PLOT: When young Angela is suddenly possessed by a baleful demonic curse of old, a priest and a pair of Vatican exorcists come together to help save the poor girl's soul. Will they succeed?
REVIEW: After a fecund decade-long partnership of excess forged between he and his better half Brian Taylor, director Mark Neveldine has finally decided to sow his own cinematic oats via THE VATICAN TAPES, a poor choice of a solo debut effort that opens in theaters this Friday. I say poor because, unfortunately, the trademark vim and vigor found so abundantly in past Neveldine/Taylor joints like CRANK and GAMER is sorely lacking here, resulting in a rote and insipidly stodgy by-the-numbers possession thriller. A shame. Aside from a flirtation with brilliance in a few scenes, THE VATICAN TAPES suffers from a tired and trampled script full of possession movie platitudes, miscast actors, and most of all, a classic studio castration job meant to cull as many PG-13 year old eyes as possible. So very un-Neveldine!
So Angela Holmes (Olivia Taylor Dudley) is a busty young blond with the world in her palms. Infinite potential. Yet, as we meet her, we sense something grossly amiss. Oddly erratic, creepy behavior begins to increase, and we soon deduce she's becoming the victim of some kind of ancient demonic curse. People in her life who try to get close end up victimized in cruelly violent manners, usually accompanied by a symbolic raven. For example, when a hospital orderly comes in contact with Angela when a magpie is near, he inexplicable jams a pair of light-bulbs into his eyeballs. Spoiler? Not quite, as the whole thing is teasingly framed from behind. All suggestion and no graphic payoff. Anyway, when the birds show up, you know some crazy shit is about to go down. But why Angela? Why is her soul so weak as to be feasted upon by a malefic spirit? And can she be saved?
Cue Father Lazano (a miscast Michael Pena), who is assigned to the case to help find answers. He reaches out to the Vatican, where high-priest exorcists Vicar Imani (Djimon Honsou, also unneeded) and Roger Holmes (Dougray Scott) are made privy of Angela's demonic infliction. Turns out they have a whole database of likeminded possessives captured on film (hence the Vatican Tapes), and with such experience, decide to make a stateside visit to Angela's home to perform an on-site exorcism. At least, Holmes does, leaving Imani behind to carry on the legacy if something deadly happens. And while I don't think much in this film works at all - I can say with confidence that the exorcism scene is the most effective part. While uneven - at times silly, hokey, awkward - I liked the moral quandaries involving the two priests during the exorcism. Holmes thinks killing Angela's body is the way toward salvation, while Lozano knows such is inherently wrong. Sinful. I liked that dichotomy, and how Holmes reached such a stance after overcoming possession as a six year old child. No doubt, Scott's the best part of the flick. I just wish that had been explored more and capitalized upon to scarier ends.
And that, I feel, is the biggest issue with THE VATICAN TAPES. It isn't very frightening. One could easily overlook the possession movie cliches - right down to the utterance of religious phraseology plucked from prior movie titles, a la LAST RITES, DELIVER US FROM EVIL, etc. - if only the result were truly terrifying. But they aren't. Sadly, the staple of Neveldine genre joint - manic, hyper-kinetic, balls-to-the-wall batshit - is sadly watered down here to meet a wide reaching PG-13 rating. In the end, the flick suffers from being graphically neutered to the point of impotence. The death-toll is dissatisfyingly paltry, and when the violence does ensue, it's often of the anodyne cutaway variety. No shocking savagery or the kind of unremitting gore you might expect from a horror joint in general is present, never-mind one from the usually exorbitant Neveldine. Disappointing. Now, there was a weird subplot about a trinity of eggs and a corresponding image of Angela's shadow fluttering with that of an ominous raven that I found memorable, but beyond that, not much about these TAPES are bound to stick.
To reiterate, THE VATICAN TAPES plays the horror too safe to make an honest lasting impression. Not just diegetically, but visually, viscerally. A missed opportunity really, since there were a couple of instances where Neveldine could have imbued his trademark energy to crank the mayhem to volume ten. Alas, the reins are held back too far, and since the story isn't strong or original enough on its own to compensate from the PG-13 sensibility, the overall result leaves plenty to be desired. I mean, THE EXORCIST this is not, and frankly, any comparisons between the two would be downright blasphemy. In addition to the dearth of terror and bloodshed, the casting of Michael Pena and Djimon Honsou in critical roles seems rather misguided. Pena, a good actor, gives a fairly uneven performance as a result of blandly wooden dialogue. And Honsou's part could have been played by anyone, as he's never really given the chance to show his onscreen grace to effective ends. So, aside from the semi-memorable climactic exorcism scene, THE VATICAN TAPES is hardly worth the celluloid its printed on.