I was delighted when I first heard the manga series Priest, by Min-Woo Hyung, was being made into a movie. And with Paul Bettany as the Priest? Awesome. But then I head that they had added vampires and a kidnapped niece. There are neither vampires nor nieces in the manga. The creatures of darkness there are devils and zombies. The manga operates within a religious framework through and through—the classic battle of the God and the Church versus Satan and his minions. And then, they kept pushing back the release date for the movie. That is typically a bad sign, second only to releasing the film without allowing reviewers to see it first (although, as far as I know, Priest was indeed screened). All of these things dampened my enthusiasm for the film considerably. This did not prevent me from recommending the manga series to my Spring semester Graphic Novels course. One student said “Aren’t you excited for the movie?!” I said, “Alas, no.”
So, when I finally got around to watching Priest, I was pleasantly surprised. Truly.
While Priest is certainly not greater than its PG-13 fantasy/thriller/horror genre allows, it is actually quite a bit of fun. The film is ostensibly one part Blade Runner and one part Mad Max, and it reminded me of two things: 1) some movies could only be made after The Matrix and 2) if you ever find yourself in a supernatural pinch, you need Paul Bettany on your side (see Bettany in Legion if you’re not sure about that). The kick-ass Priest and it’s mix of genres is the familial trait that most strongly connects the movie to the manga series. The series is one part Spaghetti Western and one part Gothic Horror tale. Director Scott Charles Stewart keeps the Western aspects of the manga most faithfully. In fact, he said in an interview that Priest is an homage to The Searchers, with Bettany’s Priest like John Wayne’s character and the vampires as the Comanche. But while he keeps the movie’s western heritage intact, he transposes gothic horror into post-apocalyptic horror. That is, instead of the supernatural and monstrous elements that are the bread and butter of the gothic horror tale, Stewart gives us the horror of humans living in an eternally dark, overly-industrial citadel. This massive walled city is run by the Church but these are not religious men in the sense of the word that would potentially connect them to the supernatural elements of gothic horror. Rather, they are little more than politicians and benevolent tyrants. Religious faith here is not true conviction but rather the opiate of the masses that Marx despised.
And like it’s manga progenitor, the movie Priest is a visual treat. The walled city is frighteningly dark, cold and distopic—simultaneously grimy and antiseptic. The fact that the humans have retreated to such a place of perpetual night seems odd considering that the narration at the beginning of the movie tells us that the only advantage humans had against the vampires was the sun. Apparently, they decided to forego this advantage. Instead, the reservations the remaining vampires have been herded to and the human city alike are equally dark and dismal.
Outside the human citadel, however, is a sun-baked desert. Everything is so hot and desolate that the scenes are almost a bleached out white. The Wastelands, as they are called, are stripped of vegetation and, apparently, radioactive from the previous years of war. They are also home to the miners, farmers, rebels and outlaws who have left the confines, and the dark, of the city to seek their fortunes on the frontiers and to be free from the strictures of the Church. The vampires may have been locked up but life on the Wastelands is still no picnics. And here is where the movie’s aesthetic debt to the manga is most visible. The Old West aesthetic of the Wastelands with its heroic and true sheriffs, odd misfits, snake oil salesmen, blinding sunshine and tumbleweeds, is a close copy of Min-Woo Hyung’s artwork. Hyung’s artwork, in fact, is what first attracted me to the manga series. The art is composed almost entirely of straight lines and hard angels. This makes the men truly chiseled and the women hard hourglasses. In the movie, the clothes that the Priest’s niece Lucy wears, and the train that plays prominently in the climax of the film (another nod to the manga), are close copies of Hyung’s art. Strangely, the main bad guy is a replica of the hero of the manga, Father Ivan Isaacs. I heard there is a manga volume that bridges the original manga series and the film, but I haven’t read it yet and so I don’t know if the decision to make the movie’s villain a visual echo of the manga’s hero is explained there.
The original Priest from the manga and Black Hat. Notice the notch in the hat for the eye.
Twilight vampire alum Cam Gigandet is Hicks, the hunky gun slinging sheriff of the town where the Priest’s brother Owen lived with his wife and Lucy. He’s also in love with Lucy, of course. Vampire Bill from True Blood, Stephen Moyer, plays Owen. It is a vicious vampire attack on Owen’s isolated homestead that sets the plot in motion. Owen’s wife Shannon is killed on the spot and Owen is mortally wounded, although he manages to hang on long enough to make a stirring demand for justice (“Brother, kill them all!”) from the Priest. Lucy is captured. Hicks and Priest set out to retrieve her. Hijinx ensue. Paul Bettany is as bad as he wants to be, Hicks flounders at first, completely out of his league against vampire enemies, but then learns to fight like a priest to save his love (the ever stoic Priest’s great compliment to Hicks: “you would have made a good priest”). Secrets are revealed and we learn that not everything is as the Church has said it is (no real surprise there).
Was the movie Priest fabulous? No, it was not. But it was a good, fun summer movie. I’m not sure if being a fan of the manga helped me to appreciate the movie more or not. In any case, I love a good genre movie and Stewart was smart enough to know he was making a film with icons and not characters: the Law, the Bad Guy, the Warrior, the Priest, the Niece. This is a movie about setting and atmosphere. If you can accept that, you’ll probably like Priest.
This brings me to my final question: is Priest really a vampire movie? This is a question we asked again and again during my Vampire Literature Interim class. What qualities does a creature need to possess to be a real vampire? The list is quiet variable, as anyone familiar with The Twilight Saga knows—the literary history of the vampire tale attests to this fact as well. Fangs or no fangs? Sunshine bad or fine? Formerly human or different race? Nocturnal or not? Evil or just Other? Immortal or not? Killable or not? The class agreed that drinking blood was the starting point but they also decided that simply drinking blood was not enough. There are plenty of other creatures with that loathsome habit. So it really is a matter of having a cluster of features, as it were. Not unlike any genre, really. The creatures in the manga are not vampires and I’m inclined to say that neither are the creatures in the movie. But that’s just me. I’m more of a vampire purist.