There are times when a movie deserves to be way better than it is – particularly if it’s based on a reasonably intriguing premise. Mark Fraser looks back at an American supernatural thriller which somehow manages to eschew the thrill of the chase.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
If there’s one thing Rupert Wainwright’s 1999 horror opus Stigmata lacks it’s a sense of urgency.
Normally this would be more a misdemeanor than a crime. But when you are dealing with a race-against-the-clock pseudo-detective story involving a terminally possessed heroine and the Catholic Church’s attempt to cover-up a previously unknown Aramaic gospel straight from the mouth of Jesus Christ, a little more panic wouldn’t hurt.
Unfortunately the overwhelming feeling of dread required from both the script (by idea originator Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage) and the director is only just there – it merely scratches the surface when it should be inflicting deeper cuts.
Instead of being a savvy and excitingly-paced horror movie, Stigmata thrills its audience via hackneyed shock editing and splashy strobe-infused special effects, most of which are gruesomely consistent with those found in similar works made around the turn of the Millennium.
Although some of the eerie atmospherics aren’t half bad, these obligatory fright tactics and recurring visual motifs are not enough to pull the film out of the cinematic purgatory in which it eventually finds itself.
This is a shame given, in terms of potential at least, Stigmata really does have something to offer – even when teetering on the hysterical.
The movie – which has a well-constructed piece of exposition that suspiciously resembles the opening Iraq sequence in William Friedkin’s seminal 1973 horror opus The Exorcist – begins in the remote Brazilian village of Belo Quinto, where Jesuit priest (and former scientist/organic chemist) Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) is investigating the appearance of an alleged miracle, that being a bleeding statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe at the funeral of local padre Father Paulo Alameida (Jack Donner).
Alameida, it is later revealed, had at one point in his life briefly suffered from stigmata (the sudden appearance of physical afflictions that correspond with Christ’s wounds when he was nailed to the cross). Furthermore, he was helping harbour an important secret at the time of his death. During the prolonged church service, the dead priest’s rosary is stolen from the palm of his corpse and eventually ends up in the hands of freewheeling Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette) – an atheist hairdresser living in Pittsburg – after which all sorts of hell breaks loose for the poor woman as she becomes inflicted with horrendous crucifixionesque injuries for no apparent reason.
Meanwhile Kiernan, who is convinced he actually witnessed a miracle at Alameida’s funeral, finds himself being stonewalled by senior Vatican brass Cardinal Daniel Houseman (Jonathon Pryce) and his loyal sidekick Father Dario (Enrico Colantoni), who flat out refuse his request to return to Brazil to further investigate a phenomenon in which the science strongly suggests that real blood emanated from the Guadalupe statue’s eyes.
“The cornerstone of their (the villagers of Belo Quinto) faith is the church, not a crying statue,” Houseman curtly remarks – his apparent lack of enthusiasm not ringing any serious alarm bells for the clergy’s chief investigator.
(Later, Kiernan’s suspicions are somehow still not raised when Dario informs him there “is no record of a church in Belo Quinto” and, if there was a church, “it isn’t one of ours”.)
Back in Pittsburg, Paige’s painful supernatural ordeal begins when an unseen force brutally bangs what look like imaginary rail spikes through both of her wrists while she’s taking a bath, an act so violent it prompts one of the doctors treating her (Ann Cusack) to inexplicably observe: “Frankie, I’m not going to kid you – with wounds like this it’s pretty obvious that they were self-inflicted.”
The fact the patient – shortly after being brought to the emergency ward – seriously convulses and exhibits “through the roof” blood pressure is not enough to convince the medical practitioner that perhaps something else other than attempted suicide is at play; nor is her professional curiosity piqued when she notices the wrist punctures only bleed if they are touched.
Even Frankie doesn’t seem too traumatised by her unusual ordeal, at one point whining to the doctor: “How long is this going to take? I want to go home,” as if she’s being treated for an unwanted rash. Given the intensity of the physical punishment meted out by the invisible supernatural force during the bathroom incident, it’s quite remarkable that nobody’s eyebrows are raised by this most peculiar set of circumstances.
Having seemingly taken the first sign of stigmata in her stride, Frankie’s second encounter with the unseen – during which she is strapped to some support rails in a subway carriage and repeatedly flailed to the point of collapse – is initially treated with the same kind of disdain by Kiernan, who is shown a closed circuit video of the event by the cardinal and his sidekick before being sent to Pittsburg to investigate.
