Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Director Report Card: Neveldine/Taylor (2015)

5. The Vatican Tapes
Directed by Mark Neveldine

After “Paranormal Activity,” every studio had a found footage horror movie in development. Most of these – the likes of “The Devil Inside,” “Grave Encounters,” not to mention numerous “Paranormal Activity” sequels – came out quickly.  “The Vatican Tapes” was announced around the same time. The film was supposedly a found footage horror film concerning the Vatican's secret cache of recorded exorcisms. While many other films of this style were quickly churned out, “The Vatican Tapes” went into turnaround, suffering rewrites. By the time the movie was finally released, found footage horror was overexposed. This forced a change in style. Director Mark Neveldine, making his first movie without Brian Taylor, delivered a more standard horror flick. One that was barely released in most parts of the world.

Angela Holmes seemingly lives a normal life. She has just moved into a new house with her boyfriend, a relationship her former military father doesn't entirely approve of. Her birthday festivities are interrupted when a bad cut sends her to the hospital. After returning home, her behavior becomes strange. She has seizures and violent outburst. She wrecks her car, ending up in a coma for forty days. Upon awakening, her unnerving behavior continues. She attempts to kill a baby. She incites violence in the other patients. She speaks languages she can't know, performs seemingly impossible acts. Soon, the hospital perish believes her to be possessed and receives permission from the Vatican to perform an exorcism.

Say what you will about the films Mark Neveldine made with Brian Taylor but at least they were identifiable as their movies. The two “Crank” movies were brilliantly insane action flicks, that pushed the rules of the genre as far as possible into the realm of gonzo comedy. Even their lesser motion pictures, “Gamer” and the “Ghost Rider” sequel, had moments of brilliance. The two followed their demented muse, mixing juvenile comedy and highly energetic action scenes to varying degrees of success. “The Vatican Tapes,” meanwhile, shows few of trademarks recognizable in the duo's previous pictures. Mark Neveldine has made a fairly standard religious horror film. If his name wasn't on it, you'd never know this was from one-half of the team that made “Crank.”

“The Vatican Tapes'” ended up not being a found footage movie but you can still see its roots in the genre. The story’s events are frequently captured by security cameras. While Angela’s in the mental hospital, her demonic shenanigans are recorded by surveillance cameras. Such as her bed moving across the room on its own or a raven pecking at the window. Before the exorcism begins, the priest installs a miniature digital camera in the room. This feeds into the film’s primary gimmick, the Vatican has a collection of demonic activity on tape. The constant cutting away is potentially interesting. The film has the potential to comment on the role surveillance plays in our life now. Yet it’s mostly just a distracting creative decision, putting the film at a weird halfway mark between a traditional horror movie and a found footage flick.

If you watched “The Vatican Tapes” back-to-back with “Crank,” you’d probably never guess that the same director worked on both movies. Only one sequence in the entire film hints at this direction. While staying at the hospital, Angela occasionally joins a group therapy session. The other people in the circle are clearly mentally unstable and Angela’s Satanic presence clearly upsets them. This leads towards a memorable moment where the crazy people become violent, attacking each other and the nurses. They flip over chairs, slams someone through a table, and one hangs himself with a camera chord. The scene recalls the controlled chaos of Neveldine/Taylor’s other films. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the best scenes in the movie.

Otherwise, “The Vatican Tapes” is visually indistinct. There’s very little of the frantic action that characterized Neveldine’s films with Brian Taylor. The film is shot through an overcast filter, most of the story taking place in shades of brown. There’s frequently a golden glow to the scenes devoted to Angela’s home life, which at least brings a warm feeling to mind. Upon arriving at the psychiatric clinic, gray becomes the color of the day. It’s all an attempt to capture a realistic, gritty perspective. In practice, it just makes the movie super boring to look at.

As a horror movie, “The Vatican Tapes” presents very little that audiences haven’t already seen. The film primarily trades in cheap jump scares. While the happy couple are on a bus, a bird smashes into the window. This is, of course, a preface to another bird successfully breaking the glass and attacking the people on the bus. Other loud sequences include crash-zooms on eyeballs or grimacing faces. When that doesn’t work, the movie falls back on shock tactics. Angela attempts to drown a baby from the newborn ward. She seduces a security guard before psychically causing the ceiling to collapses on him. A police officer gouges his eyes out with light bulbs. The film is attempting to create a foreboding atmosphere but the constant loud shocks prevent that from happening.

