DIRECTOR Mark Neveldine WRITER Christopher Borrelli; Michael C. Martin; Chris Morgan STARS Olivia Taylor Dudley; Michael Peña; Dougray Scott CINEMA 30 October
Here’s the deal: it’s very difficult to produce a film that deals with demonic possession without evoking the classic, untouchable standard that is The Exorcist, a film that has become so ingrained into film culture and psyche it makes it near impossible to better. There have been many rip-offs that have been either too unimaginative or too afraid to delve into blasphemous territory in a convincing manner. For most of its running time, The Vatican Tapes fits firmly into this category. Sadly, just as it starts to commit to some interesting ideas, it ends suddenly, leaving the viewer with some frustration about what might have been.
Events begin predictably. Angela (Olivia Taylor Dudley) is possessed, a demon inside her, and her boyfriend and father (Dougray Scott) are at a loss, as are the police, doctors and a local shrink. Naturally the Church steps in, with the faith brought by Father Lorenzo (Michael Peña) and his boss, Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson), who is an all-business Catholic once possessed himself, and now fighting monsters lurking inside young women. So far, so familiar, and as such you cannot take The Vatican Tapes seriously outside of the formulaic mold established decades ago. You’re expecting Angela to finally transform into a demonic entity — it’s why we’re here — but the movie takes a long time to get to the showdown between good and evil. There are some quirky moments along the way — a great car crash filmed from inside the vehicle, and a few nasty, although mostly implied, violent moments — but for the most part Dudley is the only thing worth hanging onto here, a new scream queen in the making. Good character actors like Peña and Scott are wasted in clichéd roles. Peña in particular seems to only exist to reassure the rest of the cast that their faith will see them through.
When the teasingly mad finale appears it’s all a case of too little, too late. Teasing, because Brunn’s intriguing notion that “we must move away from God” in order to defeat evil suggests that director Mark Neveldene has taken his religious studies seriously, and with him sporting a deluxe exorcism kit (silver chains and a dagger have replaced holy water) one anticipates a showdown of biblical proportions that sadly never escalates. In the end The Vatican Tapes never amounts to more than straight-up Catholic exploitation. Nicely shot and with some neat CGI and a good soundtrack, it’s mildly entertaining and far from offensive. And maybe that’s the problem; this is only mildly bilious, and never the full-on projectile vomiting that Beelzebub surely deserves.