AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 17TH OCTOBER, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 103 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Father Andrew Kiernan is part of a Vatican group which investigates miracles, subsequently always disproving them so far. Kiernan is sent to Belo Quinto in Brazil because of a sighting of the Virgin Mary, but finds a statue of the Virgin weeping blood at the funeral of the recently deceased Father Paulo Alameida. A young boy steals a rosary from Alameida’s hand and sells it to a woman in a marketplace, who sends it to her daughter Frankie Paige in Pittsburgh. When Frankie begins to receive attacks from an unseen force, Kiernan is sent to investigate. She seems to have something called stigmata, when the deeply devoted are struck with the five wounds that Jesus received during the crucifixion….except that Frankie is an atheist….
Anti-church but not, I think, anti-Christian or anti-God, Stigmata, which came out during a short lived phase of religious themed horror films, was one film that I totally missed so, once again, I’m thankful to Eureka Entertainment for giving me the chance to watch it something I’d always meant to see but never got round to doing so. It attempts to be both an Exorcist-type horror movie and an intelligent look at Christian faith, and almost succeeds as both though it doesn’t quite get there despite some intense moments and some good ideas. It’s muddled in places and even makes up a few things, such as the Catholic Church trying to suppress some religious writings when in fact they did no such thing, even if some members denounced them as heretical. It also looks rather like an MTV video for some of the time, but it is also highly atmospheric – if not really scary except for the attack scenes, certainly interesting, and is helped immensely by two extremely committed performances by its two stars. It has a rather similar feel to The Hunger. It isn’t a film that really fulfils its potential, but it’s just about good enough for me to forgive director Rupert Wainwright for his abysmal remake of The Fog, and stylish enough to make one wish he’d made more films than he did.
Stigmata, a term used by Christians to describe body marks, sores or sensations of pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, is considered to have begun with St. Francis of Assisi in 1224, and since then has tended to happened to female members of the Catholic faith, though there have been exceptions. It’s perhaps not surprising that we had to wait until 1999 for a film on the issue, though the Catholic Church objected greatly to its rather fraudulent portrayal of the condition and to its negative depiction of the Vatican. Thank goodness then that the filmmakers didn’t use the original title of the movie which was St.Francis Of Pittsburgh. Shot in Mexico, Vancouver [doubling for Pittsburgh], San Francisco [where the Palace of the Fine Arts doubled as the exterior of the Vatican Apostolic Palace], Los Angeles, the much used house Greystone Park in Beverly Hills, and Rome, the film lost some footage due to preview audiences who, for some reason, didn’t like the original opening of Father Alameida committing suicide, Frankie experiencing strange occurrences at the salon where she works, some of the more extreme shots, and the intended downbeat ending which was replaced with a happier one. All the controversy worked in the film’s favour as Stigmata, produced for $29, earned $90 at the box office.
It’s over ten minutes before the main credits come up, though we get a few titles during the early scenes taking place in Belo Quinto. You could say that a slow motion funeral parade begins the pop video feel, but it’s also slightly dreamlike and just after that we also get an excellent use of sudden sound, which actually made me jump, when loads of birds suddenly turn up during the funeral ceremony, which is of course for Father Paulo Alameida. After Father Andrew Kiernan has seen the statue bleeding, we get the main titles are a series of extremely fast and sometimes blurry images, chiefly of Frankie Page and giving us a sense of her fast-paced, party-filled life style, but with lots of religious icons mixed in there too. It’s quite a visual onslaught but very well put together. Now I thought that Frankie is seen having a one night stand here, the alterations made to make it clear that the guy is her casual boyfriend certainly not making it clear for me, especially as they removed a later scene with him in. Soon after, she amusingly begins to make a pass at Kiernan when he enters the hairdressing/tattoo salon where she works. He’s just there to find out why she’s being attacked by some invisible force, and these scenes pack quite a punch, even if Wainwright is a little too fond of cutting in other images into the main action. The nastiest attack is when Frankie’s on a train and is viciously whipped while the train seems to go out of control. The flashing lights and the helplessness of Frankie pack quite a punch.
