The Film: 2/5
1999 was a watershed year for cutting edge cinema that gleefully took a sledgehammer to all of the rules of narrative filmmaking. Over those twelve amazing months we were treated to The Matrix, Fight Club, Three Kings, and Magnolia. It was the year of Spike Jonze's first film, Being John Malkovich, and Stanley Kubrick's last, Eyes Wide Shut. Toy Story, The Iron Giant, and South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut raised the bar for feature animation. 1999 was a year of career-launching cult classics (Office Space, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) and sublime, overlooked gems (Bringing Out the Dead, The Minus Man). Not a month went by without some misses and the occasional hit. Then when the Oscars were awarded early the next year, the horribly dated (but visually striking) suburban satire American Beauty was anointed Best Picture of 1999.
That year also brought The Blair Witch Project, the brilliantly-marketed microbudget indie horror sensation that birthed the found footage genre (though Cannibal Holocaust beat it to the punch by two decades). Though the buzz on that flick had guaranteed its status as the hottest ticket in town on opening weekend, Hollywood was too busy attempting in vain to resurrect costly supernatural horror movies as viable box office prospects. The Exorcist had celebrated its 25th anniversary the previous year, so maybe that's why the studios suddenly had a case of effects-enhanced fright epics. Then again, the film industry has never fallen entirely out of love with the devil. It must be because Satan is so much easier to market to the masses. If the movie is centered around God and Christianity, they have to peddle that crap as specialty films.
Rupert Wainwright was a music video director with a few unexceptional film credits to his name when he took the helm of Stigmata, a half-baked attempt to bring together the addictive components of page-turning religious conspiracy literature and Exorcist-lite Satanspoitation in unholy matrimony and hope that a beautiful mutant baby will emerge from the union. Nice try, but no exploding cigar. When they weren't playing lesser-known G.I. Joe villains in their spare time as their names would indicate, screenwriters Tom Lazarus and Rick "The Ram" Ramage were amassing a considerable handful of forgettable screen credits. Together with Wainwright they would set out to make "meh" film history with their tawdry tale of an atheist hairdresser in Pittsburgh (sounds like a script John Landis couldn't get made even in his prime) who gets inappropriately touched by what cannot exactly be described as an angel.
After her tourist mum mails her a pilfered rosary from Brazil, Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette) starts to bleed from her head, hands, and feet. The increasingly vexing visits to the emergency room bring her case to the attention of handsome Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), the Vatican's resident investigator and expert on matters of religious artifacts. The never-seen Pope's number two man - and by that I mean he's a complete piece of shit - Cardinal Houseman (Jonathan Pryce) has empowered Father Kiernan to act as his own personal pious Man in Black, but instead of aliens the priest is sent all over the world to discredit miracles and any other signs that God is speaking through those who don't shield pedophiles and own hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate holdings. Kiernan has never experienced a case quite like Frankie's; the proud non-believer quickly goes from unexplained plasma seepage to barking vulgarities in a male voice and scrawling religious text in dead languages.
Whatever has taken up temporary residence in Frankie's soul is using her as a vessel to deliver a message unto humanity that could permanently reduce the Catholic Church to irrelevance. Then they would have less time and money to spend sending their media mouthpieces out to condemn the legalization of same sex marriage and abortion on Fox News. Houseman naturally can't allow this to happen, but he'll have to first contend with the smoldering gaze of Father Badass. The fate of the universe hinges on whether or not Dean Keaton can successfully wrestle Sam Lowry into quasi-submission while Alabama Worley remains tied to a bed as phantom fire threatens to consume them all.
Stigmata isn't a bad movie. It deserves at least one gold star for trying its little heart out, but the lackluster direction and uninspired script throttle what straggling virtues this movie contains until they pass out from lack of oxygen. Rupert Wainwright sucks as a director. Want further proof? He also made that CGI shitfest remake of John Carpenter's The Fog, and that understandably was the last feature film he ever called the shots on. If there is a God, Wainwright is at this very moment sitting in a dilapidated bedroom, watching The Omen, and trying to figure out where it all went wrong. At the core of Stigmata's plot is a potentially challenging story that dares to question if humanity has outgrown the very concept of organized religion. This could have been a thought-provoking and mesmerizing film, and quite a blasphemous one as well. Instead of that, Wainwright and his overpaid stenographers, no doubt acting on orders of the studio, turn their single interesting idea into the foundation on which they haphazardly constructed a schlocky, two-bit excuse for a horror flick. If that wasn't bad enough, they made it boring and then tried to conceal their complete failure with a bag full of fancy camera and editing tricks. Wainwright probably thought his music video training would come in handy here, but the dim lighting and multiple cuts take an already confusing and pointless narrative and reduce it to less than its bare essentials.
