JULY 25, 2015
I can give The Vatican Tapes some props for two things. One is its score from Insidious/Conjuring composer Joe Bishara, which does what the movie itself fails to do and never recalls The Exorcist, instead opting for its own ideas and pulling them off quite well (I even stuck around to listen to it during the credits). The other is that, despite what the trailers suggested, the movie isn't found footage. Not even close to it, in fact. I thought it'd be like a Lovely Molly kind of situation where it divides its time between traditional filmmaking and POV stuff, but apart from a few scenes in the beginning and a rarely used (unmanned, mounted) camera during the exorcism, it's shot like every other movie.
Alas, that's pretty fitting, since the script itself is like every other movie, at least the possession/exorcism ones. It saves its most (only?) interesting elements for its final moments, perhaps setting up a pretty intriguing sequel that we're likely never to see, as the film's sub-million opening weekend take* isn't exactly going to send producers scurrying to get Vatican Tapes 2 off the ground. Instead, director Mark Neveldine (half of the team responsible for Crank and then 3 terrible movies after it) and the script by too many people to remember (though one was Chris Morgan of the Fast & Furious series) spend the majority of the runtime on the same old shit we've seen a million times. Girl (Olivia Taylor Dudley from the also "Wait, it's NOT found footage?" entry Chernobyl Diaries) has an encounter, weird things start happening around her, hospitals get involved, answers are not given, and finally a priest is called in. Would you be surprised to learn that the film's climax involves two priests, a worried parent, and a possessed girl strapped to a bed?
Now, just a few days ago I gave Inner Demons some love, and in many respects it also commits some of the Exor-sins this movie does - so why is one OK and not the other? Well the approach the Inner Demons team took is a big one; the idea of the demon being held at bay by drug use is an intriguing one, and it also justified its POV aesthetic with the inclusion of the reality show team. Here, they can't even use the sparingly used camera properly, with the boyfriend inexplicably filming Angela as he takes her through the house and outside "to show her something" (a surprise birthday party, one she secretly knows about, which at least explains why she doesn't ask why he's filming her walking around). And the narrative has no such hook; there's a brief bit where she appears to be in two places at once at the hospital (sleeping in her bed, and in the nursery, attempting to drown a baby), but it's largely a go nowhere subplot, with Neveldine and his writers content to race through this stuff and get back to ripping off Friedkin and Blatty.
Except for when they opted to rip off ZAZ, of all people. There's a scene at the top of the exorcism sequence where Angela starts to gag and the priest reaches into her mouth, pulling out an egg. Two more follow, and it's basically one of the movie's big "scary" setpieces - and all I could think about was the same scene being played for laughs in Airplane! Somehow the 1980 movie parodied this one 35 years earlier (if the Airplane gag was supposed to be making fun of anything specific in that moment, I never caught the reference, and some Googling didn't help), and it sticks out even more when you realize it's the closest the movie really gets to finding a pulse beyond those final 5 minutes. Neveldine also throws in some GoPro type footage during a brief out-of-control-bus scene that will remind you of the Cranks, and I couldn't help but wonder if there was a disconnect, with him being hired to make the "EXTREME" version of an Exorcist movie and him taking the job to show he could do something besides that sort of thing (kind of like when, with both seeking to do something new, Wes Craven signed on for an Eddie Murphy comedy and Eddie Murphy signed on for a Wes Craven horror movie). These brief moments belong in that hyper-silly/exciting world, not the world of the rest of this interminable affair.
It also wastes the cast. Michael Peña is one of those guys who shows up and makes any movie better (he's great in Ant-Man, the sounds of which were occasionally booming into this tiny screen at the local multiplex), but the script gives him very little to do, particularly during the exorcism sequence where he mostly just stands around and lets the older priest do the fun stuff. Dougray Scott has some fun "overprotective dad" stuff going on with Angela's boyfriend, and the backstory of her mother is fairly novel, but like Peña as the movie continues he is reduced into the background more often than not, and the antagonistic relationship with her boyfriend has no real payoff. Plus (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD) both he and the boyfriend die during the climax with little fanfare, as if they were never important to begin with. Peña at least gets to survive and be the hero of the sequel that exists only in our dreams, as he gets drafted into the secret cabal of Vatican personnel who go around investigating cases like these, while Angela, now revealed as the Antichrist, goes around healing people for some sinister, never to be known agenda.
With the movie offering very little to excite me until that point (the lovely Kathleen Robertson shows up for a bit during the hospital sequence, but these scenes are ultimately inconsequential), I spent a lot of time wondering why so many exorcism movies are content to follow Exorcist's template so rigidly. Here it's even more frustrating since the post-exorcism scenes are the film's best - what if they skipped over the usual crap involving "freak accidents" (birds seem drawn to her) and "The Catholic Church does not perform exorcisms lightly!" type padding where the skeptical priest has to be convinced, and got to where any intelligent audience member knows it was going by the 45 minute mark? Then they could use the rest of the movie on something new, leaving our Exorcist memories largely behind. It's almost comical how, 40+ years later, the most prominent examples of these sort of movies not going by the numbers are the actual Exorcist sequels. Hell, the 3rd one didn't even have an exorcism at all until reshoots were demanded. And then there are The Last Exorcism and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, two that also go off the beaten path and were rewarded with huge box office, as if the public was saying "Yes! Thank you for doing something new!" and were then rewarded with more of the same old crap (Last Exorcism 2 notwithstanding, offering a different kind of crap).
Oh well. I admit I was hardly excited about the movie, as its trailers did nothing for me and I'm no fan of Neveldine's (even Crank is really a one-time only deal for me; I had a lot of fun watching it but never the desire to see it again). But I can be won over when I have low expectations (see, again, Inner Demons, and, keeping with the possession theme, The Atticus Institute from earlier this year), so I could have just as easily walked away a fan of this one if it was putting enough effort into the proceedings. But alas, when your title sequences offer more chills than the movie itself, there's a big problem, and ultimately the film just continues this year's vastly underwhelming output for horror (It Follows might be the best theatrical release and I saw it in 2014!). Nothing is really hate-worthy, but after all these C- types, I almost long for a loathsome piece of shit - at least then I could be engaged on some level.
What say you?
*To be fair it's basically a limited release, at 427 screens or something like that, but the number of theaters isn't as important as the number of people IN those theaters, and that's where the movie's poor showing is plainly evident, with an average of less than 80 people showing up per day at each theater - not even enough to fill one screening. Someone on Twitter told me they were the only person in their theater and the manager tried to get them to leave so they wouldn't have to show it at all!