Of course this isn’t all that’s going on. Frankie thinks that she’s pregnant, something that suddenly disappeared from the narrative just as expected some Rosemary’s Baby-type stuff to come along. Her feelings about this are hauntingly but beautifully shown when she looks out of a window and sees a vision of herself on the other side of a road. She’s dressed in a blue raincoat holding a baby dressed in red which she then drops, something which to me either represents her considering having an abortion or a vision of the Virgin Mary and the Blood of Christ. Then there’s the fact that the organisation Kiernan works for seem a bit secretive and doesn’t seem awfully pleased with what he’s beginning to find out. Matters end up tipping their toes into Da Vinci Code-type areas, never a good thing though Stigmata is still more intelligent than that dull nonsense. How much you buy into it all may partly depend on whether you’re Christian or not, and even what type of Christian you are if you are indeed one. As a once-Catholic who lapsed in his mid teens, I found its message of not needing a building to believe in God worthy of some consideration, though neither could I take too seriously a film which seems to confuse stigmata with possession and as something that can be passed on via a rosary, even if the obligatory exorcism sequence is a bit different from most of the ones you’ve seen because the traditional roles of good and evil are reversed.
We get a few moments of quiet for our couple, one of them requested by Gabriel Byrne who wanted more background for his character, and they do give off just a little bit of sexual tension throughout, though rather more time is devoted to Frankie walking around in the streets, alone in the crowd, with everything looking blue, or Frankie sitting alone while several shots of her dissolve into others. A scene when Frankie is possessed in her apartment ends in an effectively unusual way when some water from a leak drips on to her face to wash away the [quite subtle] old age make up, after which Frankie awakes to feel rather refreshed. The unusual cinematography by Jeffrey L. Kimball, created in the same manner as that of Seven by not bleach bathing the film, is often very dark, removing any bright or vivid colours, and some shots are extremely soft and grainy, almost looking like 16 mm, which I’m totally sure was intentional rather than Eureka Entertainment not doing their job properly. Not every visual device works and I got tired of the constant quick shots of nails being hammered into wrists [this film goes with the theory that Jesus was crucified with nails through his wrists rather than the palms of his hands, and it’s the theory I certainly find more believable] and such, but at least we’re usually given something interesting to look at even when the script is getting confused. The rather strange feeling of alienation all this provides is increased by the score from The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Morgan, Elia Cmirasl and Mike Garcon, full of alternately melancholy and agitated piano, odd vocals and sinister beats, the effect enhanced by overlaying some tracks on top of others, while the songs from the likes of David Bowie, Massive Attack and Sinead O’ Connor are excellently chosen.
Though this isn’t at all her best role that I’ve seen her play, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Patricia Arquette as good as she is in this film, her punky, ‘live for the moment’ character [she has a really great bit where she says “I love my life” and you can tell it’s not entirely true without this being overstated] becoming more and more vulnerable as the film progresses without it seeming forced. Meanwhile Byrne, much of whose dialogue was cut out, projects a great deal of thought and emotion without saying much. The two stars go a long way to make Stigmata as good as it is and it wouldn’t work nearly as well without them. In truth Stigmata is an odd, awkward picture, and, while I was watching it, I kept wondering if it would have been better if it had stuck to the idea of stigmata and developed that rather than bringing in all this other stuff. But one has to admire a little a mainstream Hollywood picture that attempts to show a spiritual awakening in the guise of a horror movie….and which is pro-Christian without becoming a straight forward faith movie. It did make me think about belief and worship, and provided me with some vivid imagery, and I guess that’s quite good really.
Due to the particular look of the film as described above, Eureka’s Blu-ray of Stigmata may come across as a poor transfer, but, as Wainwright describes on his commentary, things like the excess contrast boosting and softness of the image were clearly what he intended. It’s an interesting looking disc and an example of how the more obvious ways by which we determined the quality of the presentation of a film on this format are not neccessarily the only ones. The special features replicate the UK DVD, so we don’t get the History Channel programme that was on the Region ‘A’ Scream Factory Blu-ray [no loss to me, I tend to find their style rather grating]. The deleted scenes, described earlier in this review, despite looking very rough, should to my mind have remained in the picture. In particular, the sadder and longer ending is rather beautifully done and matches the tone of the rest of the film. Those damn preview audiences! For some reason, this alternate ending is included twice on the Blu-ray, once in the deleted scenes section and once on its own. The DVD had an option to watch the film with this ending but that option doesn’t seem to exist on the Blu-ray. The director commentary, which I had time to hear all of for once, is very technically detailed and Wainwright is good to listen to with his “this is my favourite scene” every ten minutes, though I wish he’d gone into things like the project’s inception and argued his case for the more questionable elements of the story.
*1080p High Definition transfer
*5.1 and uncompressed stereo soundtrack options
*Isolated music & effects track
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Feature-length audio commentary with director Rupert Wainwright
*Divine Rights: The Story of Stigmata
*Music Video – “Identify” By Natalie Imbruglia
*Original theatrical trailer