The world needs another exorcism movie like it needs another land war in Asia, but I still had some hope for The Vatican Tapes. Its director, Mark Neveldine, is one half of the team of Neveldine/Taylor, who gave us the amazing Crank movies, and it wouldn’t have been too foolish to hope that he might have infused this most tired of horror sub-genres with some gonzo flair. Unfortunately, The Vatican Tapes is a tired, un-scary, incoherent mess.
Let me summarize the plot: A young woman is possessed by the Devil. The end.
Okay, fine, there’s a bit more to it than that, but not too much more. Her name is Angela (Olivia Dudley), and she’s preparing to move in with her boyfriend (John Patrick Amedori), a situation with which her God-fearing father (Dougray Scott) isn’t entirely happy. One of the film’s few bright spots is watching the pissy give-and-take between the boyfriend and Dad. Angela starts to show some troubling signs after getting attacked by a raven — ominously guzzling water and acting angrier than usual — and we’re off to the races.
The story is told in flashback, viewed through footage in the Vatican archives of her interrogations, with a suggestion that Angela may be the coming of the Anti-Christ. Aiding the girl is Father Lozano (Michael Pena), a former soldier who took up the cloth after a couple of tours in Iraq. (“When’d you change uniforms?” “When I saw enough.”) The role starts off seeming like it might turn out to be a nice showcase for Pena’s brand of compassionate minimalism, but no. Instead, Lozano cedes much of the duties to Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson, camping it up), who himself was possessed at age 12 and has a no-holds-barred, scorched-earth approach to dealing with demons and devils.
As the film hurtles inexorably toward its denouement, you might expect it to try and make us care for these people in some way. (Otherwise, what would be the point behind any of this?) But they’re all smothered under Neveldine’s choppy direction. There are occasional visceral moments of violence and gore, but we miss the inventiveness of the films the director made with partner Taylor: He’s playing the story straight this time, so the frantic cutting and occasional extreme angles feel more like desperation than inspiration. Maybe if he had gone completely off the rails with it, à la the Crank films — throwing the camera into weird spots and playing up the humor of the proceedings. But alas, amid the narrative and stylistic wreckage, The Vatican Tapes somehow also manages to take itself very seriously.
There are some glimmers of hope near the end, when the film takes on the qualities of an origin story of sorts — for what exactly, I won’t say — but by that point, the damage is done. It’s hard to figure it all out: Usually, even in the worst film, there’s some remnant of what it had once envisioned itself to be. But any hint of originality or passion or humanity has been flushed clean from this product. You leave the theater not scared, not sad, but genuinely confused as to why it was ever made.