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Summary / Analysis
Times of India
Young Angela's (Dudley) life is turned upside down when she's possessed by an evil entity. As her condition goes from bad to worse, her father Roger (Scott) and boyfriend Pete (Amedori) allow an exorcism to be performed on her.
Loving, cheerful and full of pep, Angela seems the unlikeliest target for demonic possession. Given her normal existence prior to possession, her transformation from mellow to malevolent is all the more disturbing to witness.
In the Vatican, a few priests are aware about various evil forces at play all over the world - forces that result in an increased number of demonic possessions (depicted via found-footage format) and events that could pave way for the anti-Christ.
Angela's strange behavior starts manifesting just before she gets into a car accident. It takes months for her to wake up from a coma. She does so, strangely enough, when Father Lozano (Pena, suitably somber) blesses her with holy water. But all is far from well. Angela can speak in ancient tongues (Aramaic included), summon ravens (considered a symbol of death) and cause people to temporarily lose their minds and fatally injure themselves.
Vatican Tapes now treads down a somewhat familiar exorcism-horror film path. After a disastrous stint in a psychiatric ward, where head shrink Dr Richards (Robertson) is unable to help her, all hopes are pinned on the hard-headed Cardinal Bruun (Andersson, fairly intense), down from the Vatican, to try and perform the said exorcism. But can Angela really be cured? And does Bruun know the magnitude of evil that he is dealing with?
While Hounsou is somewhat underplayed - seen in only a smattering of scenes - Scott and Amedori's roles are fairly run-of-the-mill. Dudley however, injects her performance with the right shade of eeriness. Neveldine's effective use of light combined with Joseph Bishara's creepy score (he's also scored Insidious and The Conjuring) is also noteworthy. But while there are a few appropriately scary scenes, the overall feeling is that Neveldine could have served up far more terrifying film if he'd pushed the envelope more, given the intense subject matter.
The producers went in search of a director who could connect to the material in a personal way, as well as bring a visceral and cutting edge style to the film. They found that combination in Mark Neveldine, who had acted as a director, cinematographer and camera operator in previous films such as the fast-paced action-thriller, Crank, starring Jason Statham. “Mark is an extraordinarily creative guy on set. He’s constantly moving and there’s a kinetic energy he brings to production, which is infectious,” states producer, Richard Wright.
Mark Neveldine, having gone to Catholic school, had a personal grasp on the world of The Vatican Tapes, and after discussing the project with producers, Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi, he jumped aboard the project. “I’ve always wanted to do a possession film. Something supernatural, but grounded in reality,” says Neveldine.
Along with incorporating the human emotion to the film, the filmmakers looked for ways to rewrite the rules of the horror-thriller genre. “There are no decapitations, there are no blood sprays, and there aren’t any knives stabbing eyeball scenes. There are none of the normal grab-bag of tricks that you use in a horror film. This is more about subtlety. This film demonstrates the slow build and the slow escalation of dread,” explains Wright. “This is a film about demonic possession that can consume anybody. We don’t try to pull any punches,” says Neveldine. “We’re not trying to look for any jump scares. Instead, I want to get under peoples’ skin.”
While making sure that the story of The Vatican Tapes was grounded in reality, the filmmakers needed to find a leading female protagonist who embodied normalcy but had the ability to carry out Angela’s complex and emotional demonic possession. They found that in Olivia Taylor Dudley, who was notably in Oren Peli’s horror film, The Chernobyl Diaries as well as other films such as Moneyball and The Dictator. “Angela is both the villain and the victim. She is the lead of the movie and the heart and soul, so we went through a very long and focused process in casting,” says Gary Lucchesi. “We were very much taken by Olivia’s ability to balance vulnerability with toughness.”
The character Angela begins as a normal, healthy girl, but as the story progresses, she spirals into a possessed and demonic state, requiring Taylor Dudley to challenge herself emotionally and physically. “The exorcism took us six days to shoot and it was twenty-two pages. It was so physically demanding, especially being chained to the wall screaming. It was exhausting,” explains Taylor Dudley. Angela’s descent into darkness and evil is combatted by several figures of the church, most notably Father Lozano, an ex-military soldier turned priest, who becomes deeply involved in Angela’s condition, and ultimately the battle of good versus evil.
