I have a self-imposed challenge as an avid horror viewer: I must find an exorcism movie that truly terrifies me. Huddled with a group of giggling 12-year-olds when I was in seventh grade, I watched in near-disbelief while Regan spewed unthinkable profanity and did immodest things with a crucifix in The Exorcist. Assuredly, I was not old enough to watch the movie without being flung into a shock-provoked state of uncomfortable laughing fits (a twelve year old is hardly mature enough to take those scenes seriously), but something about that reaction seems significant when I reflect upon exorcism films almost 20 years later: Namely, the film was shocking, unorthodox, compelling – and indisputably ground-breaking for the era – but The Exorcist, along with, I think, every other exorcism film I’ve ever watched, has never really scared me. I find them interesting, and essential from the standpoint of someone who makes it a (humble, wage-less) second-living to know and review horror fare (albeit for a small number of readers), but for some reason I’ve always found ghosts a lot scarier. Don’t get me wrong: conceptually, the devil is terrifying (to the extent that I believe he exists, at least), but films rarely do justice to the horror of the demonic. The Vatican Tapes, a fairly average film, was no exception to this trend. If you like exorcism movies, it may be worth seeing, at least for comparative purposes. But, there was a small, hopeful part of me thought I might feel afraid during The Vatican Tapes. As it turns out, I did not. Read my discussion below (which, admittedly, has some spoilers) to find out why.
Angela (Olivia Dudley) cuts herself while slicing a piece of cake during her birthday party and ends up in the hospital with stitches and a medication that causes her to pass out early in the film. When she awakes, strange occurrences begin, including a slight change in her personality and a raven – Satan’s messenger, according to horror lore and the movie script– who follows her around. (In case you’re wondering, the raven does not say “Nevermore” like Poe’s raven or “Eat my shorts,” like the mysterious Bart-bird amalgam in the Simpson’s classic Treehouse of Horror episode. He simply flaps his wings spastically in a way that could be formidable if the movie had a more sinister tone).
After a serious car crash, Angela ends up in a coma for (predictably) 40 days before her father reluctantly agrees to take her off life support. Though the hospital unhooks Angela from the machines keeping her alive, she miraculously wakes up, but her personality changes, vacillating between anxious and helpless (which could be the demonic in disguise) and uncomfortably sinister (which is, we are sure, a demonic force). Significantly, the film leads us to believe that a demon at least partially possessed her before her coma, by causing the car crash that put her in a coma; she unexpectedly turns a car wheel while a taxi driver is driving her, her father, and her boyfriend around town. It is as if the demonic force needed Angela to be nearly dead to fully enter her and gain control of her. Perhaps, then, one must be at her most fragile, must sit at the border between life and death, for evil to take over and do its deeds. In that sense, evil does not have God-like power, or anything close to it. Rather, it slides, subtly, into a scenario.
Before Angela’s father and boyfriend seek an exorcism for her, she becomes connected with a string of bizarre deaths. During the exorcism, the head priest realizes that she’s not simply possessed by a demon, rather, she is the devil incarnate, which I admit was an interesting distinction, even if it was executed haphazardly. She emerges from a (not really) successful exorcism, healthy and poised and ready to perform deceptive miracles and lead a band of new, awe-stricken followers (think Joel Osteen with supernatural powers and an aim to end the world). The film’s suggestion? Angela, the new anti-Christ, is disguised as the second coming of a savior. While we can infer that her miraculous healings will ultimately turn into death and destruction, the film doesn’t depict such events, but points toward a dismal outlook for humanity. However, I didn’t have the dark, bitter aftertaste in my mouth that would have been the hallmark of truly compelling directing.
