You have to feel a certain level of sympathy for director Scott Stewart and writer Cory Goodman when they got the assignment to make a movie out of Priest. The movie’s credits dignify the source as a “graphic novel,” but it’s really just a series of Korean comic books based on the computer game Blood and telling a multicentury story of humanity’s battle against a dozen fallen angels. Priest first appeared in American translation in 2002; its protagonist was an immortal priest named Ivan Isaacs and his enemies had names like Temozarela, Jarbilong, Achmode and Netraphim.
The two men brought a wealth of inexperience to the job. Stewart, after 15 years of mid-level special-effects work and a handful of shorts, had directed only one feature (2009’s Legion); while Goodman, according to the IMDb, had never done anything (he has since co-written the script for this summer’s Apollo 18). They must have been daunted; Priest’s story line is the most incomprehensible crock of gobbledygook any socially challenged dweeb Skyping from his bedroom ever tried to slog through. The hero has a name like a fashion designer and the villains sound like pizza toppings, Sri Lankan teas and brand-name pharmaceuticals. It was enough to give flop-sweat nightmares to the combined talents of Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, Spike Jonze and James Cameron.
But you can’t keep a good team down when the chance to make the next sci-fi/horror/action thriller comes along. In a Hollywood tradition that dates all the way back to What Makes Sammy Run?, Stewart and Goodman sat down, rolled up their sleeves, put their heads together and started brainstorming about what classic movie they could rip off.
Give credit where it’s due, the boys have taste. They decided on John Ford’s The Searchers.
The movie opens with a quick version of the back story (much changed from the comic books but approximating their visual style in fairly cheap-looking animation) that plays under the credits. Never mind all that stuff about fallen angels, the enemy here is vampires, neatly standing in for the Comanche Indians of Ford’s 1956 classic. (Vampires make much more politically correct villains these days. You don’t have to worry about complaints of cultural insensitivity or organized boycotts—plus, like werewolves and zombies, vampires can be used as bad guys in one movie, good guys in the next.)
We’re told that the war between humans and vampires devastated the world, even for the victorious humans, who huddle now in fortified cities governed Big Brother-style by an omnipresent Church. It was the Church’s priests, elite warriors, who provided the margin of victory for humans in the war, so it is the Church that has picked up the pieces of shattered humanity and now rules with a benevolently iron fist for the common good. Having declared victory and disbanded the priests, the Church assures us—in the sternly smiling form of Christopher Plummer at his most imperious—that “there is no vampire menace” and “to go against the Church is to go against God.”
But the vampires are restless. They first strike at a desolate homestead farmed by the Pace family, Owen (Stephen Moyer), his wife Shannon (Mädchen Amick) and their daughter Lucy (Lily Collins). When the attack is over Shannon is dead, Owen mortally wounded and Lucy abducted. Owen lives just long enough to tell his brother, the former priest (Paul Bettany, character unnamed), that vampires did it.
The Church commands the priest to cease his irresponsible talk of resurgent vampires, but he goes renegade and, accompanied by his niece’s sweetheart (Cam Gigandet), hits the trail of the kidnappers to rescue the girl and avenge her parents’ murder.
The parallels between Priest and The Searchers are extensive, and spotting them provides some fun in what might otherwise be a pretty dismal experience. There are other references as well for the alert rip-off spotter—A Canticle for Leibowitz, 1984, Tron, the Harry Potter books, even the old folk song “The Hellbound Train”—and I got a lot of pleasure from ticking them off.
This movie is like a film studies major’s version of Where’s Waldo?