Guest Post: Formulaically Entertaining-The Purge vs Hotel Transylvania

Piece written and contributed once again by Uday Mehta, who you can support by clicking here.
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It’s a tired but only partially true cliché that Hollywood doesn’t have any original ideas. Of the top-25 grossing movies of 2018 (domestically through July), nine (Ready Player One, A Quiet Place, Rampage, I Can Only Imagine, Game Night, Book Club, Blockers, Tomb Raider, and Tag) weren’t part of a series, franchise, or cinematic universe (although Tomb Raider was a video game and Ready Player one was a book). There were only seven (Coco, Dunkirk, Get Out, Boss Baby, Greatest Showman, Split, and Wonder) in 2017, none of them in the top 10. You’d have to go back to 2006 – before Twilight, Divergent, Hunger Games, Planet of the Apes, Maze Runner, Hangover, Transformers, The Hobbit, and the entire MCU – when the only real franchises were Harry Potter, X-Men, and Pirates. That year, a whopping fifteen of the top 25 were originals, among them The Departed, Cars, Borat, The Da Vinci Code, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Click for some reason. We keep watching the same characters in the same movies; just in the last few weeks, we got Mission Impossible 6, Mamma Mia 2, Equalizer 2, Ant Man 2, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World 2, Incredibles 2, and the fourth Ocean’s movie. Even things like Goosebumps and Bad Moms are getting sequels. At least half of these movies don’t need sequels, another quarter of them are just bad. There are, fortunately, a select few which successfully make the same movie, but in a good way.

Both Hotel Transylvania and the Purge are several movies into their run, and will undoubtedly each return for at least one more. While you’d be hard-pressed to find movies that are more dissimilar, they are alike in one very important way – their sustained run of success despite mixed critical response, a lack of star power, a generally predictable plot, and an apparently limited demographic. Transylvania is an animated franchise that features an actor that everyone is tired of (Adam Sandler) voicing the lead, and is primarily intended as a family movie. Purge shuffles its cast every film (the biggest names being Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, and Michael K. Williams) and is rated R for disturbing violence. So why do they still exist?

The holy grail of sequels is 22 Jump Street (honorable mention to Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight), a meta self-referential comedy which openly joked about how they were making the exact same movie a second time, including an extended credits sequence that showed all the potential sequels they could do. That movie came out four years ago, and Channing Tatum has yet to sign on to a potential third project because he isn’t sure whether the joke will work a third time. And he’s probably right – barring an Incredibles-like decade-plus hiatus, a third Jump Street movie would probably be stale and uninspiring because there’s not a lot of places you can really go with the premise of ‘undercover cops’.

Conversely, both of these franchises rely on the strength of their premise to drive their longevity. Transylvania starts with a human vs. monsters conflict, leading to the establishment of a monsters-only five-star hotel where a collection of adorable monsters convene. Purge centers around a day where all crime including murder is legal, something which apparently brings down the crime rate during the rest of the year and allows the economy to flourish. Those premises – while not always executed to their full potential – are deserving of multiple movies just so the concept can be explored to its limits. It’s like the opposite of something like Step Up (by the way, did you know that the original Step Up movie with Channing Tatum had the worst-critical reception of all five movies?), where the movie centers around the idea of a dance battle, something that might be entertaining as a YouTube video but less so as an actual movie.

Due to the leeway each premise provides, both are fueled by the in-movie creativity, a creativity which doesn’t necessarily manifest in good plot, but the type that makes them an engaging watch throughout. Averaging out to be 90 and 100 minutes respectively, there are few moments which seem unearned or unimportant. Transylvania flexes its animation ability, using it to transform things like volleyballs and wedding rings into one-off monsters that can eat up scenes. The style is evocative of a Sunday morning cartoon, corny DJ battles and all (you can get away with that in a cartoon, less so in a live action movie like say, Guardians of the Galaxy). Purge makes good use of its jump scares, glowing green eyes, and pointed iconography, jumping between points-of-view to create a feeling of disorientation. Their evolution between movies, however, is where their true appeal lies. While the first Transylvania is pushed by the classic story of a forbidden love, the second switches to a generational family dispute. By the third film, Transylvania actually leaves the titular location, spending all but ten minutes of the movie on a cruise ship headed for annihilation. While all three maintain the human-monster divide, the way in which it is presented continues to be fresh. Purge starts with an affluent white family trying to make it through the night, then moving to a working-class bunch, and in 2016 to a politician trying to campaign for the presidency. The latest film, a cleverly placed prequel, tells the story of how Purge night came to be with a ton of social commentary (financial incentive for people to participate, minority population in Staten Island, government affiliation with gun organizations, people in hoods marching in the streets).

Of the seven combined movies, I’ve seen all of them. Sure, they have a finite ceiling, but a pretty high floor as well. They’re satisfying in their predictability, a known quantity that makes room for appreciation of the finer points of each.