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The Pulpy Delight of Priest, a Wild Horror Adventure Starring Paul Bettany and Karl Urban

Paul Bettany's journey as a vampire-hunting warrior-priest was made for rediscovery on cable.

By Matthew Jackson
Priest (Paul Bettany) appears with a cross on his forehead in Priest (2011).

Some movies are just born feeling like the kind of thing you're destined to find on cable sometime after midnight, when the world is quiet and you're just looking for a distraction. This, to be clear, is not an insult. There's a certain magic to that sense of discovery, that feeling that you've stumbled on something you missed when it hit theaters or first arrived on home video. When a movie can deliver that feeling, it's got a power all its own.

Priest, the 2011 action-horror film directed by Scott Stewart and starring Paul Bettany in the title, has that power. Yes it's uneven, a mishmash of genre conventions that don't always work, but when it's really firing as a kind of horror-western, it's loads of fun, and it feels like the kind of movie designed to keep you up past your bedtime.

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What holds the film back, even if it doesn't hold it back for long, is the larger worldbuilding at play in the narrative, which is based on the comic by Min-woo Hyung. In the future, humanity has won a bitter and brutal war with vampires, leaving the Church as the almighty arbiters of civilization. Humans largely live in dystopic cities, with the occasional wasteland settlement out on the frontier, and the warrior priests who won the war, of which Bettany is one, are relegated to a quiet life where their power can't become too great. It's a complex web of power, but it's secondary to the film's real drive.

Priest, after an intro that's heavy on exposition, really revs up when it's revealed that the title Priest's niece (Lily Collins) has been abducted by vampires out in the wastes, and it's up to him to save her. With the help of a local sheriff (Cam Gigandet) and a fellow former warrior priest (Maggie Q), Priest has to hunt down a vampire army spearheaded by Black Hat (Karl Urban), a former priest who was turned in an encounter with a vampire hive years earlier.

Priest is a sci-fi western horror mash-up revenge tale

While it admittedly takes a little too long to get to this point, when Priest finally does emerge as a sci-fi-Western-horror-revenge movie, it's an absolute blast, even if you do see some of the story beats coming. There's something hypnotic about the black-on-white way that Stewart shoots the desert vistas of the story, everything washed out and pale and scrubbed clean of color by years of neglect and fear. It's here too that Cory Goodman's script relaxes into its own rhythm, dosing out worldbuilding in a way that's a bit more relaxed compared to the massive infodumps of the early minutes of the film. Yes, sometimes the props look borrowed from Underworld, and sometimes the dialogue gets too stilted, but there's an undeniable sense of atmosphere here, helped along by the presence of Black Hat and his master plan to change the world for the better for vampires.

Key to this working, of course, is Bettany and Urban, and their ability to meet this material where it is. There's a lot of pulp influence in Priest, a lot of tonal notes that remind you of Richard Matheson or Robert E. Howard, and the film's stars are eager to embrace that. Bettany is also gritted teeth, hard-set eyes and angst, a man carrying an inescapable burden brought on by years of violence, while Urban is a scenery-chewing behemoth that's reminiscent of classic Western villains. They're both working on a level that complements the material in an unforgettable way, and if nothing else keeps you watching, they will. 

This all amounts to a strange hybrid movie, something that's equal parts AliensOnce Upon a Time in the West, and something else entirely that perhaps doesn't always work. When Priest actually does manage to bring all of these pieces together, though, it's the kind of film made for a late night in front of the TV, bowl of microwave popcorn in hand. It's exactly that brand of fun, and you can catch it through the SYFY app right now.

Priest is now streaming on SYFY's Movies Hub and now airing on SYFY. Check the schedule for more details.