I’ve always been a fan of the weird West genre, which is to say Westerns that have an element of horror or science fiction added to them, such as The Valley of Gwangi (1969) or Back to the Future part III (1990). The most common element added to Westerns to tip them into the fantasy genre is vampire mythology, as seen in Curse of the Undead (1959), Billy the Kid vs Dracula (1966), Near Dark (1987), Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1991), the From Dusk till Dawn trilogy (1996-2000) and others. However, I never thought I’d be able to describe a film as ‘a post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk, vampire Western’ until I saw Priest.
Surprisingly, the film manages to juggle all these disparate elements well and even fits in an animated sequence that tells the history of the Priest world before the events of the film. The cyberpunk cityscape that bookends the narrative is beautifully rendered, an even more dehumanising and desolate neon-lit conurbation than Blade Runner‘s, with the addition of a religious totalitarian regime that requires the inhabitants to visit street corner confessionals every day to admit their sins to a CGI confessor. This is the result of a thousand-year war between a religious warrior caste - the Priests - and the vampires, who have been present in every major conflict in human history from the Crusades to the World Wars and the inevitable nuclear conflagration that has scorched the Earth before the start of the narrative.
Vampires here are shown to be subhuman mindless beasts with brainwashed familiars that guard their crypts during the day. The only traditional vampire in the film - i.e. a superhuman with fangs - is played by Karl Urban in sou’wester and, as often is the case in modern horror, the villain is more charismatic than the taciturn lead played by Paul Bettany.
Adapted from a Korean manhwa that ran in 16 volumes from 1998 to 2007, the film adds the futuristic setting to the existing vampire Western genre of the comic. The result most closely resembles the American comic book Grendel by Matt Wagner, which also combined cyberpunk, vampires and a religious warrior caste in its latter instalments between 1988 and 1993. The casting of Urban also announces his forthcoming role as the lead in the new (Judge) Dredd movie, which also has Western, post-apocalyptic and cyberpunk elements based on British comics with those themes.
Moving at a brisk pace, the narrative follows Bettany’s excommunicated warrior as he travels into the desert to kill the vampires who have attacked his brother’s family, shunned by the church for defying their belief that the creatures have all been defeated. This is a traditional Western trope - exchange vampires for Sioux in other examples - but the first of many narrative inconsistencies that undermine the film’s achievements in the areas of special effects and world-building. Surely it would make more sense for the church to exaggerate the vampire problem outside the walled cities, to keep the populace afraid and faithful, rather than deny their continued existence.
Bettany travels on in his quest and encounters a varied cast of familiar actors, some reassuring in their presence - Brad Dourif, for example, a horror and Western regular - others who have been cast to give some gravitas to the proceedings, such as Christopher Plummer as a church elder. Stephen Moyer, lead vampire in True Blood, has a cameo as Bettany’s human brother (if this film had been set in the 19th century like the comic, it could almost be his TV character’s origin story) and Maggie Q reprises her reoccurring kung fu role from American techno-thrillers such as Mission Impossible III (2006) and Die Hard 4.0 (2007).
Although it is exciting, innovative and visually stunning - enough elements to recommend it - Priest is flawed in several other areas: absurd fight sequences defy the laws of gravity, even allowing for the priests’ superhuman abilities; the script, based on several issues of the comic, is overly episodic; and the open ending announces a sequel that presumably will never come, based on the film’s bad reviews and meagre profit at the box office. Overall, it is well worth a watch for fans of science fiction, vampires and weird Westerns, but it will frustrate fans and critics used to more mainstream fare.