As part of the build-up to the January 20th release of “Underworld: Awakening”, a movie which I feel like an ill-advised, one-man-band cheerleader for (don’t ask me why I am, just be aware that I am so afflicted and aim your sympathy accordingly), I thought that it might be fun to run a series of posts which look at recent, classic and current vampires in pop culture and discusses what we think about them, why we watch them and why they persist as a horror staple when so many other fictional monsters fall by the speculative fiction wayside.
To get things going with a resounding “Hmm…”, I’m looking at 2011’s Franchise Which Wasn’t, the Korean comics adaptation “Priest”.
On the face of it, this is a can’t miss premise: disgraced religious warrior is pitted against super-powerful vampire hybrids in a dystopian future. It’s a simple high concept which has a lot of scope to talk about faith, fear, politics, the self, and all manner of interesting subject matter and juxtapose that against a fast-moving tale which hits on our enduring love of the undead and our uneasy relationship with religions and their place in contemporary society.
I can’t speak to the Korean manhwa (comic) by Min-Woo Hyung but the film which results from his work is a disappointment on a couple of levels – some of which it takes sole responsibility for, one of which is resolutely the result of my own (not realistic) expectations.
To the latter – when I watched the trailers for this film, I was honestly expecting the “Judge Dredd” film that we didn’t really get with Sylvester Stallone and director Danny Cannon, back in the mid-1990’s: a world in which we had surrendered personal freedoms to live in a none-too-welcoming future of grim, impersonal super cities, presided over by a ruthless warrior police force whose remit was more based on a more binary morality than interested in anything resembling justice.
It’s fair to say that we do at least a visual sense of that world in the finished film, but the representation is brief and doesn’t really extend to a convincing, detailed depiction of what it might be like for people to live in it. Like much else in the film, the film’s universe is a purely visual creation, where things exist to be cool and look striking – if aspects of the world in “Priest” don’t seem to make too much sense, the viewer frequently gets the idea that we’re not meant to be looking at them with too much scrutiny.
What was hinted at by the advanced trailers for the film is fully depicted in the end product – this is more of a sci-fi western than a horror picture and in that respect it at least manages to subvert expectations by largely eschewing the dark and dingy territory that you might expect from a story where the antagonists are vampiric creatures and setting much of the action in a bright, sun-drenched, sandy, lawless badlands environment.
Think “Mad Max” with a hint of the Man With No Name and you’ll get a sense of where the film makers are aiming at but don’t quite manage to hit.
The actors are good – Paul Bettany doesn’t play down to the material or do anything less than his best work in this film. He’s a muted, tortured presence as the titular character, but I wonder what kind of effort he was exerting to stay with the American accent that his role demands here – is there any real reason this particular protagonist in a ruined future absolutely has to be from the States?
He’s more than matched by Maggie Q, whose turn in this film suggests an actor familiar with the traditions of the ‘Martial Chivalry’ genre – she’s grave, restrained and capable in the face of the unstoppable Vampire foe, here epitomised by Karl Urban.
Urban is one of those reliable actors who lends even fairly straightforward material like this a bit of quirky individuality and energy. He’s particularly fun in this film as a mysterious bad guy who has a history with Bettany’s hero and a revenge motive which is quite neat and mean-spirited.
The vampires in this film, you see, waged war against humanity for centuries until they were bested by a resurgent human race banded together under the banner of religious faith. The surface of the planet after the war is a scorched hell – the excellent animated prologue movie by director Genndy Tartakovsky fills in some of the back story in eye-popping style – and vampires are consigned to reservations far away from the Walled Cities which house the survivors of the conflict.
When a report of a vampire attack on his estranged brother reaches Bettany’s character, he rejects his religious order’s call for calm and sets out to arrest what he believes must be a resurgent vampire populace before it can again overrun the new cities and what’s left of humanity.
If any of that sounds a little ordinary and entirely devoid of innovation, that’s because it really rather is. Again, I can’t say how this reflects on the source material, but the adaptation is – charitably – based on archetypes and lots of things that you’ve seen before in other media.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing as with many B-movies part of the joy of them is in noticing the homages and allusions to what’s gone before. Director Scott Charles Stewart openly homages John Ford’s “The Searchers” during the film and that’s nothing if not ballsy – this vampire actioner really doesn’t have the story or stylistic chops to live up to the legacy of that celebrated Western.
It’s a pacey and concise film – the running time is a brief 87 minutes – but it could also have benefited from more of a sense of humour. I’m not saying that Bettany’s tortured hero had to quip wise after each vampire fight, but some levity might have lifted a story which takes itself rather more seriously than is probably good for it. We’re not dealing with the angst of a tale like “Let the Right One In”, after all – this film doesn’t have much more to say than ‘kung fu priest beats up mutant vampires – repeat’, for cripes sake.
In the pantheon of throwaway horror action pics, this is a little bit more throwaway than most, but your enjoyment of it may increase relative to your love of Paul Bettany, Karl Urban and Maggie Q. If you happen to be a fan of any one of those actors, you can consider this a three and a half star to four stars out of five film. Everybody else should consider this as one of those films that you watch on an otherwise unoccupied evening and enjoy despite yourself if you’re any kind of SF geek.