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The Vatican Tapes | Review

Better the Devil You Show: Neveldine’s Solo Outing Can’t Quite Reach its Inner Demon

vatican_tapes-posterIt’s hard to figure out who these religious themed horror films are made for. Director Mark Neveldine, stepping out on his own for the first time following four co-directed efforts with Brian Taylor (the team behind the Crank films and that Nicolas Cage sequel Ghost Rider), can’t seem to provide an answer with this derivative hunk of spiritually solicited scares, yanking plot points from ye classic films of yonder, like The Omen and The Exorcist, but whittled down to a palatable PG-13 rating for the kiddies. Those who are actually religious find these forays into devilish mayhem blasphemous or exploitational, while an increasing number of staunch non-believers need a bit more than the run-of-the-mill possession flick to be goaded into the thrill of a fantasy they don’t believe in anyway.

A hash of possession related news footage introduces us to a pair of religious representatives in Vatican City, including a solemn Vicar (Djimon Hounsou) as they discuss how the ‘world is changing.’ Without much ado, we’re transported to the world of Angela (Olivia Taylor Dudley), a pretty young blonde who we gather has a strained relationship with her father (Dougray Scott) based on the sheer joy she experiences at his presence at a surprise birthday party thrown by her semi-observant beau (John Patrick Amedori). But she gashes a knife into her hand while cutting her birthday cake, which leads to stitches and a strange sequence on a public bus where a bird busts through one of the windows and bites Angela’s wound. More bizarre happenings result in her seeking treatment with a therapist (Kathleen Robertson) and a more invasive car accident in a taxi, which places her into a forty day coma, where she’s attended by the gently probing Father Lozano (Michael Pena). But eventually it’s decided an exorcism is necessary, leading Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson) to fly in to administer the procedure. But the entity inside Angela is no regular demon.

Screenwriters Christopher Borelli and Michael C. Martin (whose directorial debut 10 Cent Pistol hits theaters the same day as this film) seem intent on distracting us from logic through various overly complicated happenings in Angela’s stages of possession (which seem to have a definite reason, at least as spouted as an explanation during the film’s big reveal about the thing inside her). It’s almost as if they’re trying to avoid reminding us that officials at the Vatican are inexplicably involved with what’s happening to the young lass, and each time we cut to Djimon Hounsou’s hackneyed interpretations (“The raven! The devil’s messenger,” he exclaims at one point in reviewing Angela’s hospital footage on the eponymous tapes) the film screeches from derivative banality into laughable camp. Likewise, Satan’s apparent predilection for pretty young white women should make most of the world feel quite safe, at least according to decade’s worth of insistent copycat cinema such as this.

However, no one seemed very keen on giving poor Olivia Taylor Dudley any defining characteristics, recalling the likes of Chloe Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon, and Taylor Schilling with interchangeable equanimity. Early family sequences border on the unsettling (“Daddy always gets the first piece,” she claims, in reference to her birthday cake moments after her father observes her boyfriend grabbing her derriere) while a whole middle sequence involving the medical professional played by Kathleen Robertson, usually known for comedies, could have been easily excised.

Michael Pena appears in an utterly thankless role as sympathetic Father Lozano, and the summer season of 2015 provides us with three concurrent useless Michael Pena performances (including Ant-Man and Vacation). Dougray Scott appears to be prizing visibility based on his inclusion here and in this year’s earlier release of Taken 3. Neveldine seems more focused on his action sequences than other necessary aspects of filmmaking (a usual critique), depending on upside down eyes and regurgitated, symbolic eggs for visual scares.

Silly and significant only for the fact it’s not a found footage film, The Vatican Tapes is another notch in a long line of equally expendable spiritually based horror films. Considering the success distributer Pantelion had with its surprise 2013 hit Instructions Not Included, this equals a disappointing maneuver in the wrong direction.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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