If you're so desperate to sit in an air-conditioned room that you'll see any movie in town, then you might take a forgiving attitude toward The Vatican Tapes, a forgettable horror film currently playing at a few Chicago multiplexes. I wouldn't call Vatican a bad movie, just an exceedingly familiar one, rife with sequences you've probably seen in numerous other Exorcist knockoffs. The most surprising thing about it may be how serious it is, given that the director is Mark Neveldine—one half of the duo Neveldine/Taylor, who made the live-action cartoons Crank, Gamer, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Those films were adolescent and exuberant, made buoyant by irreverent humor and athletic camerawork. The demonic possession subgenre could have really benefited from those qualities, as the films tend to be dour and visually uninspired, yet Neveldine applies his gifts stingily. Occasionally Vatican hints at the wilder film it might have been—if you can find air-conditioning someplace other than a multiplex, I'd recommend going there and imagining that other movie instead.
Besides having Neveldine behind the camera, Vatican features a lead performance by Michael Peña as a former soldier turned Catholic priest. Those two components all but promise good, cartoonish fun, as Peña has often proven himself an adept comic actor. Yet he plays it straight here, rooting his characterization in the priest's war-related trauma. That's actually not a bad approach—that the priest feels prepared to confront the Devil after two tours of Iraq suggests a metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of the war on American soldiers. (Neveldine himself isn't a stranger to social commentary—Gamer is one of the more astute movies I've seen about the Internet's negative effects on interpersonal communication.) Yet the script, credited to Christopher Borrelli (not the Tribune features writer) and Michael C. Martin, doesn't give Peña enough to work with, and so the potential metaphor withers. Typical of the demonic possession subgenre, any thematic nuance goes out the window once the priest starts to battle evil spirits.
As for the spirits, they're about what you'd expect from this sort of movie. They take possession of a pretty Los Angeleno woman who knows a thing or two about Christian eschatology and force her to attempt murder on a few occasions. Her actions get her committed to a mental hospital, where the spirits transform the other patients into a homicidal mob. When she gets out of the hospital, Peña teams up with a vicar from Vatican City to exorcise the spirits, who respond with violent tricks. The movie concludes with a twist ending that reveals (spoiler alert) that the exorcism failed and that the possessed woman is about to become the Antichrist and wreak untold havoc on the world. This is the most interesting passage of Vatican, as it shifts the horror from an intimate scale to a global one—unfortunately it leads to nothing except the end credits.
The film is predictable but never exactly dull—Neveldine's too restless a filmmaker to let that happen. As in certain movies by Lars von Trier (The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark), much of the dialogue transpires in jittery, handheld shots that generate consistent nervous tension. And Neveldine often interrupts these moments with cutaways to strange camera angles, like from the corner of a ceiling or from underneath a couch. The director also elicits some good stunt work during an automobile crash sequence, hearkening back to the more engaging action of his films with Brian Taylor. Yet that moment feels less Neveldine/Tayloresque than a sincere melodramatic sequence that comes out of nowhere, a la John Leguizamo's moving cameo in Gamer. About halfway through the movie the possessed woman's father confesses to Peña that he once married a prostitute in hopes of "saving" her, but that the marriage ended disastrously. The sequence is far more probing than anything else in Vatican—even Peña's reaction shots feel measured and heartfelt. But like the intimations of Peña's service history, the moment doesn't go anywhere, registering as a non sequitur. If you see the movie before you start imagining the better one Neveldine and Peña could have made, this brief lunge into Tennessee Williams territory might be a good jumping-off point for daydreaming.