It's hard to say which is more horrible: the vampires Paul Bettany's grim, crucifix-carrying warrior monk is forced to face here, or the violent—and violently awful—story they're all forced to inhabit.
Not all vampires are cute and sparkly.
Take the vamps in Priest—bloodsuckers not even Bela Lugosi could love. They don't look remotely human. Frankly, they look more like giant mole rats with foot-long teeth. They're faster than us, of course, and stronger than us too. And they snack on humans like so many plates of nachos.
Or, they used to, before the priests saved humanity. Yeah, actual priests, with crucifixes and vows of celibacy. They're warrior monks, loaded with all sorts of cross-based weapons, not to mention tenacity and martial prowess. They're so good at what they do, in fact, that they beat back the vamps and work themselves out of a job. Now, after years of sacrificing everything for humanity, society has turned its back on them.
That's when one preternaturally talented prelate learns that his brother's family has been attacked in the wasteland. His wife is dead and his daughter has been captured. It sure sounds as if vampires might be the culprit. Never mind that the powers that be, a stern oligarchy of Orwellian Church monsignors, are certain it's not the case.
So the man whom we know only by his title, Priest, makes preparations to venture into the wilds to discover the truth—and recover his niece, Lucy, if he can. But the Church won't let him. The war is over, Monsignor Orelas says. People are safe. The Church says so. "You will not shake that faith," he thunders.
Priest isn't so sure. "What good is that faith when it's a lie?" he wonders. But answering such a question means defying the Church—the organization he's served faithfully for decades.
And, of course, stocking up on a few more of those handy, cross-shaped throwing stars and carving crosses into bullets … just in case.
"The priests of our story are like Jedi knights," director Scott Charles Stewart told MTV News. "They have these supernatural abilities to fight vampires, and they saved humanity before the movie even begins. Now, a generation later, society has moved on from war, and the priests are like pariahs. They're almost like Vietnam vets—they've been cast aside by society, and they're now reviled and feared."
They're also pretty admirable, albeit in their own violent way. Setting aside their (and the film's) convoluted take on Catholic spirituality for a second, these warriors are willing to lay down their lives for others—even if those others have largely rejected them. These men and women have sacrificed much (love, attachment and, it would seem at times, their sense of humor) to stand between humanity and these inhuman bloodsuckers. But while they feel the loss, they won't leave their calling.
Similarly admirable is a character named Sheriff Hicks, who's in love with Lucy and equally determined to rescue her—even if he has to sacrifice his life to do so.
In his last movie, Legion, Stewart sends wayward angel Michael (played by Paul Bettany) to save humanity from fellow angelic beings. This time, Stewart drops Priest (again, Bettany) into the breech against a slavering mass of vampires. The results aren't so much blasphemous this time as they are just kinda muddled.
Priest takes inspiration from a Korean graphic novel of the same name. So maybe it's no surprise that it feels like a mash-up of Christian faith and Eastern mysticism. Here, Christianity operates as a sort of magical pastiche over the film's B-movie tropes. True, the priests pray before battle, genuflect when members of their posse get crucified and have crosses tattooed on their faces. They tote around crucifixes (which double as weapons) and Bibles (which seem to hide them), and they have a fondness for reciting the 23rd Psalm right before vampires attack. Near the end, a powerful priest administers the sacrament of communion—a ceremony cut short when the severed head of a vampire is lobbed into the proceedings. But for all that, the spirituality here is all overlay—like a Formica countertop made to look like granite. It gives the plot a thin semblance of spiritual context, but little more.
The priests themselves do embody traits that have some resonant underpinnings: sacrifice, adherence to a cause, fidelity to God. But their faith doesn't come without its frustrations. Priest admits during confession, "I have questions, doubts." A canned video response informs him that the solution to his doubts is more sacrifice and a hard day's work. He's also told repeatedly that if he goes after the remnants of his family against the will of the Church, he's going against God, too. "Then I go against God," he says, breaking the rosary he carries with him.
But that's an overstatement. Priest never forsakes the Almighty, and the movie makes a sharp distinction between God and the Church—a Church that peddles a false sense of security while dangers lurk outside the city gates. Orwellian slogans ("Faith," "Work," "Security," "Repent") are emblazoned in neon throughout dingy, smoke-filled Cathedral City.
The priests, not the spiritual higher-ups, are depicted as the true protectors of the faith. When a fellow priest (since she's a woman, she's called Priestess in the credits) hands Priest a crucifix, she tells him, "Our power doesn't come from the Church. It comes from God." Priest holds the same crucifix in his hand when he's about to die—and in so doing, apparently finds the will to live again.
The film's nemesis, a vampire-human hybrid named Black Hat, serves as something of a Satanic tempter for the priests. Once a priest himself, Black Hat says he wanted to be free "from suffering and sacrifice and to be told that my every desire is a sin." He tells the priests how fond he is of his new outlook on life. "Join me," he hisses in the wilderness, "and your life of sacrifice will be over." "Never," Priest replies.
