Paul Bettany (Priest), Karl Urban (Black Hat), Cam Gigandet (Hicks), Maggie Q (Priestess), Lily Collins (Lucy Pace), Brad Dourif (Salesman), Stephen Moyer (Owen), Christopher Plummer (Monsignor Orelas)
“This is what is known. There has always been man. And there have always been vampires. Since the beginning, the two have been locked in conflict. The vampire was quicker and stronger. But man had the sun. It was not enough. And so it went like this over many years. The two races destroying not only each other, but the world itself. Facing extinction, mankind withdrew behind walled cities under the protection of the church. And then the ultimate weapon was found, the priests. Warriors with extraordinary powers trained by the church in the art of vampire combat. They alone turned the tide of man. The remaining vampires were placed on reservations. And fearing the power of the weapon they created, the ruling clergy ordered the priests disbanded. The former warriors to be integrated back into a society that no longer needed them. And as the years passed, the few surviving priests faded into obscurity like the vampire mass before them.” – Opening narration
I recall being somewhat excited for Priest. I’m pretty sure my excitement was based entirely on the fact that a post-apocalyptic movie was coming out and it was about the relatively underused concept of vampires taking over the world. I recall going to the theater and watching it but could remember only brief moments. This was my second viewing and I can still mostly only remember those few moments even though I watched it less than twelve hours ago.
Priest is based on a Korean comic of the same name by Hyung Min-woo. The book is sixteen volumes and inspired by the PC first-person shooter Blood, I would go into detail on the plot but since this movie has fuck-all to do with the book it’s based on then it doesn’t really matter. Priest gives Hyung Min-woo a writing credit but it really should give Alan LeMay one as well since it borrows more from The Searchers than it does from Priest.
All the background you need is in the overlong synopsis listed above under “The Story.” So we join a small family as their small farmhouse in the middle of a salt flat is besieged by vampires. The parents are killed and the daughter is kidnapped. The girl’s boyfriend, who just happens to be the local sheriff goes to the nearest city and gets the girl’s uncle (the titular Priest) to join him in tracking down the vampires and getting the girl back. The priest promises the sheriff that if they find the girl and she’s infected then he’ll kill her, but the sheriff promises the priest that he won’t let him. It turns out that the vampires are being lead by a former priest (Karl Urban) who has been turned into a vampire/human hybrid. Paul Bettany is John Wayne, Cam Gigandet is Jeffrey Hunter, the vampires are the Kiowa, and Maggie Q is there so that the movie can have a female character who does something.
Using the framework of The Searchers is lazy, sure, but it actually colors the film with an ugly subtext. The Searchers is a book of very complicated politics, those between the native tribes that lived in the early Americas and the European settlers who moved in and stole their land. The story has been cited as racist by plenty of people and though the ugliness of the racial politics and the savagery of people on both sides of the conflict is the point of the book and, to a lesser extent the movie, that adds a certain tone to this movie.
The vampires aren’t human, they’ve been on Earth as long as the humans, they’ve been at war, they lost the war due to brave men capable of killing them with great efficiency, and the remaining few were forcibly put into reservations. Priest is a gleeful “cowboys and injuns” yarn filled to the brim with racist subtext, they just copy/pasted “vampires” over “Indians” and didn’t seem to realize that neatly swapping a group of people with literal bloodthirsty monsters is just as ugly as directing all that racism toward actual Native Americans. I don’t think this ugliness was intentional but the parallels aren’t subtle and I would be extremely uncomfortable watching this movie with someone of Native American heritage.
Let’s move on from regrettable subtext to the regrettable everything else. Like the vampires themselves, Priest is a soulless monstrosity. The cities are generic dark-lit Blade Runner cities. The characters barely have names; the lead is merely “Priest”, Maggie Q is “Priestess”, and the villain Karl Urban is literally named “Black Hat.” (I feel like they should’ve at least considered “Dr. Mister Badguy.”)
