The problem with exorcism movies is they generally tend to follow a rigid script dictated by the success of The Exorcist: an innocent is possessed, a religious figure has to triumph over doubt and the end is a big free-for-all between God’s human agent and a demon or the Devil itself. Most movies in this subgenre either rehash those beats or just try to tart them up with a gimmick like the “found footage” style. Stigmata represents an interesting alternative to this norm: while it doesn’t totally abandon the Exorcist template, it does take it in an interesting and challenging direction.
The protagonist of Stigmata is Father Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), an investigator for the Vatican who uses his scientific prowess to disprove fraudulent miracles. He meets his match when he discovers a statue in a recently deceased priest’s church that cries tears of blood. Cardinal Houseman (Jonathan Pryce) calls him off that case to investigate a new case of Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette), a woman experiencing stigmata. This is doubly shocking as she is an atheist — but as her symptoms multiply and grow in intensity, Kiernan discovers her case is linked to that of the crying statue and he might be uncovering secrets that the Cardinal doesn’t want revealed.
Stigmata is an interesting mix of commercial concerns and gutsy, often subversive religious themes. On the commercial side, the film moves fast and, though not gory, it has a visceral touch in how it handles the terror and pain Frankie feels when her affliction overcomes her, resulting in several visually striking setpieces. Rupert Wainwright’s direction throughout feels like what might have happened if Tony Scott ever made a horror film, piling on the fast edits and ambitious image manipulation to create an intense, unsettling atmosphere. The score, co-composed by Billy Corgan, adds a rich sonic texture to this atmosphere.
That said, it’s the actual content of the storyline that makes Stigmata fascinating. The script by Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage draws on real religious phenomena from the world while also constructing a conspiracy theory subplot that addresses a lot of shared suspicions about the nature of organized religion. This allows it to be daringly critical of the Catholic Church and, on a general level, how mankind often ruins the purity of religion in their quest to organize it. This is heady material for a Hollywood-level horror film and it is to the filmmakers’ credit that they don’t cop out on its thoughtfulness. Even the expected horror/thriller finale is informed by a philosophical bent.
Finally, Stigmata also boasts strong performances across the board. Byrne brings both gravitas and warmth to his role as a religious figure who is still searching for satisfaction in his faith. Arquette is interesting as his worldly counterbalance, a woman who spurns conventional morality yet is still presented as a decent, intelligent person. It’s worth noting that she really throws herself into the religious experience scenes with both physical and mental dedication, making sure they connect with the viewer. Elsewhere, Pryce is compelling as the domineering, secretive Cardinal and there’s a nice turn from Rade Serbedzija as a mysterious figure whose knowledge helps Kiernan in figuring out the story’s strange phenomena.
In short, Stigmata is less of a straight horror movie and more a film that uses the elements of the exorcism movie to explore ambitious ideas about Christianity and its origins. If you’re tired of the same old Exorcist imitations, this is a stylish and thoughtful replacement for the usual cheap thrills.