It happens every year. Some studio plops some cheapie exorcism/possession thriller into theaters hoping that enough undiscerning Friday night moviegoers will turn up before the film sinks like a stone. These films are virtually interchangeable. A pretty young woman starts acting oddly. Her loved ones grow concerned. Unexplained phenomena occurs. Blood is spilled (but not too much; gotta lock down that PG-13). A priest or a medium is brought in to help. The evil is vanquished…OR IS IT?
The Vatican Tapes is this year’s version of that movie and it follows the playbook to the letter. The story centers on a young woman named Angela (Olivia Taylor Dudley) whose life seems idyllic, save for the fact that her stern, Irish Catholic father (Dougray Scott, taking a break from sticking needles in his Hugh Jackman voodoo doll) does not approve of her doting live-in boyfriend (John Patrick Amedori). Angela lapses into a coma unexpectedly one night, and after several months of non-responsiveness, the decision is made to pull the plug. However, as soon as Angela is removed from life support, she inexplicably springs back to life. Continuing her hospital stay under observation, she begins behaving strangely, appearing in the nursery to menace newborns and seemingly willing a police officer to gouge out his own eyes with light bulbs. Angela’s behavior is witnessed by Father Lozano (Michael Peña), a kindly priest who runs the news of Angela’s condition all the way up the chain to the Vatican, where a vicar (Djimon Hounsou) and cardinal (Peter Andersson) decide that the situation necessitates the Church’s involvement.
The Vatican Tapes is deeply concerned with ticking off every box on the trope checklist. The bulk of the film is not shot in the found-footage format, but it does occasionally dip into that format via hospital surveillance footage (that footage comprises the titular tapes), giving the impression that the film wanted to hedge its bets. Furthermore, far too much time is spent in that hospital, with the characters trying to make rational sense out of Angela’s predicament. We are shown in the very first scene that Angela is indeed possessed, so having to watch everyone take an eternity to catch up to the audience on that information is excruciating. The film was obviously shot for peanuts, so one would assume they wanted to get all they could squeeze from that hospital set, but the redundancy of these scenes grows tedious quickly and stays there. What’s more, the film’s lifeblood is the startling jump scare, the primary weapon in the arsenal of any hacky horror film.
When the exorcism finally commences, The Vatican Tapes doesn’t have a single trick up its sleeve to make the familiar seem fresh. Angela contorts, levitates and speaks archaic foreign tongues, the way all possessed girls in movies have done since The Exorcist. Director Mark Neveldine (formerly of Neveldine/Taylor, the directing duo responsible for Crank) cannot locate a single new idea to add into this musty stew of desiccated clichés. The film’s idea of a novel twist is to immediately begin ripping off The Omen after the bones of The Exorcist have been picked clean. This material was handled much more adroitly in 2010’s The Last Exorcism, the rare exorcism thriller with some chilling vitality to it. The best we get here, in terms of entertainment value, is the occasional bit of unintentional hilarity, such as when Angela attempts to drown a baby in a bucket of water and the camera quickly zooms in on the “Warning: Drowning Hazard” sticker affixed to the bucket to helpfully let us know what water does.
The single biggest disappointment of The Vatican Tapes lies in the presence of Peña, which is the opposite reaction the actor’s presence usually engenders. Peña has established himself as not only a tremendously gifted dramatic actor, but also an inveterate scene-stealer (witness the way he walks off with Ant-Man in a relatively tiny role). For Peña to lower himself to taking part in part in something this unremarkable and frankly lousy at this stage in his career is confounding, particularly since there’s nothing evident about his role or performance to suggest what might have drawn him to it. Maybe he simply wanted to be the biggest star in something for once. Regardless, while some version of this exact movie is destined to be made each year until the end of time, there is no reason for actual talented people to reduce themselves into taking part in the latest model.
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