“How important is this really, Daniel? he asks his boss, having failed to see the significance (unlike the scheming Houseman and Dario) of an extraordinary occurrence in which a woman with bandages around both wrists is strung up in public like Christ on the cross and viciously whipped by a concealed entity.
Another problem with this scene (which starts when the usually inquisitive Kiernan is effectively told that what he saw in Belo Quinto was a figment of his imagination) is the fact a solid connection isn’t made between the subway incident and the investigative priest, even though a possessed Frankie asks another passenger – Father Durning (Thomas Kopachel) – if he is Kiernan just before she is magically hoisted to the rails.
Had Stigmata been the half-decent detective story it eventually tries to be, the bloodhound padre would have been made aware of this intriguing connection before embarking on the mission instead of being thrown into the mix as a pussyfooting skeptic. Rather than tensing things up a bit by providing a leading man who thinks he may have an important role in the subsequent game changing investigation, Wainwright literally keeps his hero stumbling around in the dark for a good portion of the movie, effectively rendering most of his actions dramatically meandering.
This kind of narrative lethargy permeates into the next section of the story, during which Kiernan and Frankie meet after the bruised and battered woman has undergone a series of medical tests (in a montage that is also suspiciously familiar to a similar episode in The Exorcist when young Regan MacNeil [Linda Blair] is subjected to a painful hospital examination) and told she may be suffering from epilepsy.
The chemistry between the handsome celibate Catholic priest and the hot blond hairdresser is undeniable, adding an unrequited love subtext to proceedings which also helps negate the movie’s uneven sense of creepiness.
Despite the fact Frankie has already shown two out of five convincing signs of stigmata – and has written some poetic verse in Italian (a language she doesn’t understand) – Kiernan automatically dismisses her stigmatic legitimacy simply because she calls herself an atheist.
So skeptical is this priest of her claims that he doesn’t seem propelled to up his investigative ante after the unseen force returns shortly thereafter and shoves an imaginary crown of thorns into the unfortunate woman’s scalp during a night out at a local watering hole with her hairdressing buddies.
Even when he later comes across a possessed Frankie writing complex Aramaic scriptures on the wall of her spacious apartment, the best Kiernan can come up with is: “Who are you?”
In response – during what is arguably one of the film’s weakest moments – Frankie morphs back into her normal self and, when asked by the priest if she recognises any of the ancient text she has just scribbled down, blurts out melodramatically: “I don’t know what the hell this means – I just want my life back, OK!” before storming out the door.
Perhaps the single biggest problem with Stigmata is the fact that while the characters are aware there is something of an emergency afoot, they don’t appear to want to expeditiously deal with it.
As the stigmatic, Arquette’s Frankie acts more confused than scared, at one point timidly asking Kiernan: “I’m dying aren’t I?” as if she’s suffering from some kind of Love Story cancer rather than being ritualistically tortured to death by a vicious, unseen malevolent force.
Meanwhile, as the investigative clergyman, Byrne simply comes across as plodding. Despite being presented with an abundance of nifty clues and the knowledge that Frankie’s life is in mortal danger, he’s at a loss as to what action to take until the end, when the pieces of the puzzle are finally put together for him by the proverbial whistle blower (Rade Šerbedžija).
Indeed, Kiernan is so dim-witted he fails to realise Houseman and Dario plan to harm the hairdresser when they eventually confine her to a bed in Durning’s church (where they start performing an exorcism – another moment which suspiciously looks as if it’s been lifted straight out of The Exorcist) and turf him off the case, even though he has more or less been warned about this errant duo by his interpreter friend Father Delmonico (Dick Latessa).
By the time it reaches its not-so-thrilling finale it’s obvious what Stigmata wants to be – a taut and exciting horror-thriller which questions the legitimacy of the church.
Instead it finds itself on a different trajectory, infusing loud and splashy moments of gruesome terror with slow and sometimes distracting melodrama.
As a result, trying to fully absolve this misfire ultimately requires an unreasonably large leap of faith.
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed Stigmata on Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka Entertainment Ltd which released the film in the UK on dual format DVD/Blu-ray on October 17, 2016