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Priest

Director: Scott Stewart
Cast: Paul Bettany, Cam Gigandet, Maggie Q

(US DVD: 16 Aug 2011)

Critics trashed Priest when it appeared in theatres and there are some good reasons for that. The writing, while generally passable, comes packaged with a lot of clunky moments. The acting goes from indifferent to silly. Screenwriter Corey Goodman likely felt ill watching Paul Bettany and his fearless vampires hunters mangle dialogue like it was a horde of hungry undead.


It gets worse. Too many audiences saw it in bad 3D, a silly decision for a film that has such a nice look once shed of its post-production gimmickry.


And then there’s the story itself. The plotting moves us along too quickly, and often inexplicably. I wish filmmakers would remember that smart audiences actually like to know why things are happening.


But wait. This isn’t simply another crappy movie; this is a movie with a tragic flaw. Its reach exceeds its grasp and you sometimes have the feeling you are watching what was supposed to be an epic story, a trilogy of novels compressed into 90 minutes. But that’s not what this is, and so it feels like a pitch, maybe an extended trailer, for something great that isn’t so great on its own.


Paul Bettany is a big part of the problem. Although trying to channel the “Man with No Name” from the Sergio Leone trilogy, he mostly just comes off as bored and boring. His vampire slayer has the exact same personality as his “Michael the Archangel” in the horror stinker Legion (also directed, mostly badly, by Stewart). Probably a talented actor in certain genres, he cant be Clint Eastwood or Toshiro Mifune and shouldn’t try anymore.


So, its not really good. Still, horror and sci-fi fans are going to be intrigued with a lot that goes on in these 90 minutes. Plenty of good ideas are here, ideas that flit and flutter and then, sadly, disappear. But they’re still here. For example, the film plays with the notion of alternative history and constructs a world where vampires and humans have battled for centuries. In the aftermath of this struggle, the Church created a technocratic and theocratic fascist state that now controls every aspect of life


The church’s priests are imagined as warriors rather than spiritual guides. Since the church’s alleged victory over the vampires, the priests have been stripped of their power and are a bit like the 19th century peacetime samurai of Japan. Power resides in the church’s hierarchy that mind-numbingly inculcates the population with the phrase “to disobey the Church is to disobey God.”


The world Scott Stewart built is a grotesquely beautiful one; part diesel punk, part Spaghetti Western, part post-apocalyptic nightmare that pays due homage to the Korean graphic novels on which the film was based..  It’s a Blade Runner Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 mash-up where guards hustle crowds into automated confessionals and the cross has become a kind of corporate logo. The places and spaces beyond the church-controlled walled cities are “old West” outposts where medicine shows and tent villages come together into a Fallout 3 meets Firefly aesthetic.


Best of all, this world has a used feeling, like people actually live in it. This is in part because there is real artistry in the lighting. Every indoor scene is a dark beauty, especially early in the film. Faces come out of the murk even in the standard DVD version I was sent. This is certainly a film that needs to be seen in Blu-Ray to fully appreciate.


The vampires themselves are about as far from gothic heartthrobs as you can get…no Eric Northman or Angel or Edward here (although all you fangbangers will be happy to see Stephen Moyer show up for a bit). The director’s commentary track notes that Priest intentionally reimagines the vampire as barely human, indeed even less humanoid than in a film like Thirty Days of Night. Screenwriter Corey Goodman notes that their sounds and movements are meant to be insect-like and they are indeed pretty monstrous monsters, frightfully inhuman.


A film like this deserves some good making of” special features and the DVD delivers. In a featurette called “Bloody Frontier”, we discover that the filmmaker seldom took the easiest route. For example, even though the vamps are partially CGI-ed up, Stewart also put real actors in rubber suits in 120-degree temperatures. And in the well-done sequence on a retro-futuristic train, Scott Stewart used semi trucks to haul giant containers that looked like train cars and then blended it with CGI effects. He deserves lots of credit for not simply creating a CGI train.


Unfortunately all of this care and craftsmanship doesn’t add up to a film that many people will care about. This is certainly not the treatment the Hyung Min-Woo comics deserved. Audiences didn’t go see this in the theatres and many of those that did didn’t like it.


In defense of the film, I think this reaction has to do with the nature of sci-fi, horror and fantasy worlds these days. More and more, I’m afraid that the average moviegoer expects genre stories to be grounded in a recognizable franchise. This imaginative laziness has dulled a lot of audiences to fantasy worlds and alternate realities that truly puts our imagination through the paces and asks that they think a bit about religion, or corporatism or even how vampires could be portrayed other than putting them in pants that show off their hot, hot, hot supernatural butts. We’re excited to see the next Spider-Man rebootm but aren’t always as interested as we should be in an obscure Korean graphic novel.


So, sorry Priest, you were a pretty expensive flop and really, not very good. But you were better than a lot of critics allowed or than many audiences were able to tell through that 3D haze of visual muck.  I hope you have a scary afterlife on Blu-Ray and DVD. Your weird world deserves at least that much.

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host out in September 2014 from Counterpoint/Soft Skull. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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