It would be safe to assume that a movie entitled The Vatican Tapes would likely be another tedious exercise of the found footage genre, where morons record their own demise. It’s a subgenre that’s rife with problems, chiefly that it’s inherently uncinematic. Thank the Heavenly Father, The Vatican Tapes is not just another found footage movie. This is a real movie with moments of found footage incorporated. Directed by Mark Neveldine, formerly of the madcap duo of Neveldine/Taylor, he injects an intriguing, if chaotic, visual style that works in service of a fairly straightforward demonic possession story.
After opening to a blistering montage of demonic possession recorded by the Vatican since 1900 with a voiceover of Biblical doom, the film starts in Vatican City. Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson) and Vicar Imani (Djimon Hounsou) are reviewing tapes of possible demonic possession. They view a tape of Angela (Olivia Taylor Dundley), a young woman possessed. The duo deem the evidence credible, and Cardinal Bruun travels to America investigate the case.
The film then goes back two months, showing Angela’s idyllic suburban life before her soul was consumed by the forces of darkness. The unmarried Angela lives with her boyfriend Pete (John Patrick Amedori) much to the chagrin of her stern military father Roger (Dougray Scott). During a birthday party, Angela slices her finger severely, requiring a trip to the hospital. At the hospital the trio first encounter Father Lozano (Michael Peña), who was a member of the military before becoming a man of the cloth. What at first seemed like only a deep cut that required stitches quickly escalates into something more as Angela falls into a 40-day coma. When she awakens, strange occurrences surround her before Angela winds up in a psych ward. Finally, crazy things start to happen in the crazy house and Cardinal Bruun reenters the picture to perform the exorcism with the aid of Father Lozano. But more than just Angela’s soul lies in the balance, as the demon possessing her may bring about Revelations.
The Vatican Tapes doesn’t belong among the pantheon of horror, but it’s an effective horror film in that it’s fun with a certain sense of flair. The film contains its fair share of effective shocks and gross out moments. Director Mark Neveldine and cinematographer Gerardo Mateo Madrazo use a wide array of visual devices. Within a matter of moments, the film shifts from a Kubrick-like creeping Steadicam to a chaotic handheld digital camera. Not everything they attempt visually works, but I respect the bravado in an era when most comparable films would be shot entirely handheld with some off screen doofus pointing out the obvious.
Screenwriters Christopher Borrelli and Michael C. Martin, working from a story by Borrelli and Furious 7 scribe Chris Morgan, sneak a few clever moments in, but do saddle the film with a rather ridiculously ambiguous ending. And yet their paper-thin characters are rendered passable by some fine performances. First things first, Michael Peña is much more subtle than his role in Ant-Man, but it doesn’t mean that he’s any less captivating. For some reason, though, the film’s finest actor, Peña, is sidelined far too often. Olivia Taylor Dundley is wonderfully effective as the poor girl possessed. She’s especially effective in scenes against Kathleen Robertson, who plays the resident psychiatrist at the mental hospital. Both Dougray Scott and John Patrick Amedori avail themselves well through the simple dichotomy of boyfriend and disapproving father. It is a bummer that Djimon Hounsou is limited to a few sparse minutes of screen time. Apparently, being a two-time Oscar nominee relegates you to being a consistent supporting player in a shitload of genre pictures.
Here’s the point: I can’t recommend The Vatican Tapes as a genuinely worthwhile movie for everyone, but I can say that if you buy a ticket for something called The Vatican Tapes, you shouldn’t be disappointed. Is it silly? Yes. Can it be excessive at times? Sure. Is it a fun piece of schlock? Absolutely.