'The Vatican Tapes' radically deviates from the possession-movie formula, but only when it's far too late
The Vatican Tapes Lionsgate
Director: Mark Neveldine
Screenplay: Christopher Borrelli and Michael C. Martin
Starring: Olivia Taylor Dudley, Michael Peña, Dougray Scott, John Patrick Amedori, Peter Andersson, Kathleen Robertson and Djimon Hounsou
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 31 minutes
July 24, 2015
(out of four)
I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie bury the lede quite like The Vatican Tapes does. It's kind of astonishing. This is a movie with a big narrative idea that it inexplicably withholds until the final five minutes. It's not an idea that works as a climax to a story - only as a setup, or as a story unto itself. And yet the filmmakers tack it on as an exclamation point.
I assume the plan was to use the film's epilogue as a jumping-off point for the (unlikely-to-happen) sequel, but honestly you could discard virtually all of what comes beforehand without missing anything. First, because all of what comes beforehand is terrible. And second, because it's such a basic rendition of a possession/exorcism story we've seen a billion times already, there's no essential information or context gained from seeing it all play out. The final five minutes of The Vatican Tapes are pretty much the entire point, to the extent that everything leading up to it is unnecessary. The final five minutes should have been the whole movie. The first 80 minutes could have been addressed in a prologue, or a few brief flashbacks - if that. Instead, we're subjected to another junk thriller about demonic possession that delays this pearl of an idea hiding in the back of the last reel.
What a waste. Why hold back on your best material until the very end? (Again, I say this on the assumption that a sequel was intended, in order to explore the climactic development further. If not, then the film is an even bigger miscalculation than I thought.)
Needless to say, I have to constrain my thoughts to the bulk of the film instead of the much more interesting detour it takes at the end, but let's just say there's not much to see here: Boy meets girl. Girl meets girl's dad. Girl gets possessed by demonic spirit. Girl meets priest. Priest performs exorcism. The end.
It's the missing part between the exorcism and the "the end" that stands out, as much for the ballsiness of the narrative direction as for the hastiness with which it's executed. The most exciting thing about it is that it suggests an entirely different kind of movie altogether. I'd almost argue there needn't have been an exorcism storyline at all - it's superfluous prologue to what it's all leading up to. This is, without giving too much away, a kind of origin story, but one that focuses only on the boring and irrelevant backstory details.
Imagine a Spider-Man movie that focuses entirely on the spider bite, with Spidey only showing up in the last five minutes as a mere afterthought. The Vatican Tapes is a little like that.
The afflicted, as is almost always the case in these movies (that's a whole other discussion), is a young woman, Angela (Olivia Taylor Dudley), who right around the time of her 27th birthday begins to exhibit strange, disturbing behaviors that bring harm both to herself and others. At her side are her live-in boyfriend Pete (John Patrick Amedori) and her devout father (Dougray Scott), who loves his daughter but disapproves of her lifestyle. (Naturally, Pete and Dad don't always get along so well.)
Help comes in the form of a kindly priest, Father Lozano (Michael Peña) and a skeptical shrink, Dr. Richards (Kathleen Robertson), but we all know where this is going from the start. Nothing of Angela's experience is new or revealing.
If this movie does one thing consistently, it's waste every bit of potential it has at its disposal (not least, the aforementioned epilogue). This is a film seemingly comfortable with giving the smallest and most inconsequential role to the best actor in the entire cast, Djimon Hounsou, a high-ranking priest and exorcist who shows up at the very beginning and again at the end. You recognize a good movie because it gets all it can out of its assets. You know a bad movie, like this one, because it has a great actor on its hands and has no idea what to do with him.
The Vatican Tapes is Mark Neveldine's first solo feature after co-directing four films (including Crank and Crank: High Voltage) with Brian Taylor. The washed-out video aesthetic remains here, and his always-nimble camera energizes certain scenes that would otherwise be of little interest. But either he or the studio grossly miscalculated what was worthwhile about this story. They grossly miscalculated almost everything, for that matter. There is a sequence that takes place during the exorcism that, I swear this is true, is basically a rehash of Dr. Leslie Nielsen's egg scene from Airplane! It is unavoidably, yet unintentionally, hilarious. I'm sure the filmmakers would love to have generated comparisons to a classic movie from a few decades ago, but somehow I don't think that was the one they had in mind.