Graphic Horror: Priest
Happy Halloween everyone! Just when I thought I had finished my list of horror movies based on comics, I look through my stack of DVDs that I bought for this site and haven’t gotten around to yet and see this bluray that I bought on clearance for $2 a while back. About the only things I knew about it beforehand was that it was some type of vampire movie, and it was pretty terrible. I can very easily see why people don’t like this film. It’s very muddled and copies a lot of inspirations from other, much better films. It also seems to try and push its own religion even though it simultaneously condemns some of its practices. It’s an odd mix of a post-apocalyptic western with Zack Snyder-esque martial arts sequences, and while it is very far from being a good movie, I certainly wasn’t hate-watching it either.
The film takes place in an alternate history where vampires co-existed alongside humans, but these vampires act more like a cross between an insect and indigenous people. They’re animalistic, hunt in packs, but lack anything more than rudimentary intelligence and have the weakness to sunlight. Somehow, humans spontaneously evolve a small group of superhumans that are recruited to the church, given the name priests, manage to destroy most of the vampires, and put the rest into reservations while the rest of civilization holes up in giant walled off cities. With the immediate threat of vampires gone, Priests become the cast-offs of society while the rest of the church leaders become a totalitarian theocracy. Meanwhile, there’s an attack and kidnapping out in the wastelands that’s reportedly by a vampire and it’s up to Paul Bettany’s priest to investigate it even if it means excommunication.
One of this film’s biggest strength and also its biggest weakness is the world that it creates for itself. It is a post-apocalyptic future that’s somehow reverted into Wild West trappings. There’s sheriffs, reservations, farmers, trains, even much of the clothing seems to reflect the traditional style of the Western. But there’s also a level of high technology with solar powered motorcycles and giant skyscraper cities reminiscent of the Megacities of Dredd. Especially notable due to the presence of Karl Urban as the villain here where he’s never even given a name, instead he’s just referred to by the typical Western villain trope of black hat due to the black cowboy hat he wears. The priests themselves are an interesting concept even if the explanation within the film is rather lacking. They seem to be this group of superpowered beings that came into existence at just the right time to turn the tide in the war against the vampires. But when the war was over, they were essentially left without purpose, stuck in low paying service jobs as they were unqualified for anything except killing vampires. There’s also this unquestioning authority of the Catholic church which permeates part of the film, but is ultimately meaningless. It feels like there’s this sense of a much larger mythology surrounding the world of the movie, but this film doesn’t do much to tap into the more interesting aspects. Instead it leaves more questions than answers that will only be satisfactory to a small percentage of the audience: those who can make up the rest of the story themselves, and those who just don’t care.
Aside from the world of this film, there’s also the specific plot that is surprisingly complicated for what would appear to be a simple vampire hunter movie. And the complications don’t exactly work in the film’s favor to help build the characters, but the way they are presented become mere surprises that seem to come out of nowhere. There are elements where this is the villain’s plan coming together in exactly the way that it was planned, but there’s always something that feels a little too off about it. The film begins with the vampires kidnapping this seemingly random young woman and the sheriff recruits a priest that knew the girl’s father. The priest has been having flashbacks of the time when he and a group of priests were ambushed by vampires and his fellow priest Karl Urban was seemingly killed. Early on, we get the first reveal that Karl Urban is the one who kidnapped the girl and is part vampire. Later on we get the reveal that the sheriff is in love with the girl. And finally, we get the reveal that the girl is the daughter of the priest. And even though these reveals are handled well with a small amount of foreshadowing, when they are presented, it’s done with such matter-of-factness that it feels hollow.
Empty would be a good word to describe the performances of most of the actors. There is an air of emotionlessness to many of the characters that is intentional, but that takes away from the impact when the audience is supposed to feel emotion towards these characters. Paul Bettany’s priest is called out at one point because the sheriff notices that he seems to enjoy killing the vampires, but he says something along the lines that he doesn’t enjoy it, it just comes to him. It also doesn’t help that many of the characters don’t have names. None of the priests have names, neither do the vampires or any of their minions. The only ones that do have names are the sheriff and the daughter that they’re trying to rescue. This also adds to the level of detachment towards these characters which works in certain contexts, like quite possibly the graphic novel that this film is based on, but it detracts from the story within this film. It also raises the question of religion and going against the church while still having faith, but it never digs deep enough into those questions to satisfy. Instead it merely scratches the surface.
But looking past a lot of the character defining moments, world building, and ideological questions surrounding this film, it’s built much more like an action horror movie, but does it live up to that standard? There are a handful of nice looking action sequences, but they are marred by obvious imitation that feels like a crib notes version of the Matrix, with notes of Zack Snyder’s speed changes and Lord of the Rings’ creature design as the vampires look like a more insectlike version of a cave troll without any eyes. The elements are there, but even the unrated version is an incredibly sparse 87 minutes which just isn’t enough to fully explore this world in any satisfactory manner. And the action that’s presented isn’t enough to overcome that shortfall. It’s not an awful movie by any meanst, but there’s just not enough meat on the bones to satisfy anything more than a cursory watch. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.