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These Tapes Self-Destruct

 88 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Mark Neveldine 
Starring: Olivia Dudley, Michael Pena 
Vatican Tapes

According to the Internet Movie Database, there have been over 300 exorcism films made over the years. In actuality, however, there was only one, and it was called The Exorcist, and it was directed by William Friedkin in 1973, and it has been remade under different titles over 300 different times. Rarely, however, has it been remade as spectacularly ineptly as in The Vatican Tapes.  


For approximately 85 minutes of its 88-minute running time, The Vatican Tapes cobbles together bits and pieces from every other exorcism movie. Start with a likable, normal, attractive young woman, Angela (Olivia Dudley). Add strange behavior changes (an insatiable thirst) and bizarre things happening around her like ravens showing up approximately every five seconds. Throw in some concerned relatives, in this case a distant father (Dougray Scott) and clueless boyfriend (John Patrick Amedori), who are at a loss to explain her behavior. Season with a group of thoroughly befuddled doctors at a loss to explain what’ happened to her, including a hapless shrink (Kathleen Robertson). Then, have Angela go completely off the rails by crashing a taxicab in which she is riding and winding up in a coma..


 Now that we’ve gotten through the first act, let’s get the priests involved. Start with the young priest, Father Lozano (Michael Pena)m who at first just wants to help Angela and her family in traditional priestly ways. But then things start happening that go way, way, beyond the pale, like Angela emerging from a two-month coma at the moment the doctors pull the plug, or patients in the mental hospital start committing mass suicide after Angela starts glaring intently at yet another raven that shows up. At that point, Father Lozano has no choice but to call the Vatican.


At this juncture of the film, The Vatican Tapes for the first time varies the traditional exorcism formula somewhat, in a nod to 21st century technology. It seems that the Vatican has been keeping tabs on demonic possessions for 2,000 years (although I highly doubt they had surreptitious videotapes back in the days of the Inquisition) and can now merely examine their records, which include lengthy videotaped interviews with Angela (in which the demon within conveniently makes a cameo on-tape appearance) and hidden camera footage at the mental hospital, to determine that Angela is indeed possessed.


So, the Vatican sends out its trusty demon hunter, Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson), who, together with Father Lozano and Angela’s father and boyfriend, try to rid her of the demon. At this point, The Vatican Tapes blows its entire special effects budget of what appears to be $100 or so on some really ugly makeup and images of Angela contorting herself into a pretzel. Somewhat imaginatively, the film actually provides subtitles of her demon voice talking to Cardinal Bruun in Latin or Demonic or some other language. Sadly, the dialogue is along the lines of “I’m going to kill you all. No, you won’t.” Angela and Cardinal Bruun also take time to rehearse an act for America’s Got Talent, in which she regurgitates a series of intact eggs into his hand. This ability either demonstrates that she’s possessed or that she’s got a career as a third-rate Vegas lounge act.


The Vatican Tapes does have a twist ending that differs from thoste of most other exorcism movies. It’s not an original twist ending, merely one that is itself stolen from a different subgenre of horror films and one which makes no sense whatsoever in connection with the first 85 minutes of the movie.  It’s also potentially the least interesting trick ending in the history of film making, since, by then, any remaining viewers will long since have lost interest in the movie.


If the plot of The Vatican Tapes were the only bad thing about it, then it would just be a mediocre run-of-the-mill horror film instead of a complete disaster. However, neither the directing nor the acting seems in the least bit inspired, or even competent. Unlike shoestring budget, independent horror films, Vatican Tapes has a number of solid professionals in the cast like Pena, Scott, Robertson, and Djimon Hounsou as another Vatican official. But the acting is at best lackluster and at times nearly catatonic, as the actors seem to be doing nothing more than going through the motions. Particularly bad is Pena, who is so much fun to watch in Ant-Man, and a complete dud here.


Of course, if a reasonably talented cast all seem out to sea in a movie, the blame usually lies with the director, and there’s plenty of other evidence of that. The Vatican Tapes was directed by Mark Neveldine, who, along with Brian Taylor, directed such visually flashy movies as Gamer and the Crank series. At least now we know which of that pair has any real talent. Vatican Tapes isn’t just an ineptly directed film; it’s one in which Neveldine seems at every step of the way determined to make the worst possible choice.


The worst directorial decision is the found footage angle. Vatican Tapes is not a found footage movie. It does, however, frequently incorporate “surveillance camera” shots and other similar touches like extreme close-ups and jerky handheld camera techniques. These touches make the movie nearly impossible to follow during the action sequences, and they also dilute any sense of dread or horror the film might develop. Paranormal Activity demonstrated that a movie could still be creepily suspenseful using found footage shots, but Neveldine never lets a scene play out long enough to make the suspense effective. Instead, perhaps to ensure the movie keeps its PG-13 rating, he cuts away at exactly the worst possible time.


The Vatican Tapes actually plays like one of the Wayans family’s Scary Movie films, only without any laughs whatsoever. It is a dreary humorless film, completely lacking even in so-bad-it’s-funny moments. Instead, it consists of dozens of just plain bad moments connected by mediocre filler. This movie would have earned a student filmmaker a failing grade, but, instead, audiences are expected to shell out $15 or so to see it in a movie theater (at the showing I attended, I was the only person in the auditorium, so at least my fellow moviegoers weren’t taken in). That thought is far scarier than anything I actually saw onscreen during the interminably long 88 minutes Vatican Tapes lasted. At least, the movie could actually be a cure for demonic possession. Faced with the prospect of watching Tapes, any demon with a modicum of sense would gladly choose a return trip to the bowels of Hell.  

Read other reviews of The Vatican Tapes:


The Vatican Tapes (2015) on IMDb