In a prologue set in Brazil, an American woman purchases a rosary that once belonged to the recently deceased Father Alameida (Jack Donner), his body now lying in a coffin in a nearby church as the statue of Mary stands beside him crying tears of blood. Switch to the forever-rainswept city of Pittsburgh, 23-year-old beautician Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette) receives a box of gifts in the mail from her vacationing mother, including said rosary. Soon after, Frankie is attacked in her bathtub by an unknown force that causes her wrists to bleed straight through, as if large nails have been hammered into her. At the hospital, the wounds are suspected to be self-inflicted, despite Frankie's argument that she loves herself and has no stress ("I cut hair!"). Before long, she is being tortured with slash marks across her back and thorn cuts on her forehead as an unknown supernatural entity has her writing and speaking in ancient Aramaic. Enter Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), an unlikely priest/scientist from the Vatican who travels to Pittsburgh to help Frankie. His guess is that she has the curse of the stigmatathat is, the inflicted wounds of Christ. Having already received four of the five major wounds, she is in grave danger if it occurs again. There's just one catch: stigmatics are always highly religious individuals, and Frankie is an atheist.
"Stigmata" is a brutal, oft-unpleasant thriller, punctuated by quick cutting and a loud late-'90s alternative soundtrack. When I saw the film in theaters in September 1999, its ceaseless stylizations felt more like an ordeal than a complement to the story. Revisiting it over fifteen years later, it is more quaint, even charming, as a product of its time. The decade and a half since the film's release has not, however, fixed the picture's goofy script and some fairly obvious post-production tinkering. In scene after scene, we watch Frankie being graphically mutilated by something we cannot see, and while it sometimes is powerful and unsettling, that mostly results from all of the bloodletting. In between, there are few scenes of necessary character-building. When these do finally come, they are inevitably cut short by Frankie getting pierced through yet another body part as red stuff splashes this way and that. Screenwriters Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage go particularly off the wall with their disregard for natural everyday logic. When Frankie returns home after a harrowing evening at the hospital, she is told by best friend Donna (Nia Long) to come to bed as water cascades from her bathroom ceiling and pools of blood from her earlier attack permeate untouched on the tile floor. When Donna asks her put-upon pal if she needs anything as they settle in for the night, one half-expects Frankie to reply, "Yeah, bitch, a plumber."
Patricia Arquette, who was 31 during filming, doesn't always convincingly pass for a 23-year-old as Frankie, but she tries her best with a character who is at the mercy of underdeveloped writing and the unforgiving torments of an invisible evil. Gabriel Byrne further classes things up as Father Andrew Kiernan, a priest dedicated to his profession, to be sure, but not enough to turn away from a romantic subplot between himself and Frankie. Byrne exudes an inner strength and intelligence as he essays a figure of faith who nonetheless continues to search for further meaning from science. At times, the repetitive violence filling the screen grows tedious, and the supporting players may have helped break up the grisliness of the proceedings. Sadly, the rest of the cast is severely wasted, with Nia Long (a fine actress in her own right) falling noticeable victim to the cutting-room floor as she disappears in the second act never to be seen or heard from again.
As "Stigmata" plays out its bag of tricks, continuously growing more and more ludicrous before collapsing altogether in its fire-and-brimstone climactic exorcism, it becomes readily apparent that there were too many cooks in the kitchen with differing viewpoints on what the film should be. If certain story developments and character interactions are especially unrewarding, and the city of Pittsburgh is laughably depicted as a foreboding place of misery where it never stops raining, director Rupert Wainwright does earn points for the overall gothic mood he builds and his consistently choice music selections from artists as varied as Natalie Imbruglia, Bjork, Remy Zero, Chumbawumba and David Bowie. "Stigmata" is an inferior variation on "The Exorcist"or is it more like "Exorcist II: The Heretic?"but seeing it in 2015, its polished throwback feel to a personally nostalgic decade gone by makes its messiness somehow a little more forgivable.