We saw 20 minutes of Priest (and learned 3-D sometimes works)

We got to screen 20 minutes of the new Paul Bettany film Priest at WonderCon in San Francisco. What did we see, and what did we think of it? Well, if you like your vampires terrifying, you're in for a treat.

We're talking about a society that was once ravaged by vampires that look like actual monsters. Blind, dripping fangs, faster than the blink of an eye and shaped like giant cats. The world they inhabit appears to be a post-apocalyptic Earth in which the state religion runs things. It's a little Firefly-esque, in that the cities are high-tech but outside is a Wild West sort of frontier. When the vampires were attacking in years past, warrior priests protected the citizens from the threat. But when the creatures were sent packing, the priests were shunned by regular folk.

Paul Bettany plays Priest, a former hero now doing oil changes for a living. When his niece (Lily Collins) is kidnapped by vampires, he realizes the the threat is back. The higher-ups don't believe him, of course. He takes a ragged band (including Maggie Q) out to tackle the creatures and learns that they're trying to create a human/vampire hybrid. Karl Urban plays Black Hat, the result of that experiment.

We spoke to director Scott Charles Stewart (who also directed Bettany in Legion), who told us that there were hints in the environment that pointed to this being a post-apocalyptic Earth, but that the audience should decide for themselves. He also described the vampires as a hive culture. They have drones and workers and a queen. And he told us their lack of eyes was a metaphor for societal blindness.

We got to check out a fight between Bettany, Cam Gigandet's character Hicks and a group of Renfield-style slaves (who have been bitten). The action was pretty amazing to watch. Stewart explained that the rule during filming was that the vampires move too fast for a camera to catch, so they would follow the movement after the fact. You really got the sense of speed of these creatures. Priest pulls out a Bible and throws out a quote ... and then throws up the book, which is full of bladed stars that whip out and slice the beasts to ribbons. The vamps themselves look great. Even better than the concept art I saw on the set last year. And Bettany pulls off the action-hero role far better than one would expect from Chaucer from A Knight's Tale. He strikes the required comic-book poses at the end of the action sequences, he broods, and boy, does he kick butt.

We got to see the trailer (set to Marilyn Manson's remake of "Personal Jesus"), where we got a glimpse of Maggie Q's fantastic fight skills. These warrior priests are no joke. She throws a whiplike weapon around the front of an approaching motorcycle and shreds the rider to pieces while she flips him over her head. Slimy bits of body rain down over her head. The audience went wild!

By the way, don't look for a true adaptation of Min-Woo Hyung's graphic novel here. The film is very loosely based on his work. So, does it work? Well, the action certainly does. And so does the 3-D. This is coming from someone who isn't a fan of that particular trend. This is exactly the sort of film that should be in 3-D. Body parts flying, vampires leaping, weapons thrown ... no one is poking a stick directly at the audience, but the use of the third dimension is unapologetic. (Anyone else tired of filmmakers saying that they won't be using 3-D to make you jump? So why am I paying extra?) Whether or not the film will succeed in the story arena is yet to be seen.

Priest hits theaters on May 13, 2011.

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