Mark Neveldine's first outing as a solo director is let down by its fidelity to a lacklustre script, but is so visually sumptuous its flaws are easy to forgive
Directing alongside his frequent collaborator Brian Taylor, Mark Neveldine helmed three of the finest and most original action movies of the century thus far: Crank, Crank: High Voltage and Gamer. Working in a style that I can only describe as some bizarre combination of Tony Scott, Paul Verhoeven, Jean-Luc Godard and Jerry Lewis, Neveldine took post-continuity aesthetics to their logical extreme; the results are almost avant-garde in their fragmentation and frequent lapses into outright abstraction.
What’s key to his approach here is that he doesn’t deny us the pleasures of the traditional genre piece but screws around with their conventional functions, and in the process says a lot about spectatorship, class, and surveillance.
Following a string of unrealized and compromised studio projects (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Jonah Hex) Neveldine is back with his first solo feature, the low-budget exorcism movie The Vatican Tapes. Considering how easy the genre lends itself to cartoonish extremes, it’s surprising how straight Neveldine plays it – the tone is dour throughout, and the narrative sticks to all the usual rules regarding character development, rising action and dramatic catharsis.
Like most entries in the sub-genre, a substantial portion of the running time is taken up with dull, lengthy discussions trying to determine whether the main character’s behaviour is the product of mental illness or something otherworldly. Fortunately, though the script (written by entertainment journalist Christopher Borrelli) is paint-by-numbers, Neveldine’s visual style is as intoxicating as ever: a fragmentary collage of embedded media ranging from Skype sessions to CCTV inexplicably ravaged by digital noise, Cassavetes-style close-ups obscured by out-of-focus objects dipping in and out of the foreground – the elliptical editing switching erratically between extreme angles and focal shifts for no other reason than because Neveldine wants to fit in as many great shots as possible.
In other words, The Vatican Tapes feels like a movie written by a workman and directed by a madman; and this creates an uneasy tension. Neveldine’s style is all about bombast and over-stimulation, which works damn well when he’s making movies whose primarily pleasures are visceral and intellectual, but this screenplay calls for a more straightforward emotional engagement and sense of creeping dread. There have been plenty of master directors who’ve fascinatingly created a disjunction between how a piece is written and the way it’s directed (see: last year’s Maps to the Stars), but here the results are simply jarring, and not in an interesting way.
That said, even cliché horror scenarios are staged with such formal bravado that it’s easy to forgive the film’s drawbacks. Take, for example, an early scene where protagonist Angela cuts herself while slicing her birthday cake at her party.
Neveldine flits between the following mis-matched shots in incredibly rapid succession: an extreme close-up of the cake being sliced into from the left; a medium-shot of Angela cutting, now positioned to the right of the screen, isolated by a huge lens flare; a centred shot of a balloon popping abruptly from some vague spot in the crowd; an over-the-shoulder medium of Angela grasping her reacting, the aperture so high only her hand is in sharp focus; an insert of watching spectators (again, it’s not clear where they are in spatial relation to Angela); another medium shot of Angela grasping her hand, which holds for a beat before her father runs into the frame; a tight close-up of her father, his forehead lopped off by the top of the frame; an extreme close-up of Angela’s bloodied finger; a tight close-up of Angela; some drops of blood falling onto a stream of icing, most of the screen taken up by a tooth-paste blue candle in the foreground; an insert of a raven perched on a roof; a close-up of Angela’s hand, now wrapped in cloth; a medium-wide of Angela, now being taken to the hospital. This sort of pictorial experimentation and narrative economy (which is sustained over the entire running time) is breathtaking in itself.
The Vatican Tapes (2015), directed by Mark Neveldine, is distributed in the UK by Signature Entertainment. Certificate 15.