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 Stigmata-posit 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 imaStigmata-01ge 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.

Stigmata-02Finally, 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.