Published Jun 01, 2015In the late '90s and the early part of the 2000s, the religious horror film made a minor resurgence. The genre had been wildly successful in the late '60s and throughout the '70s, playing off timely cultural anxieties stemming from the death of ubiquitous Judeo-Christian ethos, but it never really picked up again in the Internet age.
Contextually, this makes sense. The '80s had moved past the crisis-of-faith panic to focus on the crisis-of-family. Horror has always been the most superficial of genres, reflecting the basic fears of cultural shifts, reacting to problems inherent in society. This is why the self-conscious horror of the '90s matched a socio-normative climate of introspection and the recent obsession with found footage or "reality" horror touches on our collective base anxieties about the nature of mass surveillance and observation amidst rapid technological advancement.
Amidst these trends are the inevitable throwbacks. Filmmakers (particularly male filmmakers) are, by nature, nostalgic creatures. When they start making movies, their initial instinct is to romanticize the movies they grew up with, which is why we're seeing a resurgence of the '80s adventure template, adult sex comedies and superhero movies: it's what men in their thirties and forties grew up with. In the late '90s, the generation entering the filmmaking world had grown up with religious horror. This is why mostly laughable movies like Stigmata were made.
When Stigmata was being released, there was a huge publicity push on MTV. Billy Corgan had handled scoring and music duties, while Rupert Wainwright had directed numerous N.W.A. and MC Hammer music videos. The chrome filtered aesthetic and rapid onslaught of edits and stylizations were also noted in the publicity materials, citing this rather disorganized and disconnected feature as a work of modernist music video ethos — an Exorcist for the MTV generation.
In this assertion, the marketing team was correct. Wainwright's first "legitimate" feature film — he'd helmed some high concept Disney fluff prior — was a desultory mishmash of music montages and forced juxtaposition. As Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette), a chain-smoking, free-spirited hairdresser in Pittsburgh, starts developing signs of stigmata (she's pierced through the wrists in her bathtub and whipped by a phantom on a crowded subway), the rapid insertion of religious imagery makes the present action incoherent. And when Frankie isn't being graphically tortured, she's walking around the city in an endless series of musical montages that glibly personify her character as a promiscuous flake with a punk edge.
Amusingly, despite the faux-feminist movement circling around mainstream film at the time, Stigmata stuck to some very outdated ideas of feminine performance. Though the basic story fancies itself progressive for making the protagonist a sinner, the basic template suggests that Frankie is being punished by God for being sexually reckless. Early on, before she starts being repeatedly stabbed and shouting at strangers in Aramaic, she thinks she might be pregnant, and it's implied that she wouldn't know who the father was. This injects a bit of (more interesting) subtext about the idea of motherhood as a possession of sorts. After this potential pregnancy is revealed, Frankie's body starts going through an endless array of punishments and she's left detached from her rational self.
While the idea of stigmata as an allegory for pregnancy is interesting, the film leans more towards traditionalist thought. Once Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) enters the picture, drawn to Frankie because of his investigation of unexplained religious imagery throughout the world, the basic suggestion is that this woman is a victim of an inherently flawed and corrupt Catholic system. Her cure: a true man of God.
It's as insulting as it is ridiculous, but Stigmata isn't exactly looking to reinvent the narrative wheel. Even for its time, this blasé thriller was mocked for its simplicity and uncreative reiteration of genre tropes. What exacerbated this was Wainwright's try-hard style, which does nothing to mask the flimsy story. Even though Arquette did an admirable job trying to inject some humanity into her shell of a character, the end product was still pretty stagnant. If anything, Stigmata is merely a good example of how edgy attempts at modernism can often miss the mark.
The Blu-ray includes a commentary track with Wainwright, as well as some poorly produced conspiratorial fluff about reported incidents of stigmata. There's also a Natalie Imbruglia video for the handful of people that remember who she is.