The dialogue is the overdramatic whispertalk that populates these slick, dull thrillers. Characters don’t converse so much as they move the plot along. The closest thing to a character arc is Priest’s where we learn about his estranged family and that the taken girl is his daughter. This is meant to evoke an emotional response, knowing that this man is so dedicated to his job that he would kill even his own child if she were infected, but it means nothing! Nobody is likable or dislikable, they are merely there and it’s impossible to feel anything about these characters which makes the already anemic suspense unable to register.
There appears to be a token attempt to make social commentaries about “The Church”: a dystopian theocracy very nakedly modeled on the Catholic church. But that social commentary is as underdeveloped and noncommittal as the rest of the movie. Why is Christopher Plummer so invested in ignoring the world’s obvious vampire problem, even in the face of physical proof? Hell, why didn’t they just wipe out all the vampires when they had a chance? There would seem to be another social commentary involving the race war, but the vampires are all giant CG toothbeasts who never speak or try to communicate, if they have hidden depths then it’s not apparent. The only attempt at discussing the vampire agenda is done by Black Hat who simply tells Priest about how the vampire queen made him the first “human vampire.”
On the subject of human vampires; what does that mean? We are lead to believe that the familiars (Renfield types, 50% scarier looking than the actual vampires) are fledgling vampires, serving masters so that they too will become vampires. Similarly, Priest’s implication when telling Cam Gigandet that he’s going to kill the girl if she’s infected seems to indicate that she will become a vampire. Yet Black Hat is the only “human vampire”, implying that all the people who are infected are simply part of a slave caste. But that doesn’t explain why Gigandet mentions that the familiars serve by choice. You’re telling me that people walk across the wasteland to get bit just so they can chop the heads off chickens and be weird creepy bald fuckers for the rest of their lives? Is this condition incurable?
The vampires look terrible, by the way. The CG is passable, if a bit plastic-y, but the design is just a disaster from ground up. The vampires are naked, hairless, CG lumps with long claws, long teeth, and no eyes. They have no distinguishing features, they have no personalities, they do nothing to signify that one is any different from any other. They’re big toothy monsters who exist to be killed in boring-cool action sequences that are reminiscent of The Matrix and Underworld in the blandest way possible.
The actors are all fine. Paul Bettany just doesn’t quite have what it takes to be the diet Jason Statham that 2011 wanted him to be. He’s a fine actor and I’m glad he’s landed that sweet Avengers gig so that Hollywood can’t hurt him anymore. I feel similarly bad for Maggie Q who just can’t seem to find her place in the business. Hell, this is just a cast of misfit actors who could do better but are trapped in tripe like this. Karl Urban does his best with minimal casting and Cam Gigandet is still searching for that role that takes him out of the dull pretty boy ghetto and into Matt-Damon-role paradise.
Don’t watch this movie. Don’t even think about this movie. Just click away from this review and put it out of your mind. Do you want post-apocalyptic vampire action? Watch Daybreakers, watch Stakeland, watch the fucking Caretaker. It may seem like this movie enrages me but I honestly don’t even have emotions for it beyond wanting it to be gone, I rarely find movies so unsatisfyingly bad. At least Beowulf is goofily charming, at least Ultraviolet has some neat ideas at its fringes, at least Deathsport has a funny story behind it.
Priest feels like a movie pitch made-up on the spot by a desperate filmmaker given ten seconds to wow studio executives. “Uh… it’s The Searchers… but it’s the future and there are vampires but they’re all in reservations, and there was this big war where they fought with humans until these kickass Catholic priests came along and beat them, but now that there’s peace the priests are disbanded and…” and instead of expanding it into screenplay form they just took this man’s exact words and made it into a movie. I can see why Paul Bettany’s agent told him his career was over after this movie. Priest has no redeeming qualities and its existence will have receded from your mind mere moments after having watched it. This movie has left so little of an impression on me that I don’t feel like finishing this r
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“You wanna live boy, you listen to me. You scream, I’ll break your neck. They’re dead! There’s nothing to be done about it but kill that thing. Can you shoot? You shoot me I’ll fuckin’ kill you!”
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