Director: Jofin T. Chacko
Cast: Mammootty, Manju Warrier, Nikhila Vimal
Do you think people in horror movies have ever watched horror movies themselves? It's a question I've been wrestling with, each time I watch a predictable genre film with beats and twists that are identifiable from miles away. In The Priest, Mammootty's first release after the pandemic, there are instances where the characters are experiencing revelations even though we've already gotten there long ago. As we wait for these characters to catch up, we wonder if this numbness is a result of the number of horror movies we've already seen or if it's merely the limitations of the genre with limited patterns and writing combinations.
Like that scene in which Mammootty, who plays a rebellious priest, proposes the concept of exorcism to help a mysterious young girl. It's not like we're expecting a film titled THE PRIEST to move into either a homam or scientific intervention. So, it feels odd when the characters react to this proposal as though it's a shocking bit of information. So when Jesse (Nikhila Vimal) googles words like paranormal and walks around bemused at highly obvious jump scares, you feel like sending her a few DVDs, but you don't feel for her.
And that's largely due to how derivative the scary parts feel. The shots and setup feel like adaptations of Western horror films even though it's not easy to place the films they remind you of. They feel like highlight reels of the best scenes from dozens of such films but it doesn't coalesce to give us something new. It also doesn't help that the film lacks any kind of cultural markers. We know that the film is set somewhere in Kerala and it soon moves to a hill station, but there's no specificity to make us feel like this situation is happening near us to people we might know. What then is the difference between watching a film like The Priest instead of sticking to the It series or The Conjuring? Even the reason a lot of us liked Prithviraj's Ezra (another film I don't think Jesse has watched) is because it set the clichéd second half flashback in a Kerala Jewish setting that was new to a lot of us.
But in The Priest, there's far too much reliance on the ghost's flashback, and the writers overestimate the power of the emotional angle and the twists that form a part of it. The film wants all the chills of a gross-out horror movie but it also wants to be clever by introducing to us the concept of a ghost that's also a guardian angel, like we witnessed in Mysskin's Pisasu. But neither register strongly with the scary parts often overpowering the emotional.
Another aspect I couldn't quite understand was the insanely long running time of a seemingly inconsequential case. In almost all movies that set up a mysterious detective figure like The Priest, we usually begin with a lesser case that's there only to show us the inner workings of the central character and how smart he is. We get a case here too but the film uses a minuscule connection to the actual bigger event that happens later on. But the issue is that this kutti case is prolonged for so long only to use a part of it as an interval twist. Which means that we've invested an hour to learn stuff about characters and plot points that have no bearing on the actual film.
The aforementioned lack of specificity extends to Mammootty's character too. Of course, we learn that he's a Priest with some sort of power, but we get nothing in terms of his past to explain his weirdly OTT costume. Apart from a dialogue in which another Father hints his disapproval towards Mammootty's Fr. Benedict, he's as good as a Latin-speaking phantom to everyone. There's no real world-building and the film is not an assembly of similarly strange characters. So, he feels really out of place when he walks around in this highly-stylised look (with a bucket hat and a cane) in everyday places like a hospital and a school. This eccentricity in the look doesn't even extend to his personality given how tame and boring he appears to be. It feels like there's more effort that has gone into his look rather than his characterisation, especially when he seems to have more access to crime scenes and police files than police officers themselves.
With an energy drop towards the end and a series of ideas you've seen before, there's not much to keep you invested in The Priest. It disappoints both as a star vehicle and a horror thriller. Or as Fr. Benedict might have said, "it's a film that fails to diem its carpe".