“The Vatican Tapes” is marching towards the inevitable exorcism sequence. At first, it seems like the filmmakers might be attempting to subvert expectations. The priest assigned with getting the demon out of Angela seems potentially unhinged at first. He talks about being possessed as a child. As the ritual goes on, his intentions shift from removing the entity from Angela to murdering her. You begin to wonder if he’s a danger to the girl. All of this is a red herring: The priest is in the right. Angela really has been taken over by a demon intent on ending the world. So that interesting bit of ambiguity is tossed out the window.

In truth, when the time comes for “The Vatican Tapes” to ramp up the scares, the movie really falls apart. The film begins to rely on overdone CGI. On scene that really got an eye roll from me involves Angela in chains. She pulls against the links, yanking her shoulders out of their sockets. This goes on until her spine twists in half. Potentially effective, right? Not so much, as the movie creates the contortion solely with CGI. Later, “The Vatican Tapes” piles on more computer generated spectacle. People fade out of their clothes. Others imagine animal attacks. A CGI fire cloud bursts through the room. It’s fairly lame stuff.

As one final kick in the ass, “The Vatican Tapes” tosses in an asinine twist ending. Angela just isn’t possessed by any ol’ demon. She’s the actual Antichrist, a false prophet sent to usher in the End of Days. An obnoxious resolution involves a secret group of Catholic priest watching the girl come to fame, growing in popularity, preparing the world for the Apocalypse. It’s a last ditch effort to make this cheap horror movie seem more important than it actually is, granting an unearned layer of pretensions to the proceedings. And all it succeeds in doing is pissing off the audience.

So what about the performances? Olivia Taylor Dudley stars as Angela. Dudley appears to be a favorite of the found footage horror genre, as she also appears in “Chernobyl Diaries,” “Dude Bro Party Massacre III,” and the sixth “Paranormal Activity” movie. In this film, she relatively charming when playing a normal person. Once she becomes possessed, Dudley fluctuates between wide-eyed starring and turning the volume way the fuck up. Eh, she’s okay. Dougray Scott, the man who was Wolverine in an alternate universe, plays her dad. Scott spends most of the movie with a sour look on his face, grimacing at everyone around him. John Patrick Amedori plays Angela’s boyfriend, a totally useless character that contributes nothing to the film. Amedori is a blank. If you look closely, you can also spot cameos from Michael Pare and Allison Lohman.

There’s at least more charisma on the church’s side. The only really likable character in the film is Father Lozano, the hospital parish played by Michael Pena. Lozano was a veteran of the Iraq War. After seeing so much bloodshed, he turned his life towards God. Pena successfully tows the line between a skeptic and a believer, unsettled by what he’s seen by looking for a logical explanation. Pena also brings some humor to the film, which it desperately needed. Most of the other priests are more intense. Peter Andersson, best known as the raping lawyer in the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” plays the Cardinal overseeing the exorcism. Andersson brings some wide-eyed intensity to the role but isn’t given much to do. Djimon Hounsou appears as a Vicar at the Vatican but it’s another example of the talented Hounsou being wasted in a nothing part.

“The Vatican Tapes” was finally released in 2015, going more-or-less direct to video after a tiny theatrical release. Few people saw it and those that did hated it. I don’t know if Mark Neveldine was working under studio pressure or meddling producers, which is why he delivered such a mediocre, lame product. The film’s lengthy production certainly points towards that. But what if this really was the movie he wanted to make? That’s depressing. Either way, “The Vatican Tapes” is a deeply forgettable, unremarkable motion picture. If this is the kind of material Neveldine is going to make on his own, let’s hope he reunites with Brian Taylor soon. [Grade: D]

The Neveldine/Taylor partnership will remain separated for a while. Brian Taylor will be making his solo directional debut this year with "Mom and Dad," a horror project with a decent premise that reunites him with Nicolas Cage. Hopefully, it'll be better than "The Vatican Tapes" was. I also hope that a string of disappointments doesn't derail either directors' career, as both clearly have the chops to make insane movies. If nothing else, there's always "Crank 3" to go back to.

Thus concludes another Director Report Card. Thank you for reading. 

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