Characters say grace, go to confession and kiss rosary beads. One would-be vampire hunter tosses a fraudulent holy water salesman out of town. A father asks his daughter, coming home late one night, whether she's been at church all day. Someone asks Priest if the priests truly "wield the hand of God." Two people are buried at a Christian funeral.
Lucy returns from town one night with the top of her blouse unbuttoned. She guiltily buttons it when someone notices, which suggests she might've been with a beau. Later, we learn she's in a relationship with Hicks. The two share a lingering embrace.
All priests take a vow of celibacy, and Priestess, we learn, is a virgin. But the Church discovered Priest's talents later in his life, and it's hinted that one of the things he had to give up to fulfill his calling was sexual intimacy. "That made his sacrifice greater than most," Priestess tells Hicks.
[Spoiler Warning] It turns out that Priest had a relationship with a woman named Shannon and fathered a child by her: Lucy. When Priest was drafted into his current gig, he gave up both Shannon and the child to his brother, who in turn gave them the sort of familial life that Priest could no longer offer. Priestess (who wears a revealing, formfitting top) apparently has a thing for Priest too. After learning Shannon had died, she said a prayer for Shannon's salvation, then said a prayer of her own, knowing that she harbored forbidden feelings for Priest. The two priests touch each other's hands longingly at one point and look into each other's eyes, but both adhere to their vows.
The priests may be celibate, but they're not pacifistic. The violence here is bloody and unremitting as they stab, slice, pound and perforate vampires aplenty—hacking apart their semi-human helpers known as "familiars," too. (These poor souls apparently like vampires and offer themselves up to them, whereupon the vamps infect and enslave them.) Throats are cut, midsections are sliced open and, in one scene, a familiar is pulled apart while he's flying through the air. (Chunks of meat rain down.) "Killing," Hicks tells Priest, "comes easy to you," implying that he enjoys it too much. "It just comes," Priest retorts. "Easy's got nothing to do with it." Hicks carries a gun bearing cross-marked bullets, which he uses to some effectiveness against the vamps. (He also threatens a priest with it).
The vampires do their share of damage too. We see the mostly skeletal corpses of guards on a vamp "reservation," see skulls protruding from their hives and get a glimpse of them devouring an entire town. We see one explicit attack, where a vampire jumps through a window and chomps on a guy's throat. Other attacks are shown briefly and at a distance, bathed in the light of the burning town.
Black Hat is particularly deadly. In one showdown, he punches through a priest's chest and rips out his heart. He invites two other priests to join him or die like their friend. They apparently refuse, and we later see the three of them crucified on makeshift crosses. Black Hat drains a human of blood (the poor guy goes white and twitches in agony), turning him into one of the vampires' servants. Black Hat and Priest also have a massive, Matrix-esque throwdown in and on a moving train. It features a bevy of punches, kicks, blades and fire.
Several vampires get singed by sunlight. Lucy's mother is murdered offscreen. A flying motorcycle nails someone in the head. A train explodes, leading to many vampire casualties. Human and vampire blood is shown in pools and smears. Priest mows down a number of security officers in a bloody confrontation. Even an opening animated montage is pretty gruesome, featuring decapitations, ripped-off limbs and lots of blood spatter. Chickens' heads get axed off, and their blood is drained into a bucket.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word, one s-word and a handful of other profanities ("a‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "h‑‑‑"). God's name is misused four or five times—once paired with "d‑‑n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Priest and a Church leader talk over drinks at a bar.
Other Negative Elements
Lucy displays a disrespectful attitude toward her father and hides her relationship with Hicks from him. Apart from the genuine conviction of the priests, the Church itself is depicted as a heavy-handed, totalitarian regime with zero tolerance for dissent.
Don't let the title fool you: Priest is about as spiritual as a visit to Devil's Tower or a plate of angel food cake. Sure, it's loaded with spiritual references. But these superficial faith trappings are all in the service of amped-up action. This isn't, when it's all said and done, a film that's intended to provoke deep thoughts about the nature of spiritual commitment or the reality of temptation. It's a story about a grim guy with a cross tattooed on his head disemboweling vampires.
For all its spiritual posturing, then, Priest is a cynical exercise in moviemaking. It's as silly as it is gross, as dumb as it is violent. Sure, some admirable messages about personal sacrifice get sprinkled in. But every element we see onscreen seems cribbed from other, better movies. So even if the violence here wasn't enough to make this flick borderline unwatchable, its sheer inanity would be.
Director Scott Charles Stewart has naturally left the door open for a sequel. After all, the only excuse anyone has for making a movie this bad is the misguided desire to make another. Let's hope, for humanity's sake, Priest II never gets made.