Taking on the role of Father Lozano is Michael Peña, whose distinguished body of work includes his roles in Paul Haggis’ Oscar winning film Crash, Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winning film Million Dollar Baby, and the recent Oscar nominated film, American Hustle. Peña was initially drawn to the film by the uniqueness of the script as well as his relationship with producers, Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi. “I was initially interested in the script because it wasn’t written like a typical horror movie,” says Peña. “There were action sequences and unique elements to this thriller film, but they’re justified by the plot. I also have a longstanding relationship with Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi.”
The filmmakers were thrilled that Peña joined the cast. “I’m incredibly happy and honored that he did this film,” says Neveldine. “I think he was drawn in by the opportunity to do a movie with great actors and a script that was really well written.”
The story of The Vatican Tapes is primarily set in modern day Los Angeles with the exception of a few scenes that take place in and around the Vatican. The filmmakers took advantage of shooting in Los Angeles for a story actually set in L.A., while utilizing clever locations, a discrete traveling film unit in Rome, as well as VFX to create the scenes at Vatican City. To capture the frenetic and haunting world of The Vatican Tapes, the filmmakers brought on director of photography, Gerardo Madrazo, as well as production designer, Jerry Fleming. “Shooting in L.A. you are working in the center of the film industry,” remarks producer Richard Wright. “There is a level of expertise in L.A. that is really second to none.”
To balance visual effects with practical effects, the filmmakers turned to visual effects supervisor, James McQuaide, who is known for his work on the Underworld films, among other heavy VFX pictures. “He’s a genius when it comes to visual effects,” producer Gary Lucchesi says of McQuaide. “He’s very creative and has wonderful ideas on how to manufacture visual effects in a very interesting and unique way.”
Wright explains why melding practical and visual effects have become essential in modern filmmaking. “Visual effects have progressed to a state where it is so much easier and in some ways cheaper to create something using visual effects than it is to do them practically.” Wright continues: “The overall vibe of the film was meant to be very hand held and very gritty. We’re mixing footage together in a way that hopefully exudes a more unsettled and media intensive vibe.”
This is the first time when Mark Neveldine has not teamed up with Brian Taylor.
Shawn Clown Crahan has a cameo in the movie.
The film opens with some footage of various possessions documented from around the world. We then see footage of Angela in a mental asylum repeating the same phrase about wanting to go home, over and over again. Vicar Imani (Hounsou) is one of the priests watching this footage and he and Bruun analyse each frame, until they see a demonic face mingled with hers.
We then rewind to a time when Angela was normal. We see her talking to her dad on Skype and then meeting her boyfriend Pete, who surprises her for her birthday. Her dad Roger (Scott) had told her that he was leaving for overseas deployment (being a high-ranking officer in the US Army), but instead is part of the surprise party waiting for her at home. She cuts her cake but for some strange reason, cuts her finger deeply too, which requires emergency care.
Her behavior starts to change. She metamorphoses from cheerful to aggressive and develops a constant thirst. One night, while she, Pete and Roger are at home (her mother was a prostitute who Roger had tried to reform. She incidentally, passed away many years ago.) Angela behaves really strangely. She drinks an entire bottle of water, says strange things. She tells Pete that she has to go to the bathroom, but soon after, falls dead asleep on the couch instead. Pete is unable to rouse her, but Roger manages to do so.
While in the car one day, she meets with an accident and is then in a coma for months. She wakes up months later but is clearly possessed. Also, hospital footage shows that she tried to drown a baby one night. She is then placed in a lunatic asylum where the head doctor cannot cure her of her affliction. As her condition worsens (she is discharged after she incites the facility inmates to beat each other up) Cardinal Bruun travels from the Vatican to meet her and exorcise her. He speaks to her father and boyfriend and tells them that she is not just possessed but could actually be an embodiment of evil itself. He starts the exorcism and during the process, extracts three eggs from her throat. He claims that this unholy trinity signifies that she herself could be a manifestation of evil. Her origins also come under question as her mother had died when she was very young and her father was not with her at the time.
Bruun goes to the other room to get a special knife and kill Angela, much to the objections of Father Lozano. This fails and Angela stabs Bruun instead. She hurls both Pete and Roger across the room and the place is set ablaze. After sweeping them all out of the house, and onto the street below, Only Lozano survives, and she walks to him and tells him to keep her identity secret, before walking away.