It’s no ordinary case of demonic possession that rouses the attention of the Catholic Church in “The Vatican Tapes” — more like the sort of full-on egg-vomiting, eyeball-gouging spiritual meltdown that suggests the Antichrist herself now walks among us. And director Mark Neveldine, who is no master of dread but a dab hand at dispensing regular shocks, brings an undeniable lunatic conviction to this cheaply derivative religio-horror freakout, while running up the sort of abnormally high body count you’d expect from a “Die Hard” sequel rather than an occult thriller. Silly, screechy and eminently watchable, this thrifty horror exorcise (er, exercise) could yield decent theatrical profit for Pantelion Films, and might turn even more heads in VOD play.
While the original 2009 Black List-selected screenplay (written by Christopher Borrelli and Michael C. Martin) took the form of a found-footage movie, the filmmakers wisely opted to buck that overdone genre trend. Although it boasts a suitably raw-and-jangly handheld aesthetic, Neveldine’s movie functions primarily as a straight-ahead thriller with a few faux-verite touches, inserting occasional blips of security-cam footage supposedly procured from the Church’s top-secret video archives (the “Vatican tapes” of the title). As we learn from the ominous exorcism montage that opens the picture, high-ranking religious officials have made a habit of investigating this kind of paranormal activity over the past 2,000 years, seeking out cases that could definitively prove the endtimes are upon us.
That’s our cue to meet Angela Holmes (Olivia Taylor Dudley), an attractive, well-adjusted Los Angeles resident who’s just turned 27 when she inexplicably starts to unravel, to the concerned bewilderment of her live-in boyfriend, Pete (John Patrick Amedori), and her gruff, staunchly religious father, Roger (Dougray Scott). Grisly wounds, mysterious raven attacks and a not-so-accidental car accident all conspire to land Angela in the hospital, where she remains comatose for a biblically significant 40 days before awakening to unleash bloody havoc. What makes this demonic presence particularly toxic is not only its sudden, unmotivated hold on Angela’s mind and body (no one messes around with a Ouija board here), but also the psychic power it exerts on those trying to treat and/or question her, willing them to destroy themselves in hideously baroque ways.
As Angela is relocated to a psychiatric hospital, where her telekinetic killing spree continues, a friendly ex-military priest named Father Lozano (Michael Pena) skulks about helpfully nearby; every murder causes his brow to furrow a bit deeper until he decides it might be time to contact the Vatican. And so, after a few quick cutaways to St. Peter’s Basilica, the task of banishing the evil spirit falls to the imperious Cardinal Bruun (Swedish scene-stealer Peter Andersson), who takes one look at Angela and busts out the deluxe exorcist’s kit (seriously, it has, like, compartments and everything). Clearly, it’s going to take a lot more than holy water — namely, metal chains and a holy dagger — to rid the world of this particular demon. In addition to the usual display of spewing blood and spinning beds, the lengthy exorcism sequence boasts a few novel twists — particularly Cardinal Bruun’s intriguing, under-explored notion that “we must move away from God” in order to defeat evil — that suggest Neveldine and his collaborators have taken their religious scholarship awfully seriously.
For all that, “The Vatican Tapes” never becomes anything more than straight-up Catholic exploitation, pure and unapologetic. Neveldine’s first solo helming effort may show a bit more restraint and sobriety than his cult-beloved collaborations with Brian Taylor (the “Crank” pics, “Gamer,” “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”), all of them veritable master classes in frenetic overkill, but the director nonetheless knows how to apply the cattle prod: With its slamming edits and its banshee howl of a soundtrack, the movie is less interested in leaving viewers deeply unsettled than in maintaining a state of high anxiety throughout. D.p. Gerardo Madrazo’s sharp Red-camera lensing finds the right shade of ugly urgency for the grim proceedings, and Neveldine has fun prowling dimly lit hospital corridors in his signature tracking shots (captured, as usual, by the director himself on rollerblades).
The cast seems to have been assembled with yard-sale randomness, though there are definitely some bargains in this particular basement: As a Vatican-based vicar, Djimon Hounsou confirms your suspicions that he would look damn good in a priest’s collar, while Kathleen Robertson (“Bates Motel”) delivers a sharp-edged turn as the therapist unfortunately tasked with monitoring Angela’s progress. Scott and Amedori’s overbearing-dad/hapless-boyfriend routine goes absolutely nowhere, but the deglammed Dudley (“Chernobyl Diaries”) commits herself to her demon-possessed role entirely; at times resembling Kristen Stewart at her most fetchingly bedraggled, she’s a scream queen par excellence. Still, the acting MVP is Andersson, uttering lines like “The devil possesses what is already his” with such a delicious combo of Germanic enunciation and straight-faced wacko authority that perhaps only Werner Herzog might have been able to improve upon it.