Written by: Chris Morgan & Christopher Borrelli (story), Christopher Borrelli & Michael C. Martin (screenplay)
Directed by: Mark Neveldine
Starring: Olivia Taylor Dudley, Michael Peña, and Dougray Scott
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
For 2,000 years the Vatican has recorded evidence of evil. May God have mercy on their souls.
If there’s anyone you might expect to inject life into the tired possession subgenre, it’s Mark Neveldine; as one-half of the duo who ushered the hyperkinetic, turbocharged Crank movies to the screen, Neveldine established himself as something of a radical aesthete, and, even though his follow-ups have been disappointments (yes, even the one where Ghost Rider takes a flaming piss), you’d like to believe he could at least recapture a bit of that anarchic spark for The Vatican Tapes. After all, it’s a film that stands on the verge of actual anarchy, as the antichrist looks to rise for the umpteenth time; unfortunately, the dark lord treads down an all too familiar path, and, just when the film looks to catch that spark by pushing to a logical extreme, it inexplicably quits, almost as if it were too afraid to do something—anything—differently from its predecessors.
Perhaps in an effort to live up to its own title, The Vatican Tapes tenuously frames Satan’s latest attempt as another troubling episode for the Catholic church. Deep within the bowels of its capitol, the church has essentially prepped a doomsday bunker stashed with evidence of satanic activity. The latest dispatch arrives from America, where the antichrist—as he is wont to do—has decided to hijack the body of a girl; in this case, it’s Angela Holmes (Olivia Taylor Dudley), whose latest birthday is attended by friends, family, and Lucifer. Soon after the festivities, Angela’s behavior becomes erratic, much to the dismay of her father (Dougray Scott) and boyfriend (John Patrick Amedori), a turn that takes her from the edge of death to a psychiatric clinic to the mercy of an exorcist. You know the routine.
The Vatican Tapes is so preoccupied with running through the motions that it opens with a found footage hook, with two priests (Peter Andersson and Djimon Hounsou) scouring over the footage of Angela’s ordeal before the film mercifully lets us off the hook with a more traditional style. Unloosing the film from a tired gimmick at least allows Neveldine’s camera to slink and prowl about, creating dread and menace during a sparse setup that builds whatever tension the film can hold before it deflates. It’s not a sudden puncturing, either; rather, The Vatican Tapes slowly brings its audience to the realization that, yes, this is all it has to offer: reheated leftovers from The Exorcist, The Omen, and their various copycats through the years, only Neveldine didn’t at least have the courtesy to nuke this sucker to the point of leaving an explosive, splattery mess all over the place.
Literally hindered by a PG-13 rating that completely excises the gore through obvious, awkward cuts, Neveldine doesn’t have much else to lean on. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the same guy behind the delirious, rambunctious Crank movies because The Vatican Tapes is a plodding bore. As it hums along to a droning score, it begins to feel as if it were filmed from a checklist rather than an actual script: nearly every conceivable possession movie beat you can imagine is rehashed here, from the (very lame) bodily contortions to the (not very) profane outbursts. You miss the days when Exorcist rip-offs at least had the guts to be gonzo. Regurgitating a formula is one thing: not even bothering to add some embellishments and sleepwalking through it is another sin altogether.
Everyone is guilty of committing it here: Neveldine’s direction is generally limp, relying on jittery camera movements to compensate for a weak script that fails the performers at every turn. Even as someone as generally lively as Michael Peña (here playing a priest) seems bored and listless here, unable to shake the doldrums of a script that has him repeat platitudes out of an exorcism handbook. Only a cursory backstory (he was in the military until he had finally “seen enough”) allows a glimpse into who he is as a character—which is actually more than we learn about anyone else, save for another priest (the Father Merrin in this scenario), who’s similarly afforded some 15-second exposition. 40 years after The Exorcist, this imitator is less somehow interested in women, particularly the possessed one at its center. As Angela, Dudley is only required to deliver knowing, creepy looks and the occasional freak-out while the men in her life look ponderous and sad. With such inconsequential roles, Hounsou and Michael Pare (appearing briefly as a cop) may as well not even exist.
A late turn towards the less familiar is almost jarring, if not a little exciting, even. So many imitators are caught up in redoing The Omen, but The Vatican Tapes takes it a step further towards The Final Conflict territory by imagining what the antichrist’s rise may look like—and then the credits begin rolling, leaving you to wonder about the most interesting part of the story. What a bold (and baffling) move from an otherwise gutless endeavor. If nothing else, the decision should make for some interesting conversation on any potential special features; I am genuinely curious to unpack the logic behind a movie that is so thoroughly, ruthlessly invested in re-gifting and hinting that it actually got you something better that it couldn’t bother to bring to the party.
I don’t know if anything can account for Neveldine’s stylistic plummet—it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Crank films may have been flukes. He’s somehow made a film where a guy stabs himself in the eyes with light bulbs and the patients in a mental facility drop kick each other, and none of it really registers. As the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but notice a character named Mattias Bruun, which may or may not be a nod in the direction of Bruno Mattei—if so, it’s an astoundingly empty (if not ironic) tribute considering it’s an accessory to the sort of boring, bad movie the late Italian sleaze merchant would have never made. Instead, The Vatican Tapes feels like something that should have surprised you when it suddenly popped up in a $3 DVD bin with little fanfare, much less on the heels of a relatively wide theatrical release.
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