Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Vatican Tapes

Genre: Horror
Premise: Three priests fly to Poland to investigate a girl who’s supposedly possessed by the devil.
About: I reviewed one of Chris Borrelli's scripts, Wake, a month ago. This one, “The Vatican Tapes,” landed on last year's Black List. Picked up by Lionsgate, the film will be directed by James Marsh, who, as many know, was the director of the critically acclaimed documentary, “Man on Wire.” Marsh has been dying to make a feature film since his previous effort, 2005’s “The King,” starring Gael Garcia Bernal. Hmm, might they change Father Matt’s race and cast Garcia Bernal in the role?
Writer: Christopher Borrelli (story by Chris Morgan)
Details: 79 pages – 6/23/09 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Over the years I’ve developed an inability to completely give myself over to a movie. The reason is obvious. I’m always breaking down films while I watch them. When the hook comes, when the act turns come, if the obstacles are big enough, if the dialogue works. What can I say? It’s the screenwriter in me. But one movie I give into every time, one that always makes me forget I’m watching a film, is The Exorcist. The Exorcist is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen and I don’t think anything else comes close.

I don’t know why this is. I’m not a huge horror fan. And the devil doesn’t scare me any more than a guy in a purple dinosaur suit does. Actually, the guy in the dinosaur suit scares me more. But dammit if whoever played that little girl didn’t make me believe something was possessing her. I think the moment for me was when she urinated on the floor. That just broke like a 100 year movie code or something so that as soon as it happened, I didn’t think I was watching a movie any more.

Now I didn’t go see The Last Exorcism but I heard it was great save for a majorly fucked up ending. The Vatican Tapes, like that film, takes a documentary approach to the material. I know I know. We’re sick of seeing these cheesy gimmicky “lost footage” flicks and I was definitely worried when I saw that. But here’s the thing about The Vatican Tapes. It’s good enough where it doesn’t need the documentary angle. In fact, twenty pages in and I had completely forgotten about it. They should just go ahead and shoot this as a real movie because it totally works as one.

There are three protagonists in The Vatican Tapes: Father Antonio, an older Italian by-the-books priest, Father Matt, a young American priest still learning the ropes, and Father Karl, a 20-something Polish priest who has joined the two as a translator.

The God group is heading to Poland to potentially perform an exorcism. Now these days, the Vatican likes to document any potential possession case, which is why Matt and Karl have their camcorders. While Father Matt is excited by the prospect of his first exorcism, Father Antonio is less than enthused. He’s encountered hundreds of these supposed “possessions” before and none of them has ever panned out. This is likely one big waste of time.

The three descend upon a tiny poor Polish house in a rural neighborhood. When they get there, the father, a 300 pound man named Leslaw, is passed out on the floor with a four year old child playing nearby. Father Antonio angrily wakes him up and asks where the possessed girl is. He’s horrified as he watches the man point to the floor.

The group lifts a trap door and heads down into a makeshift dirt basement where a dirty emaciated 16 year old girl has been chained to the wall. Horrified, Antonio immediately orders for them to unlock her. They bring the girl up to her room and start asking her questions. But she’s noticeably distant. Antonio concludes that this girl is very sick, but far from possessed.

That is until the girl slips out, goes back into the basement, and starts digging a hole in the ground. Not common practice for any 16 year olds I know. Soonafter she attacks Antonio and the others with the strength of five men and when they learn that the girl and her friend were recently playing around in the nearby catacombs, Antonio begins to believe that maybe, just maybe, this *is* a real possession.

They begin the exorcism but apparently exorcisms aren’t like Harry Potter spells. You don’t just say them and voila, out pops a bunny. It’s a constant process that involves continual “exorcising” of the subject and despite everything they’re doing, it doesn’t seem like she’s getting any better. Actually, she may be getting worse. The others start to wonder if they should just shoot her and get it over with. But Antonio insists that somewhere deep inside that body is an innocent 16 year old girl desperate for their help. He will stop at nothing to save that girl.

There was lots of good stuff here. I loved how they were stuck in a place where they didn't know the language. The reason I don’t think the remake of “Let The Right One In” will work is because a lot of the power of the original comes from the characters speaking in a language you don’t understand. It almost makes their situation seem otherworldly, and that adds a layer of originality you can’t replicate. The girl here never says anything we understand, and that creeped me the hell out.

Likewise, being stuck a million miles away from familiarity adds an additional layer of fear. Like the famous tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream,” “In Poland, no one can hear you scream.” In fact, one of my favorite lines in the script comes when they realize that this girl is possessed. Father Matt is terrified and utters, “We’re going to need help, right?” Antonio looks back at him. “We are the help.” It’s that moment when people realize they’re in a situation that’s way over their heads, and yet *they’re* the best equipped people to handle it.

There’s also a handful of shocking moments here. Antonio has a secret that comes out of nowhere and really worked for me. There’s a scene involving the child that’s so horrifying some people won’t be able to read it. And I loved the whole subplot involving the catacombs (I actually thought he could’ve done a little more with it).

There weren’t any glaring issues to be honest. I guess Father Antonio and Father Karl each had such interesting storylines and backstories that Father Matt gets lost in the mix. He needed something extra so we remembered him. He definitely pops the least.

The biggest misstep for The Vatican Tapes lies in the ending. It’s another one of those chaos over clarity scenarios, which is a shame, because this was so tightly written and so well built up, we wanted some clarity. I’m still not sure exactly what happened so I can’t discuss it but, in short, I was mildly disappointed.

But in the end this was so quick and so enjoyable, I’m recommending it to you. So get your hands on a copy and enjoy.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Exorcism movies are great low-budget films for you to write and shoot yourselves. I mean you could shoot this movie for 20 grand if you had to. My only suggestion is your possessed victim not be a young women. The Vatican Tapes may be able to slide in there as the last one. But let's face it, we’ve seen it so many times that you can’t execute the idea in an original way anymore. The good news is, this is a fairly untapped genre. You have a lot of storylines you could explore outside of “girl gets possessed.”