Granted that this film is basically a remake/reinterpretation/rip-off of The Exorcist, I have to confess that I rather liked it, although even now I’m not entirely sure why. Possibly it was the result of going to see it with no expectations whatsoever. The advance word was discouraging, the reviews negative, and the word of mouth non-existent, since no-one I knew had bothered seeing it. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that I was unexpectedly engaged by it. Perhaps the appeal of Stigmata lies in the fact that it deals with its subject matter in a perfectly serious manner. Admittedly, that seriousness does tip over into self-importance on a fairly regular basis (but then, the same could be said about The Exorcist), but it was nevertheless refreshing to see a horror movie free of that annoying nudge-nudge wink-wink at the audience that is so much a part of the genre these days. Again, Stigmata’s outbursts of violence are disturbing, and intended to be so, with no suggestion that they’re there merely to pander to the sadistic impulses of the viewer. The only leaven in the film’s dark tone comes when its central character, Pittsburgh hairdresser Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette), ends up in the emergency room after a mysterious force drives holes through both her wrists. "Ooh, look," marvels Frankie’s doctor, "it only bleeds when I touch it!" "Maybe you should stop touching it," hisses her unfortunate patient. Then, convinced that Frankie has somehow inflicted the wounds upon herself, her doctor inquires whether she is under too much stress at work. "I cut hair," replies poor Frankie, unanswerably. This brief flash of black humour is short-lived. After Frankie suffers a bizarre vision while at work, the film’s tone becomes one of unrelieved darkness. In some respects, Stigmata follows its model with uncomfortable exactness. An innocent bystander becomes possessed by an inexplicable force; is subjected to a battery of medical tests that cannot explain her condition (this sequence never reaches the levels of horror achieved by Regan’s spinal tap, but it does manage to make a glaucoma test look like medieval torture); and finally is investigated by a priest suffering a crisis of faith. When it does deviate from its source, however, Stigmata manages to achieve an unsettling edge all its own. The underlying premise of the film is the existence of a gospel that may have been written by Jesus Himself; one which states that the Church, as an institution, is unnecessary; and which the Vatican, not surprisingly, is prepared to go to any lengths to suppress. One on side of the battle we have a group of priests led by Cardinal Houseman (played by Jonathan Pryce in one of Stigmata’s major flaws – one glance at him is enough to tell the viewer he’s the film’s villain), and on the other, Father Pablo Alameida, who escaped to South America with the gospel in question, but died without being able to make his message public. Caught between the two is Frankie, who becomes the victim of the sins of the fathers (parents, anyway) when her mother, in a perfectly believable piece of tourist-like arrogance and disrespect, buys Father Alameida’s rosary and sends it to her daughter as a present. As a result, the atheistic Frankie becomes afflicted by stigmata, the physical manifestation of the wounds of Christ; something both medical science and the church are at a loss to explain. (One of the more pleasing aspects of the film is that, although Frankie does begin to feel that "God hates me", there is never any real suggestion that she personally is being punished for something, whether it be her atheism, her sexual conduct, or her hedonistic lifestyle.) When the truth does finally emerge, it is a discomforting one: that Frankie is indeed possessed, not by a demonic force, but by the spirit of Father Alameida. The first coherent sentence spoken by the possessed Frankie is, The messenger is not important. In other words, this supposedly holy man dedicated to making public the true word of Jesus is perfectly prepared to put an innocent young woman through unendurable agony - perhaps even take her life – in order to get his message across. (It’s about this point in the film when you start to wonder what Jesus might have to say about any of the people meant to be representing Him on Earth.) Standing between Frankie and her seemingly unavoidable fate is doubting priest Father Andrew Kiernan. As played by Gabriel Byrne at his most charming (and with his natural accent - sigh....), Andrew Kiernan is one of the more interesting aspects of the film – and may actually be the real reason I liked it. Quizzed by Frankie regarding his vocation, Kiernan reveals that he was, at one time, a scientist – not just a scientist, in fact, but – wait for it! - an organic chemist (hee, hee! Hey – I liked organic chemistry, okay?), who turned to the Church when he found that science couldn’t answer all his questions. Unfortunately, the Church couldn’t answer them either, leaving Kiernan uncomfortably situated as the Vatican’s professional debunker of "miracles", his superiors employing him for his "scientific objectivity", rather than a faith that has long since waned. At all times, an aura of ambiguity hovers around the priest; his motives are never made entirely clear. Although Kiernan’s answers to Frankie’s questions are glib enough, it is never certain whether he has told her the truth, or whether the accusations that Frankie throws at him in one of her fits of possession are closer to the mark. Similarly, we are never quite sure whether Frankie’s attempted seduction of Kiernan is her own idea, or done at the prompting of her demon/angel, or a mixture of both. (This brutally violent scene leads to a touching conclusion when both Frankie and Kiernan, physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, sink into sleep side by side on Frankie’s bed – in which innocent but hopelessly compromising position they are caught by the sinfully gleeful Houseman.) The character of Kiernan is the key to the film. Stigmata, again like The Exorcist, is not really about the person possessed, but about the man trying to help her: once again the body and soul of a girl is used as a battleground by warring spiritual forces; and a wavering priest has his faith restored not through his own suffering, but through witnessing the torments of someone else. And torments Frankie does suffer, until her death seems momentarily imminent (Kiernan tells her that no-one has ever suffered all five wounds; but given that early on he also told her that stigmata only afflict the deeply religious [stigmartyrs?], this is less than reassuring). Ultimately, the question is whether Kiernan can regain his faith strongly enough to save Frankie’s life, and possibly her soul. Derivative Stigmata certainly is, then, but not entirely negligible. The main problem with it - a far more serious one than its lack of originality - is that this is an "MTV-film" if ever there was one. The fact that Stigmata’s soundtrack (by Billy Corgan) got more advance publicity than the film itself is a dead giveaway. The editing throughout is obnoxiously "arty", slamming a jumble of images at the audience with a deliberate flashiness that induces headaches, not admiration. The sound design is equally jolting, with far too many of the film’s shocks consisting of noises that are veryverysudden and VERY VERY LOUD. Stigmata cheats with respect to its atmosphere, too (at least, I think so - or does it really rain incessantly in Pittsburgh?), while Frankie’s snazzy apartment is hardly a credible residence for someone who "cuts hair" (not to mention that she has one of those cavernous movie bathrooms, inevitably lit by about a hundred candles). On the other hand, the film’s production design is gorgeous, the cinematography quite beautiful, and much of the imagery striking and imaginative. Patricia Arquette doesn’t get much more chance to act here than Linda Blair did, but she and her stunt double must have gone through hell making this one (I got the impression that Arquette, to her credit, did a fair bit of the physical stuff herself). Gabriel Byrne is the best thing about Stigmata, though, maintaining throughout the straight face that somehow eluded him while he was making End Of Days. Speaking of which, weren’t those two films released here in the wrong order? It should have been Gabriel Byrne as doubting priest, then Gabriel Byrne as Satan, surely...?

And You Call Yourself a Scientist