If 1973's "The Exorcist" and 1999's "Stigmata
" experienced a head-on collision, "The Vatican Tapes" would be the likely result. Then again, the film, directed by Mark Neveldine (2012's "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
") and written by Christopher Borrelli and Michael C. Martin, is derivative of just about every horror movie involving demonic possession. It also is decidedly assured and tautly conceived on its own terms. That the picture is told as a conventional narrative in lieu of found footage shouldn't seem like a novel concept, but it sure comes off that way.
When Angela Holmes (Olivia Taylor Dudley) slices her finger while cutting birthday cake, she goes to get stitches but doesn't think much about it. In the days after, however, live-in boyfriend Pete (John Patrick Amedori) and military father Roger (Dougray Scott) watch as her personality starts to change and the odd occurrences pile up. She becomes easily irritable, insatiably thirsty, grows faint at a moment's notice, and is attacked by an out-of-control raven as she rides the city transit bus. While convalescing in the hospital, Angela is captured on surveillance video attempting to harm a newborn child in the maternity ward despite another camera showing her lying asleep in her bed. Convinced this young woman is beset by an evil higher power, Father Lozano (Michael Pena) seeks the aid of Vatican City-based Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson).
"The Vatican Tapes" is absorbing in spite of its general familiarity, sending Angela on a path toward hell over which she has no control. Olivia Taylor Dudley (2012's "Chernobyl Diaries
"), strongly resembling a young Patricia Arquette, brings a committed range to the role, able to be sympathetic one minute and a coldly vindictive force the next. A scene where she verbally massacres every insecurity hidden beneath the surface of her psychiatrist (Kathleen Robertson) is powerfully handled, while director Mark Neveldine's reliance on mood and craft over cheap jump scares is certainly welcome. As arresting as Angela is, she and her boyfriend and father are undernourished by the script; so little is learned about her life before she is accosted by darker powersdoes she have a profession? Is she college-aged?that one can never quite grasp the full scope of what she stands to lose. Likewise, the early animosity between Pete and Roger leads nowhere of note and keeps them from having their own personal arcs. In a well-made but mostly unoriginal film where interest is held in spite of certain developmental pitfalls, "The Vatican Tapes" defies expectations during its final moments, culminating on a note as open-ended as it is provocatively chilling.