence. If they choose the park, they will be tasked with completing a 53-mile journey on foot while law officers and the national guard try to track them for training purposes. If they complete the journey and successfully reach the endpoint — an American flag — they will be free to go. If they are captured, they will have to serve the prison time.
Punishment Park follows two groups, one as they are judged by a panel to determine what their sentence will be, and one as they go through the park. The first group consists of anti-war, women’s movement, and civil rights protestors who defend their beliefs to the right-wing panel members. Those in the park splinter into two sub-groups where one refuses to play by the rules and resists being captured through violence. The second group goes through the park believing that if they make it to the end they’ll be rewarded with their freedom. But as they come to learn, the odds are stacked against them and the journey out of Punishment Park is not as straightforward as it seems.
Although Punishment Park is more of a drama, existing at a time long before found footage would become a cornerstone of the horror genre, the film bears some striking similarities to the Purge franchise. The Purge and its two sequels, all directed by James DeMonaco, are set in a dystopian future where once a year all crime, including murder, is legal for 12 hours. This year’s installment, a prequel directed by Gerard McMurray titled The First Purge, is the fourth film in the franchise since its start in 2013. The series began with a focus on an upper-middle-class white family’s attempts to survive the Purge from their cozy suburban home. It wasn’t until the 2014 sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, that the films took the concept of crime being legal and directly addressed what kind of implications this would have on those already marginalized by society.
In The Purge, the affluent family that initially supports the Purge have their views shaken when confronted with a victim of the Purge that is being hunted by a group of young, rich purgers. When faced with a victim in person, when you’re no longer able to dehumanize him, it becomes difficult to allow harm to come to that person, regardless of what the law states. This sentiment comes to the forefront in Anarchy as the film follows a working-class mother and daughter who must survive the night.
As we came to learn in Anarchy and the 2016 installment, The Purge: Election Year, in this world the Purge became an opportunity for the rich and powerful to eliminate the poor and other people without the means to defend themselves. The films can be convoluted and over the top in their violence, but this is not without purpose. Anarchy and Election Year address the experiences of those who have been systematically dehumanized by the government that allows the Purge to exist and the individuals who, once a year, attack them directly and walk away without facing any consequences.
While Punishment Park and the Purge films are separated by over four decades, they address similar issues of legality vs. morality. In The Purge, crime is legal, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. In Punishment Park, the park itself is legal and those in it have been arrested for protesting and advocating for what should be considered basic human rights. In both cases, those in power have created systems that they benefit from. The rich can eliminate the poor once a year in The Purge, and in Punishment Park, those running the justice system have found a solution to overcrowded prisons that allows them to train law enforcement and the national guard at the same time.
Both films also address the fact that there can never be true equality for those who are marginalized if those with privilege continue to uphold the status quo. In The Purge, an affluent family must extend their ability to protect themselves in order to defend a victim without the same means. In Anarchy, Frank Grillo’s police officer Leo Barnes begins the film on his own quest for vengeance but soon becomes the protector for those without the knowledge and ability that he has as a cop to protect himself. In Election Year, Leo is tasked with protecting Elizabeth Mitchell’s Senator Charlie Roan. She is a presidential candidate who is able to work within the system and she aims to abolish the Purge if elected.
In Punishment Park, the British filmmakers initially have some distance from their subjects and appear to be intent on documenting what is happening without inserting themselves into the events. By the end, as many of those within Punishment Park are being targeted and attacked despite playing by the rules, the filmmakers repeatedly come to their defense by advocating for their rights and ensuring that they’re documenting what is happening. Punishment Park begins as a cinéma vérité style pseudo-documentary, but just as those in The Purge films cannot ignore the inhumane violence when faced with it in person, the filmmakers cannot help but become involved in what is happening in the park when the violence against the detainees goes from being conceptual to concrete.
After a young member of law enforcement in Punishment Park kills one of the detainees, he is visibly shaken by it when the filmmakers try to make him understand the severity of his actions. He goes from being in a position of authority where those in charge train his unit to shoot a “man-sized figure” — a further indicator of how prisoners are dehumanized — to being confronted by the reality of violence. For him and the family in the first Purge film, they can only be complicit in this system until they are forced to see that those on the other side are just as human as they are.
Violence isn’t and shouldn’t be easy to watch. By addressing social issues with brutal depictions of violence, films like Punishment Park and those in the Purge series demonstrate the necessity for cinema, particularly horror cinema, to confront violence, and to question whom violence is often directed against. After all, if horror won’t address topics that make us uncomfortable, what genre will?