It’s hard to know just exactly what to say about Scott Stewart’s Priest. In the sense of good movies, I could say that it’s about a hundred times better—or at least more entertaining—than the previous Scott Stewart-Paul Bettany collaboration, Legion (2009). Unfortunately, that’s not exactly lavish praise. Fact is Priest is so not a good movie. In fact, it’s a pretty bad one, but it’s also the most fun I’ve had at a bad movie for some considerable time. You see, this isn’t just any bad movie. No, indeed. This is the kind of bad movie that connoisseurs of bad movies dream about. It’s like a who’s who of bad ideas brought to delirious fruition by folks who seem to take it all very seriously—making it just that much funnier.
The film is based on a series of Korean graphic novels, and to prove it Priest opens with some really crude animations—with amusingly cheesy graphic violence—explaining that mankind has always had a problem getting along with vampires. While that seems on the self-evident side, all this is necessary to set up the idea of a world in which man—with the aid of the Church and their special breed of vampire-killing priests—has supposedly vanquished the creatures after a bloodsucking apocalypse and barricaded themselves into fantasticated walled cities, ruled by said (and now corrupt) Church. This raises the question of why such cities are necessary if indeed the vampire menace has been squelched, but it makes for a nice CGI Blade Runner-like dystopia.
Anyway, the Church has also disbanded the priests and sent them back into society. This works better as an idea than in actual practice, since they’ve all been tattooed with a red cross (which varies in straightness from scene to scene) on their faces, making it tough for them to blend in. Plus, people seem not to like them much. (“We don’t talk to priests,” one mother cautions her son.) Meanwhile out in the real world, the vampires have been busy regrouping and descend upon the Pace family in their humble Wild west-style cabin, killing Ma, badly wounding Pa, and making off with Lucy (Lily Collins, The Blind Side). This prompts Lucy’s boyfriend, Sheriff Hicks (the indispensable Cam Gigandet), to seek out her uncle, who—wouldn’t you know it?—is one of them-thar retired priests (in this case Paul Bettany). Hicks urges him to take up his vampire fighting ways and save Lucy.
After much argument with the Church—its head, Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer), refuses to accept the idea that there is a vampire menace because it would upset the status quo—our hero, Priest (as he’s billed), goes renegade and sets out to find Lucy. So he heads out into the wild-and-woolly West (nice that they make stylish dusters with cowls) and teams up with Hicks, cautioning the young man that if the vampires have turned Lucy into a “familiar” (a half-human vampire slave with bad teeth and glowing contact lenses), he’ll have to kill her. If there was any doubt that this was a reworking of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), that should settle matters.
It’s not just vampires plus Blade Runner plus The Searchers. Oh, no, there’s more. There’s a Vampire with No Name (Karl Urban) right out of Sergio Leone, which is somewhat confusing, since Bettany uses a Clint Eastwood “Make my day” voice. There’s a bunch of Wild West stuff, a trainload of newly minted vampires hanging in slightly disgusting birth sacs, motorcycle action (futuristic motorcycles, no less), a whole mess of physically impossible stunts (the fight atop the speeding train is particularly silly), a huge explosion and a brief appearance by Brad Dourif as the holy-water equivalent of a snake-oil salesman. The vampires are cartoonishly CGI and totally unconvincing. And Christopher Plummer gets to play most of the film sitting down (probably a contractual thing). Had it gone for the R rating, it might have been truly prime trash. As it is, it’s not good, but it’s too preposterous and entertaining to dislike. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, disturbing images and brief strong language.