Aside from eschewing the usual found footage format usually utilised by those pushing an exorcism-themed flick upon us, The Vatican Tapes seems, on paper, like yet another exercise in extreme boredom/opportunistic marketing, à la The Devil Inside, The Last Exorcism, etc. But scratch beneath the surface and what begins as a typical, run-of-the-mill, PG-13 chiller aimed at nervous tweens on first dates transforms into a creepy, tense, atmospheric and surprisingly unique addition to an already over-saturated sub-genre.
At a zippy 91 minutes, The Vatican Tapes establishes its central conceit pretty quickly; young couple Angela (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Pete (John Patrick Amedori) are celebrating her birthday, with her recently-returned father (Dougray Scott), when a seemingly innocuous cut on her finger leads them to the hospital, where they happen upon hip priest Fr. Lozana (Michael Peña) who senses that something sinister may be afoot. Angela slips into a coma, awakens inexplicably and things just get stranger from there.
To this day, The Exorcist remains the one and only really good exorcism-themed horror movie. Still as incomparably frightening and affecting as it was forty-odd years ago, Friedkin’s seminal shocker has inspired numerous copycats, none of which hold a candle to it. Unlike the majority of modern pretenders, however, The Vatican Tapes isn’t trying to be the new Exorcist. Hell, it’s not even trying to be the new Last Exorcism.
The lack of the word “exorcism”, or its variables, in the title seems purposeful as the premise is a twist on the usual, and is something with which we have yet to become overly-familiar (depending on how well this does, it may only be a matter of time). It even seems like more of the same at the beginning, as Angela is struck by the usual afflictions of someone accursed in a Hollywood picture; weird visions, night terrors, voices in her head and the like.
Related: Exclusive: Michael Peña Talks The Vatican Tapes
And, later, when she starts to go a bit loopy, the movie hits all the usual beats one would expect it to, from furniture moving by itself to cracking joints and even holy water burning into flesh – but none of it is in the usual order. This ability to subvert our expectations, coupled with the lower age rating, an effective, compelling storyline, understated performances and the traditional feature film aesthetic, is what sets The Vatican Tapes apart from its contemporaries.
The film kicks off with some factoids about The Vatican and their long-standing research into demonic possession, presented over some creepy footage of supposedly real-life cases. It pauses on a spooky screen-grab of poor Angela, and we then rewind to the beginning, to build up to the moment when she begins to crack and is checked into a mental health facility for her own safety. This is a nifty trick as it foregoes the need for too much exposition, and throws us head-first into the action.
Considering it comes courtesy of one of the Crank directors, the writer of the non-John Cena starring The Marine 2, and the writer of the latter Fast And Furious sequels, The Vatican Tapes is a remarkably understated, controlled piece of horror cinema. The temperature is resolutely cold throughout, with solid, stoic, un-flashy performances to match it. The exorcism, usually the centre-piece, is a last resort and is set up deliberately and with the right intentions – there’s also an hour of great stuff before it even happens.
Likewise, the surveillance cameras that are set up to keep an eye on Angela, usually a gimmick, aren’t relied upon, rather they exemplify director Mark Neveldine’s uncanny ability to switch between different formats so we’re never quite sure whose perspective it is. The hospital CCTV feed is also utilised brilliantly during a creepy sequence involving a ward full of newborns, but it’s sparingly done so it doesn’t feel like cheap trickery.
Aside from a dodgy bit of CGI towards the end, the SFX in The Vatican Tapes seem, at least at first glance, to be mostly practical. The most shocking sequences don’t rely on gore in the slightest, but rather force us to look away even when nothing is being shown. Something as simple as a light-bulb, or a piece of communion wafer, suddenly feels as tangible and dangerous as a blade and, in the case of the former, in particular, this movie boasts one of the coolest unseen scares of recent years.
It’s likely the desire for a mass market PG-13 rating meant that The Vatican Tapes was never going to be reliant on gore but, unlike others of its ilk, it doesn’t rely on jump scares to drive the point home either. Rather, an uneasy atmosphere is established from the outset, with dark symbolism kept strong throughout (ravens, in particular) featuring prominently. There’s no need for anyone to stand around explaining the plot to us, either, as each of these messages is clear.
There is a certain TV movie-esque sheen to the proceedings, particularly when the action flashes back to The Vatican itself, but the performances carry the material and the script itself is strong. The relationship between Angela, her boyfriend and her father anchors the dramatics and feels immediately real. However, a little more time could’ve been dedicated to establishing who she is, especially given the brave, if slightly loopy, ending.
However, Fr. Lozano is arguably the real protagonist of the piece. Played by the reliable Michael Peña, who has a habit of breaking out in smaller roles and thereby eclipsing his more well-known co-stars, Lozano is the most layered character, a man forced into facing his demons (literally) head on and challenging his own faith in the process. It’s unclear whether The Vatican Tapes is meant to inspire sequels (hopefully not) but, if so, Lozano should be front and centre.
The Vatican Tapes isn’t exactly ground-breaking, and well-versed horror fans are unlikely to find it terribly scary, but it’s a solid, well-written, well-performed, and surprisingly original addition to the over-populated parnanomal/demonic possession/exorcism-themed pantheon. The ending, in particular, is worthy of praise, rooting an outlandish story in the terrifying reality of today’s 24/7 media circus.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Mark Neveldine
Writer(s): Chris Morgan, Christopher Berelli
Stars: Olivia Taylor Dudley, Dougray Scott, Michael Peña, John Patrick Amedori
Studio/ Production Co: Lionsgate Entertainment
Length: 91 minutes
Sub-Genre: Paranormal, exorcism