The directing, in other words, is not incredibly effective in this film, and the only reason the movie wasn’t notably disappointing is because I don’t have high expectations for exorcism movies and I’d not heard much about this one, good or bad. As I indicated above, while I like films about demons, I rarely find them “sufficiently” scary, if only because I’m a sucker for jump scares, ugly ghouls, and grisly, unexplainable deaths. Deaths in exorcism movies are fairly explainable, evil isn’t visible in an ugly form with distorted features (but instead takes human form), and jump-scares, though sometimes attempted, rarely play out to significantly alarm me. As I was watching The Vatican Tapes, it felt more like a thriller than a horror movie, at least until the final exorcism scene, which had the feel of horror but was so unmemorable I can hardly describe it here. (The devil who possesses Angela says some evil things in a deep voice, some people die, the house collapses.)
And then, there were the characters. The relationships in the film were tediously textbook – the gruff, over-protective ex-military father, his sweet, once-angelic daughter, and the laid-back, loving boyfriend who doesn’t deserve the scorn and shitty treatment he gets from the girlfriend’s dad. Now, take that equation, and tack on a foray of Cuckoo’s-nest style mental patients (when Angela is placed in a psychiatric institution) roaming around a hospital like classic, romanticized “nutcases,” who are overseen by a smart, subtly-sexy, smooth-talking young female psychiatrist with glasses and a rich voice. There is something of the whole formula that just tastes of the typical. The characters were shallow and static additions to a sub-par plot, with the exception of Michael Pena’s character, who had some depth and compassion as Father Lozano, the young-ish priest – and former military man – who stands by the family throughout their ordeal and helps orchestrate the exorcism. (I will admit that since seeing Crash in college, I’ve loved Michael Pena). Part of the script’s problem, then, in The Vatican Tapes, was that the writers – or the director – seemed unsure, exactly, how to scare us, but part of the problem rested in the character development, which pales in comparison to, say, the development or Regan’s suffering but strong-willed movie star mother in the Exorcist, which I admit, I may be treating here as a standard by which to evaluate all exorcism movies. (The Rite, another exorcism film I’ve viewed never reviewed on my site, also handles character depth and complexity well).
The paradox of the devil or demons in most horror, then, is this: The thought of an “adversary,” a devil that so directly opposes God and seeks to exact evil, is inherently frightening – to me and probably others – but films have trouble turning the scary nature of the idea into truly chilling characters. I’m not saying everyone walks around fearing the devil, but musicians have been writing songs about running from him since Robert Johnson’s trip down to the Crossroads and the roots of Rock and Roll music. (According to Greil Marcus in his book Mystery Train, running from the devil is one of the most common motifs in Rock N’ Roll). The point is, devil lore is attractive in our culture, and we all have a conception of good and evil. The idea of evil incarnate, a being who seeks corruption, vice, and malice for its own sake, who is often subtle, quiet, tricky and persistent to achieve his end, can be, very, very scary (when it’s not ironically seductive). Frankly, The Devil’s Advocate probably contains one of my favorite depictions of such cold, seemingly rational evil – though it’s not really a horror movie – along with Christopher Marlowe’s 1604 play, Dr. Faustus (in which Dr. Faustus sells his soul to Mephistopheles to gain an allegedly heightened level of worldly power and knowledge).
The trend that I see in contemporary horror is that horror films rarely produce evil characters that embody and display the characteristics (the wiliness and nearly brilliant cunning, the desire to harm without motive, the excess vice and wanton indifference to mindless self-indulgence no matter the cost) that, in our culture, often define unbridled evil and makes it as attractive as it is terrifying. On the other hand, perhaps demonic evil is an idea that’s hard to re-create in a “horror-movie, ugly-bad-guys, jump-scare” context. I admit, I would certainly have trouble doing it. Maybe, then, the idea of pure evil, the idea of a devil, will always be scarier than some filmmakers’ depiction of such a being, especially since thoughtful, philosophical depictions (like Dr. Faustus and The Devil’s Advocate) are (to me) more intriguing than a pretty young girl contorting her body and speaking in deep voice as a priest wields a cross and yells, “The power of Christ compels you!” In any case, The Vatican Tapes doesn’t explore the idea of the devil or its implications in any real, thought provoking way, and the movie didn’t scare me. As such, if you’d like to add another movie to your exorcism movie roster, by all means rent The Vatican Tapes, but don’t enter with high expectations, and you won’t be disappointed.