THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Stigmata, released in September of 1999, has always been a little unfairly dismissed. It was a modest hit, grossing $50 million at the box office. However, that number came as a result of ads that emphasized the more traditional horror elements. In reality, Stigmata is an undeniably flawed movie, yet it's also one whose flaws come with some true thematic ambition. Perhaps the new Blu-Ray release from Scream Factory will help change the perception.
Patricia Arquette stars as Frankie, a Pittsburgh hair dresser who engages in casual sex, drinks, and parties like there's no tomorrow. One day, she receives a gift from her mother - a crucifix that (as we see in the movie's prologue) belonged to a deceased Mexican priest. Not long after getting it, Frankie starts having bizarre hallucinations and developing strange, bloody wounds. She is told that her wounds are stigmatic in nature, as they occur in the same places Jesus Christ received them when he was nailed to the cross. Frankie has no idea why this is happening to her. Normally only very devout people get it; she's not religious at all.
The Vatican gets wind of the situation and sends Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) to investigate. He describes himself as "half priest, half scientist," and his job is to assess the validity of so-called "miracles." As he tries to assist Frankie, he uncovers some startling secrets, the likes of which won't be spoiled here. Suffice it to say that the Vatican, represented by Cardinal Houseman (Jonathan Pryce), feels that if these secrets are revealed, it will bring about the downfall of the church. Therefore, Houseman tries to cover up what Kiernan finds.
Stigmata is two different types of movies fused together, a bit awkwardly. Both types work well enough, though. Half the film is a straightforward possession-style horror movie that revolves around Frankie. Every one of her hallucinations is depicted graphically; we see her developing the wounds in stomach-churning detail. There are many scenes of dripping blood and ripped flesh. As the story goes on, Frankie gets zombie eyes and starts speaking with a demonic voice similar to the one Linda Blair used in The Exorcist. Nothing new here, but director Rupert Wainwright gives the movie a glossy MTV look that's a nice twist on the gloomy visuals normally found in these kinds of stories. His use of music is effective as well, with then-current alt-rock tunes scattered throughout. As a shocker, this half of the film works well enough.
The other half of Stigmata is not as slick, but it's more original. It has to do with Father Kiernan. The movie has a lot of basis in fact, as he tracks down reports of Virgin Mary statues crying, religious images appearing on the sides of buildings, and people spontaneously developing stigmatic wounds. These kinds of things have been reported in the news, and they are legitimately fascinating. We get to see Kiernan carrying out his investigations with equal measures of concern for his religion and for science. Further, he is portrayed as a man of serious faith, holding true to his beliefs even in the face of temptation. That's a real rarity onscreen and it makes for a character who is interesting and three-dimensional.
Father Kiernan also serves to encourage viewers to explore their faith more deeply. Although the Catholic church's own movie rating system deemed Stigmata "morally offensive," it is, in some regards, pro-faith. The story, though his perspective, suggests that there are things which cannot be explained except in divine terms. Undoubtedly, the Church's complaint is with the horrible, off-the-rails ending, which suggests Vatican officials would condone murder to keep certain things under wraps. The finale is, far and away, the worst part of the movie. That said, it doesn't entirely detract from the core idea that faith works best when one continually examines and investigates it.
Even if it doesn't exactly nail everything it's trying to do, Stigmata is far more engaging than most films of its type. It deserves a look for that very reason.
Scream Factory's Blu-Ray release has a nice assortment of bonus goodies, most – but not all – of which appeared on a previous DVD release of the film. They start with audio commentary from director Rupert Wainwright and move on to nearly thirteen minutes of deleted scenes, including an alternate ending. The music video for Natalie Imbruglia's haunting theme song “Identify” is here too, as is the original theatrical trailer.
There are also two features previously unavailable. The first is “Divine Rights: The Making of Stigmata,” which runs about twenty-five minutes. It explores real-life cases that helped inspire the movie. You'll also hear from Arquette, Byrne, Wainwright, and others talking about the production of the film, Billy Corgan's musical score, and more. Last, but not least, is “Stigmata: Marked For Life,” a 45-minute History Channel special on the phenomenon of stigmata. It's a nice companion piece to the main feature.
For more information on this title, please visit the Scream Factory website.
Stigmata is rated R for intense violent sequences, language and some sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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