Director: Mark Neveldine
Cast: Olivia Taylor Dudley, Michael Peña, Dougray Scott, Djimon Hounsou, Peter Andersson, Kathleen Robertson, John Patrick Amedori
Runtime: 1 hr 31 mins
Rating: NC-16 (Horror and Some Disturbing Scenes)
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films
Opening Day: 23 July 2015
Synopsis: THE VATICAN TAPES follows the ultimate battle between good and evil—God versus Satan. Angela Holmes is ordinary 27-year- old until she begins to have a devastating effect on anyone close, causing serious injury and death. Holmes is examined and possession is suspected, but when the Vatican is called upon to exorcise the demon, the possession proves to be an ancient satanic force more powerful than ever imagined. It’s all up to Father Lozano (MICHAEL PEÑA) to wage war for more than just Angela’s soul, but for the world as we know it.
More than four decades after William Friedkin’s seminal ‘The Exorcist’, the demonic possession genre has just about reached its creative nadir, so much so that recent entries have had to go the found-footage route in order to turn up some audience interest. Thankfully, Mark Neveldine’s solo directorial debut (better known for his collaborations with Brian Taylor on the ‘Crank’ movies and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) has wisely opted not to follow that overdone trend, despite the original intentions of Chris Morgan and Michael C. Martin’s 2009 Black List-selected screenplay; instead, his is a straightforward horror thriller laced with some faux-verite touches, Including footage from the Catholic Church’s top-secret video archives – hence the title of the movie.
According to Djimon Hounsou’s Vatican priest, the Church’s religious officials have been examining incidents of Satanic possession for years, watching out for signs of no less than the Antichrist. His latest victim is 27-year-old Angela (Olivia Taylor Dudley), who is paid a visit by the demon himself on the occasion of her birthday. Literally proving that “cakes are sinful”, Angela’s troubles begin when she cuts her finger while slicing through the birthday cake. That same day, she is attacked on her hand on the bus home by a raven that smashes through the window, and to cap it off, ends up in a car accident that leaves her comatose in hospital for 40 days (which Christians will recognise its significance from the Gospels). Just when she is pronounced for dead, Angela comes back miraculously to life, though we won’t quite say that her miracle is a blessing.
Pulling out every (familiar) trick from the exorcism playbook, Neveldine choreographs the ensuing horror with suitable flair. And so as one may expect, Angela starts vomiting, speaking gutturally in foreign tongues, levitating and even bearing the marks of Christ (i.e. stigmata). She also happens to cough out three eggs (don’t ask), which the veteran Vatican Cardinal Braun (Peter Andersson) explains is meant to represent the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. In addition to Cardinal Braun, Angela also gets some intervention from a friendly ex-military priest named Father Lozano (Michael Pena), who now works at the psychiatric hospital that Angela was sent to after her discharge from hospital and whom is the one that contacts the Vatican for assistance.
As his past works will attest, Neveldine isn’t a filmmaker of subtlety, and sure enough he chooses a raw in-your-face aesthetic to shock his audience into submission, be it Gerardo Madrazo’s Red-camera lensing or his own tracking shots filmed like ‘Crank’ on rollerblades. At a brisk 90 minutes, he also leaves no room for his audience to catch a breather, and the pace is nothing but frenetic from start to finish. Yet, as exploitative as it may be, there is also no denying that it is gripping, especially for those familiar with Catholic symbols, rites and beliefs, which is inverted here to create a thoroughly dreadful atmosphere. In particular, the ending puts a neat twist on the allegory in the Book of Revelation, and nicely sets up a sequel in the process – provided audiences are keen to see the Antichrist walk the earth.
Quite unlike a film of its stature, Neveldine has assembled a surprisingly solid cast to pull in committed performances. In addition to Hounsou and Pena, Dougray Scott plays Angela’s father, forced to endure the psychological torment of watching his daughter become the very epitome of evil. Dudley makes an admirable solid lead here, and whether through the flick of an eyebrow or a change in posture, sustains a veritable sense of dread that something is not quite right with her. And complementing her possession routine is Andersson, who makes a delightfully idiosyncratic cardinal that knows exorcism like the back of his hand from having been possessed himself before.
And surely, you can do much worse if you’re already prepared to sit in for a movie about demonic possession, so while ‘The Vatican Tapes’ doesn’t reinvent the genre, it does perform the familiar tropes competently enough and adds a couple of novel twists along the way. At the very least, it doesn’t milk the found-footage fad except for the tapes in the title, which in and of itself is good enough reason to elevate this generic but nonetheless effective horror above most of its current ilk.
(Even if generic and familiar in most parts, this exorcism picture at least avoids the found-footage fad and boasts a few novel twists along the way)
Review by Gabriel Chong