What are left with is a few decent performances from a fine cast that did what they could with what they were given. Front and center is recent Oscar honoree Patricia Arquette as the sympathetic heroine Frankie; she's very charming and gives the character a savvy yet open-minded personality that allows for her to shine through even as the script is hurtling her from one strange plot twist to the next. It's impossible for Gabriel Byrne to give a bad performance even in a lousy movie, and his natural chemistry with Arquette is the only memorable aspect of Stigmata. Jonathan Pryce is a hammy delight as the self-righteous villain Houseman. Nia Long (Friday), Rade Serbedzija (Eyes Wide Shut), and Enrico Colantoni (Veronica Mars) offer some solid work in the supporting cast. Shaun Toub (Iron Man) and Ann Cusack (Nightcrawler) pop up briefly as doctors Frankie encounters during the early stages of her stigmata, while Portia de Rossi (Arrested Development) puts in a brief appearance as one of her co-workers and Patrick Muldoon (Starship Troopers) sticks around just long enough for at least one member of the audience to wonder why that jerk who broke Kelly's heart on Saved by the Bell is fooling around with Patricia Arquette.
The rain-soaked cinematography by Jeffrey L. Kimball, who also photographed one of Arquette's best performances in the late Tony Scott's True Romance, is pretty good when it isn't being undermined by the mangled editing, as is the production design work of Waldemar Kalinowski (The Fast and the Furious). Kudos to Wainwright for teaming composer Elia Cmiral (Ronin, Battlefield Earth) with musician Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins to create an evocative, chamber piece soundtrack that remains consistently chilling even as the story refuses to stick to one tone.
I've never watched Stigmata on DVD before, but I can only imagine that the 1080p high-definition transfer prepared by MGM and presented on this Blu-ray by Shout! Factory and its genre shingle Scream Factory is a slight notch above DVD quality. It certainly feels like a simple upconvert from standard definition rather than a real transfer that would taken full advantage of the opportunities for improved picture quality that a spacious Blu-ray disc had to offer. What it has gained from the upgrade to HD is much grain featured prominently in the video and a noticeable decrease in sharpness. Colors are balanced, which comes in handy as the color scheme fluctuates depending on the scene. Although the aspect ratio is listed on the package as 1.85:1, Stigmata was actually filmed in 2.35:1 widescreen with Panavision lenses and Scream has taken the liberty of preserving the intended format of its filmmaker and studio. The explosive sound design and the often shouted and perplexing dialogue come through with refreshing clarity thanks to the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 channel that is low on distortion and features balanced volume levels. If you're not into blowing out your television speakers (not to mention your eardrums), the addition of a 2.0 audio track should suit your listening needs quite nicely. English subtitles have also been provided.
Most of the extras were ported over from MGM's 2000 Region 1 DVD release and include a passable director's commentary with Wainwright mostly describing the on-screen action while offering the occasional insight, a reel of deleted scenes and an alternate ending that would have concluded the film on a greater emotional note (13 minutes), a Natalie Imbruglia music video (4 minutes), and the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes). New to this release are a vintage behind-the-scenes documentary made to promote Stigmata (26 minutes) and a History Channel special about authentic stigmata cases (44 minutes). No fresh interviews were conducted. Reversible cover art is also included.
Stigmata could have been an audacious take on supernatural horror with its weighty thematic elements that demand greater exploration, but as this is a late-90's studio feature it fails to live up to those lofty expectations and rather seems content with being a simplistic exploitation flick. It has its fans, and bless its heart for being well-known enough to warrant a Blu-ray release. Now that I've watched Stigmata for this review, hopefully I will never have to do so for the rest of my life. Scream Factory's Blu-ray is now by default the best edition available on the market despite its mediocre a/v quality and a complete scarcity of in-depth supplements, so at least its admirers must find its meager qualities reason enough to give this a purchase.