Mark Neveldine, best known for his wild collaborations with Brian Taylor (Crank/Gamer), is one of the most lovably renegade filmmakers in the game today. His daredevil dedication to achieving the perfect shot has been detailed by curious paparazzi members on numerous occasions, because when you see a director holding onto a motorcycle while wearing rollerblades, you tend to get a little curious. But his latest film, The Vatican Tapes, is a solo departure from those typically outrageous action stylings. There’s no need for high-speed filming techniques in this barely-found-footage exorcism thriller, as this religious shocker calls for a much more restrained lens. Possession plotlines require a low-and-slow handling – something Neveldine isn’t exactly used to doing.
In this 2009 Black List script penned by Christopher Borrelli and Michael C. Martin, a young girl named Angela (Olivia Taylor Dudley) finds herself becoming possessed by a demonic force. What starts as nightmarish visions and an unquenchable thirst for water slowly turns into a deadly infection, as people around her start dying without explanation. Doctors try their best to cure Angela’s apparent psychosis, but the Vatican takes a special interest in the patient when they notice some tell-tale signs of possession – something Father Lozano (Michael Peña) witnesses first-hand. With no options remaining, Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson) hops on a plane to perform yet another exorcism, intent on saving Angela’s soul, but his demonic foe proves to be much stronger than expected. If Cardinal Bruun and Father Lozano fail, it could mean not only Angela’s death, but also the destruction of mankind. No pressure, right?
Cardinal Bruun and Father Lozano are fictional characters, though. The real pressure is on Mark Neveldine, who finds himself outside of a directorial comfort zone based on high-flying choreography and intense, exasperating action. Having written Pathology, Neveldine suggest an understanding of more straight-laced dramatics, but this is the first time he’s directed a film that DOESN’T require him to be flying on the wing of a biplane without a harness (something I assume he’s done). Neveldine lives happily in harm’s way as a creative maverick, and there’s definitely a deflating sense of confinement in The Vatican Tapes that doesn’t offer the same playground mentality as far as cinematic frameworking goes.
It’s ably shot – don’t get me wrong. And the moments where Mark Neveldine is allowed to be his typically anarchistic self are every bit as fun as you’d imagine (explosions, brawls, and egg spitting). The farther into Angela’s possession we get, the more vile each outburst becomes, and the more insane Neveldine is allowed to be with his vision. But upon the film’s buildup, there’s nothing unique about Angela’s detainment and the doctor’s appointments that follow. The Vatican Tapes builds upon the same blocks that many similar exorcism films have used for mirroring foundations, except this one feels a little more like Hitchcock’s The Birds than any others have. The Neveldine I’ve come to know (and love, yes) doesn’t get nearly enough expressive freedom here, especially when so many scenes involve us watching stationary surveillance videos.
Olivia Taylor Dudley is called upon to play the film’s Hell-soaked victim, and much like The Vatican Tape‘s rate of intensity, her performance increases in quality as time goes on. As she starts speaking in tongues, haunting other patients, and contorting her body in painfully bone-crunching ways, Dudley becomes much more than a possessed henchman of Satan. Religiously, The Vatican Tapes plays around more with the ideas of a false prophet and the resurrection of an anti-Christ, which leads audiences down a path with much higher stakes. In most exorcism films, the worst that can happen is a demon claiming one more poor soul. But Borrelli and Martin decide that an apocalyptic threat might make for a little more horror fun, and there’s certainly no argument there. Dudley thrives as this deceptive, wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing type of villain, despite having actors around her who are criminally underused (Michael Peña/Djimon Hounsou).
If you’re still hanging around come The Vatican Tape‘s third act, you will be pleased. That’s for sure. The problem is, certain viewers are absolutely going to tune out during the film’s more mundane beginning. Christopher Borrelli and Michael C. Martin deliver and exorcism story in the basest of senses, and don’t really kick into overdrive until a large chunk of generic spooks are churned out as per the typical genre formula. Then their third act hits, and it’s like director Mark Neveldine is let off his leash like a snarling dog who’s been dying to get a little vicious. The Vatican Tapes could have used more of these tonal upticks, but as a truly enlightened man might say, we should be thankful for what we DO have (a deceptive exorcism drama about false idolization and Satan’s second coming).
Plus, we get more Michael Peña. No one can complain about that.
The Vatican Tapes relies heavily on its third act, but if you can stomach its more generic beginnings, you'll be treated to an exorcism story with higher stakes than normal.