The rich symbolism and ethereal mystique of religions—especially of Catholicism—has fed the horror genre a steady diet of creepy material over the years. And no subgenre has been as direct a beneficiary of this as the exorcism subgenre. You know how it goes: An unlikely, completely innocent human being gets his or her soul penetrated by a demonic presence and must be cleansed by a priest through a terrifying ordeal. Sadly, not all recent examples of this subgenre can be as high-impact, inventive and masterfully frightening as either James Wan’s 2013 film The Conjuring; or the most influential of them all, William Friedkin’s 1973 classic The Exorcist. Alas, Mark Neveldine’s tired and flat The Vatican Tapes—Neveldine’s his first solo directing effort without his usual Crank and Gamer partner-in-crime Brian Taylor—isn’t the film to recall the terrifying heights of those films.
The early moments of The Vatican Tapes drown us in a pointless mash-up of many “real” demonic presence/exorcism videos, with a voiceover articulating that the Antichrist will one day walk the earth posing as Jesus Christ. According to the narrator, that, instead of Judgment Day, is the day that should really be feared. With that sound bite in mind, we meet Angela (a clearly capable yet ultimately ineffective Olivia Taylor Dudley), a young woman with a workaholic father, Roger (Dougray Scott, the film’s weakest link), and a sweet boyfriend, Pete (John Patrick Amedori), whom her dad naturally despises. During her surprise birthday party—at which her dad also makes an appearance—she cuts her finger deeply in what at first appears to be an accident. Having a weird, illogical fear of hospitals, Angela reluctantly lingers outside of one to hopefully get treatment and conveniently runs into a priest (the great Michael Peña as Father Lozano), who talks her into going in. But trouble, mostly self-inflicted, doesn’t let go of Angela. Fighting ravens, voices, and mood swings that appear out of nowhere, she one day manages to hurt herself dangerously in a car crash, which she knowingly causes. After Angela spends a lengthy amount of time lying unconscious in a coma, her dad—having gotten support from Pete and Father Lozano all this time—decides to pull the plug on her. But then a miracle happens, and Angela comes back to life—well, at least her body does, possessed by the demon.
Thankfully, we know from The Conjuring that all exorcisms must be approved by the Vatican first. Thus, when young Angela is randomly selected by the devil as a vessel, we expect to see duly concerned Vatican spokespeople discuss and determine the authenticity of her case, before assigning a priest of their own choosing to it. That’s when Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson), previously introduced in the story, assumes a more prominent role in the picture. But in his handling of Angela’s case, he also seems to have his own aggressive agenda.
It is perhaps somewhat redeeming that the exorcism doesn’t go according to plan, and what happens next briefly signals something interesting that might be delivered in a second chapter. Yet it remains to be seen if the film will prove to have an audience beyond this first installment, two-thirds of which play like a cheap checklist of predictable genre tropes. The implausible dialogue and strangely indifferent performances surely don’t help: With the exception of Father Lozano, everyone seems to act and talk as if what’s happening to Angela is a mild, everyday condition at best. By trapping the actors in such laughably lifeless corners, The Vatican Tapes urges us to mentally check out and shrug off the film’s late efforts to spin the story for a possible continuation. (Among its many crimes, wasting Djimon Hounsou’s refined talents in a slight, inert role is especially unforgivable.)
Just as it seemed like the exorcism subgenre was on the verge of a renaissance after The Conjuring, here is the cold shower we’ve secretly been afraid of all this time.