Love Thy Vampire? Priest (2011)

Posted by Charles Reece, June 5, 2011 10:16pm | Post a Comment

I wasn't going to see Priest until I read Noah Berlatsky's critique. I could tell from the trailer that it wasn't offering anything new, nor was it going to even try. Indeed, it is cobbled together from clichés, tropes and designs borrowed from other films -- many of which would best be forgotten, as well. There's not one, but two "I won't let you / don't you let go" scenes as someone is dangling from the hero's hand. The villain conducts while his minions play a catastrophe on a town, just so you know how evil he is. Black Hat, the villain, is a former member of the superpowered priesthood, now corrupted by vampire blood, making him more powerful than both the pureblood vamps and the priests. The vampires are based on the same boring, wormlike design that was used in I Am Legend -- preferred, I guess, because it's generic and doesn't require eyes. Black Hat's main plan is get his old friend, Priest, to join him as a halfbreed and take over the world for the vampire queen. The worst offense is that the action is yet another uninspired appropriation of The Matrix's bullettime. Why, then, did I see it? Because Berlatsky argues that the film is virulently racist, and I can't stay away from films that unintentionally go horribly ideologically wrong. He had my hopes up for another 300 or the aforementioned I Am Legend, but is it a "racist piece of shit," or just shit?

The film's one innovation -- if you can call it that -- is borrowing the basic plot from The Searchers. In John Ford's classic, the Comanche kidnap Ethan Edwards' (John Wayne) niece, torch his brother's homestead and kill most of the family. The vampires do the same to Priest's (Paul Bettany) family, bringing him out of forced retirement to find his "niece" (actually, his biological daughter), and, thus, against the direct commands of the church state that he serves. The heroes are accompanied by the nieces' suitors, both of whom intend to keep the girls alive against the uncles' vows to kill their nieces if they show signs of infection -- cultural in the case of the Indians and genetic in the case of the vampires (or, I guess you might say, genetic mutation determines an ideologico-moral shift in the latter). It's the substitution of vampires for Indians in the plot that is central to Berlatsky's condemnation:

[I]f the Indians are vampires, suddenly you don’t have to shilly-shally. One by one the Western set pieces are trotted out and stripped down to their primal level of racist hatred and fear. The (white) family of peaceful farming folk out on the frontier is beset, utterly without cause, by slavering, hideous eyeless beasts. The reservation on which the vampires are herded is an impoverished, backwards tract of dirt—surrounding a slimy, stinking pit of sub-human insectoid breeding and bloodletting. 

[...]  But, of course, where Ford’s film at least intermittently sees Ethan’s bloody-minded racial panic as a monstrosity, in Priest there is no such bleeding heart nonsense. Racial mixing deserves death, period, and even Hicks has to admit that Priest’s absolute anti-miscegenation stance is the only true morality.

His hyperbolical reaction rests on one faulty assumption that seems to me fairly obvious: borrowing a plot doesn't entail the same intent or interpretation of that intent for the stories sharing the plot. As Roger Ebert put it, The Searchers has a nervous racial politics in the way it attempts to walk the line between the legitimate fear Euro-American settlers had for the Comanche and the genocidal solution that many, such as the character of Ethan, promoted. Berlatsky would have it that by substituting the vampires in the role of the Other, the nervousness is taken away, making genocide a moral solution to the settlers fear of the Comanche.

Even though he refuses to admit it (confer his article's comments section), the use of monsters of pure evil instead of humans from a different cultural tradition necessitates a different interpretation of storytelling intent. Granted, monsters often serve an allegorical role, but this role isn't merely determined by their placement within a plot. Rather, I suggest content of the villain role is crucial here -- i.e., the form doesn't determine (top-down) the way the content is to be interpreted. When Dirty Harry rails against the liberal bureaucrats in San Francisco, that suggests (regardless of the intent of the filmmakers) something about the realworld bureaucratic organization of a realworld city. It asks the audience to temporarily identify with a perspective (right-wing and reactionary) about something that actually exists for the movie to work the way it does. The vampires represent the Comanche (or Indians in general) only if one assumes that they do. And the only reason for assuming that they do is because of Priest's sharing a plot with a film about white settlers and the Comanche. But imagine a story where a girl is kidnapped by a Nazi group who intend on raising her with pure Aryan racialist beliefs (this idea shares similarities with the horror film Frontier(s)). Her uncle, a vehement Nazi-hunter, goes after her with the intent of killing her if she's been ideologically contaminated. I suspect his intention would find more sympathy from contemporary audiences than Ethan's, based as it is on a hatred that's considered more morally justified than hatred of Indians. Using Berlatsky's rationale, the Nazi-hunter would be just as bigoted as Ethan. 

However, even for the individual who finds Comanche beliefs as insidious and heinous as the Nazi's, there would be a monstrousness to either of the uncles' decisions to kill his own kind that simply doesn't obtain in Priest's situation: the ideological change in the niece is psycho-cultural in the former two instances, but genetic in the latter. One doesn't learn the evil of vampirism; it's a cancer that rapidly takes over the mind and body with the exchange of blood. The person that you were is really dead; what remains is an evil simulation. A white girl raised as a Comanche or Nazi continues to possess agency and can, therefore, be responsible for her actions. Her beliefs could change again. Ethan's racism is shown in the way he takes the Comanche and their culture to be something like vampirism, robbing his niece of her agency and replacing it with an evil, inhuman mockery of her former self. He finds some redemption when he embraces her in the end, despite her Comanche ways. Contrariwise, Priest would be mistaken to assume a vampiric version of his niece still possessed moral accountability -- a mistake that would result in more people being killed as the undead virus spreads like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The vampires in Priest represent a pure, evil Otherness, a group that shares no moral beliefs with and has none for the Orwellian church-state that the humans live under. (As dumb as this film is, it's actually a good deal more politically complicated than Berlatsky makes it out to be: many human ethnicities live under the totalitarian regime that probably isn't much better than the collectively minded existence of the vampires.) Whatever fear the filmmakers attempt to create using vampires is rooted in an abstract fear that underlies all fear of things we don't understand, or can't integrate within our own cultural codes. Who the hell fears the Indians these days? Racism enters the picture only when someone chooses to treat real humans as if they were these vampires. But the only person making that connection is Berlatsky.