(Rupert Wainwright, USA, 1999)


Although some future historians of the cinema may not be able to see it, a revolution in film language has steadily manifested itself in that most despised of genres – the horror movie.

Since at least Hellraiser (1987), English-language horror movies have become often exhilarating exercises in high style (as they have been in Italian popular cinema since the '60s). Borrowing techniques – and aspiring filmmakers – from the realms of advertising and music video, the genre has exploded with cascades of light, wildly discontinuous editing, orgies of slow motion and wall-to-wall contemporary music.

This operatic style meshes well, paradoxically, with the monotonous, glassy-eyed, slasher/serial killer element introduced into the horror-thriller genre in the late '70s. In films like The Crow (1994), storylines become reduced to mere patterns or pretexts – the same event occurs over and over, but each time the camerawork, montage and soundtrack become more hysterically overwrought.

David Fincher's Seven (1995) single-handedly reinvigorated this cinematic revolution at the precise moment it was running out of steam. Harking back to the more sedate horror movies of the early '70s (like the Omen series), where every crime-scene clue was a mystical portent of some ancient curse or future apocalypse, Seven fashioned a dread-filled poetry out of the twin motifs of order and chaos.

All up, this trend in horror cinema has produced intriguing, intelligent movies, such as Candyman (1992), and many incoherent, bombastic cash-ins. Stigmata is somewhere in-between these two poles. Here is another film based on an inexorable pattern of religious signs – here, the gruesome stigmata that appear, one by one, upon the body of poor, innocent Frankie (Patricia Arquette).

Frankie is a punkish, raver type with a bed-partner so casual and indifferent that he doesn't even bother to ask about her saintly tortures. Father Kiernan, on the other hand – played by Gabriel Byrne, switching sides after his stint as Satan in End of Days (1999) – takes a more than professional interest in Frankie's woes.

Apart from being the Catholic Church's resident expert in Latin American weeping statues and the like, Kiernan is also undergoing – surprise, surprise – a crisis of faith. Little wonder, since his institutional masters (in an echo of John Carpenter's vastly underrated Vampires [1998]) seem more like conspiratorial gangsters than holy men.

Like us, Kiernan has a hard time interpreting what exactly Frankie may be the 'vessel' for. Is she about to give birth to a devil, or somehow open the gate of hell? The obscene, eerie voices and violent, provocative gestures emanating from her slender frame – obvious nods to that classic The Exorcist (1973) – would seem to suggest the worst.

On the other hand, Kiernan cannot ignore contradictory signs that relate to a mysterious, outlawed document – an unpublished Gospel that (rumour has it) contains the proclamations and predictions of Christ himself. Is Frankie a divine messenger for this dangerous, rebel wisdom? Or is that merely another devilish ruse?

On one level, Stigmata is a grand, sneaky exercise in narrative sleight-of-hand. Capitalising on the noisy, frenetic confusion of most modern horror movies, it tries to push every button and suggest any possible interpretation. One almost stops caring whether it is a matter of saints or sinners, apocalypse or rebirth, Heaven or Hell, vice or virtue. (Unsurprisingly, the DVD version offers an alternate ending.)

All the same, Stigmata, directed with verve by Rupert Wainwright, manages to be a gripping, intriguing and often exciting movie. It is never far from outright trashiness, but at least does not descend into camp jokiness. I am not certain it would make much sense on a second viewing, but first time through it is quite a wild ride.

© Adrian Martin January 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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