The Problem with 'Priest', and Other Goth Apocalypses

by Bill Gibron

16 May 2011

A few reasons why this version of the famed Korean comic, and movies like it, routinely fail at the box office.

As a tentpole, it tanked. As an example of the kind of suspect Summer popcorn fare Tinseltown regularly tosses on the movie going populace, it’s par for the course. Still, some held out hope that Priest, a big screen adaptation of a beloved Asia comic book, would live up to its several years in development promise. There has been both anticipation and apprehension about his movie ever since it was first announced. Early on, Andrew Douglas (The Amityville Horror remake) and 300‘s Gerard Butler were attached. Then the current creative team of Scott Stewart and Paul Bettany (responsible of the ridiculously awful Legion) took over, and with the help of a meandering script from first timer Cory Goodman, fashioned this $60 million flop in the making. Critics have been cruel, audiences uninterested.

That’s the issue with many of these so-called Goth Apocalypses. Filmmakers find interesting ideas, twist them up into the standard motion picture pabulum, and then the studios serve it up like the big steaming bowls of bullspit they are. Only the most devoted members of Messageboard Nation climb onboard for the ride. The rest, waiting for how word of mouth will play out along the slippery social network, guarantee that the only money this movie will make comes from endless repeats on and the lesser Showtime networks. But the bigger problem here comes from the creative, as well as the commercial aspects of the work. Vision is avoided for the sake of a watered down, weak willed sense of entertainment.
As a matter of fact, if we look over the five main reasons why movies like Priest fail, you can see a clear pattern, a flawed reasoning that tries to impose faulty group think on a more than willing to play along viewership. Perhaps if we demanded more, we’d get same. On the other hand, the industry has these concepts down to a science, and aren’t about to change them to actually make engaging efforts.

They Savage the Source Material
Want a real eye opener? Go over to Wikipedia, type in the title “Priest”, and read the synopsis provided for the Korean manhwa series created by Hyung Min-woo. Recognize anything? Probably not. The complex narrative, involving 12 fallen angels, the Battle against Lucifer, the ascent of Ivan Isaacs as our cloaked champion, and a wealth of mythology mangled or just avoided all together - none of it is there. About the only recognizable element lifted from the comic books is the fusion of horror and the Wild West - and even that is haphazard and shoddily realized. Any potential the film version of this material has is hidden beneath a bunch of Hollywood hackwork, a studio mindset more closely linked to efforts like Daybreakers and a litany of man/monster crossovers. The original has so much promise and potential that, by comparison, the film version of Priest is just pathetic. It’s reduced an entire backstory and complicated narrative into Father Somber Meets the Sort-of Vampires.

Their Overthrow/Alternative Reality Approaches Make No Sense
So, in this version of the planet Earth, “vampires” (more on this in a moment) have been tormenting humanity for centuries. Before, they were so quick and capable as killers that the humans had no chance. Then the Church-empowered Priests came along and kicked all kinds of supernatural butt. Eventually, this band of deadly dogmatics suppressed the various vamp uprisings, enough so that society could be recreated ala Land of the Dead...or something like that. Apparently, even with tanks, submachine guns, and - one assumes - nuclear devices, the vampires could not be stopped. Yet some agile members of The Order with God on their side can level the playing field almost immediately, so much so that they are now forcibly retired and no longer needed? Huh? No secret sect kept around for protection purposes? No conspiracy theories about why the Superiors would want to keep the Priests under wraps? In essence, the leaders manufacture this new problem by making sure that there were no forces working to keep the vampires in check. Again…huh?

In Order to Make the Plots Work, They Mess with Macabre Tradition
SPOILER TIME - like the literally empty-headed demons of Constantine, or the monsters of a movie like The Descent, the vampires here are not human beings. Instead, they are a band of unnatural abominations who are blind, aggressive, and yet still somehow capable of complex thought and battle strategy. They have survived medieval and modern times, and are only under ‘control’ because they have been rounded up, Native American style, and stuck on prison like reservations. Yes, they still react to sunlight (at least, initially) and can be killed via various religious-based weaponry, but for the most part, they are not recognizable facets of the standard fear dynamic. They tease our understanding of what the classical creature really is. For a while, it works. But when Priest explains that they “excrete” a substance that helps them build their “hives” and that they need human familiars and giant guardians for protection, things are thrown out of balance - and believability.

The Characters Are Just Not Compelling
You’ve got a God-modified man who was forced to leave his family in order to serve the Church. You’ve got another member of the assassin coven condemned to death (and a monstrous rebirth) by the same individual. You’ve got a lovesick and revenge filled lawman, an innocent girl, and a group of power mad clerics ruling a rotting landscape with fear and forced faith. Someone among this pulp rabble should be able to grab hold of our attention and rooting interest, right? Actually, they can’t. One of the biggest problems with this kind of film is a lavishing of detail on backdrops and art design while characters are routinely relegated to stereotypes and formula. Priest announces its end of Act Two “twist” early on, leading the revelation to be more of a shrug than a surprise - and it’s all because we don’t care a lick for these cardboard cutout personalities.

Most Are Interested in a “Franchise”, Not Film
Time to throw out the SPOILER warning again. In Priest, the main character succeeds (supposedly) in stopping Black Hat from his plan of infiltrating the cities and unleashing his vampire army on the unsuspecting and ill-prepared populace. But, as we learned earlier, these bloodsuckers are not the undead, but a kind of sightless creature. The subplot involves the “evolution” of the race, using the fallen clergyman as the next step in the process. We never see the villain actually die (though he is consumed by a fireball) and when Priest walks into a service to confront the Monsignor and to warn the citizens of the rising threat, we suddenly see where everything was going - this entire 80 minute experience was nothing more than an “origin” story - an attempt to set up a series of Priest films where the vampire/human war resumes with our hero at the fore, fighting for the Lord. As any movie geek will tell you, nothing underwhelms more quickly than a feature length “beginning” to your potential franchise. This one is no different.

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