Visually stimulating films are generally the easiest to critique. The reason for this phenomenon is that most filmmakers tend to concentrate primarily upon action, cinematography, or special effects and all too often lose focus on plot, which is a key element in the success of a film. This has happened so frequently in past years that I can now determine within the first ten minutes whether a movie will disappear into that vast black hole of forgettable lackluster science-fiction/horror films of the nineties or have some potential for long-term success.
The upside to this way of thinking is that when you get a film that combines great visuals with a decent plot then you can have an extremely entertaining product along the lines of an Event Horizon or The Matrix. Luckily for us, Stigmata, directed by Rupert Wainwright (The Sadness of Sex, Blank Check) is one of those films that successfully molds story line with powerful visuals to make for an entertaining and eerie adventure. It's like watching a two-hour music video on MTV. An exciting fusion of neo-punk culture combined with ancient religious rites.
Patricia Arquette (Flirting With Disaster, Goodbye Lover) stars as Frankie Page, a vivacious and forthright Pittsburgh hairdresser whose life is turned upside down by unexplained phenomena. After several paranormal incidents in which she bleeds from her hands, becomes frantic with disturbing visions, and almost drowns as she becomes entranced in the bathtub; her relationships with her best friend, Donna (Nia Long), her boyfriend, (Patrick Muldoon), and her life are all in jeopardy.
When a local priest witnesses yet another inexplicable paranormal attack on a subway train, word is sent to Rome where Cardinal Houseman (Jonathan Pryce) sends Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne - Enemy of the State, The Usual Suspects) to Pittsburgh to investigate. Kiernan is a scientist who as a member of the Church's Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints researches fictitious miracles and disproves unexplained phenomena. Little does he know that Frankie Page is already expecting him and when the two meet, and he sees first hand the trouble that she is in, he becomes devoted to caring and watching over her as they must face her frightening ordeal together.
In order to enjoy this film you have to put common sense aside. After all, it's sci-fi drama mixed with horror. I said the plot was good enough to make the film enjoyable, but the film is far from groundbreaking. Unfortunately, the acting is what will really keep this movie at sub-par status. Patricia Arquette's character isn't too smart to begin with, so she's perfect for the role. To her credit, she manages to stay attractive even with a possessed and badly beaten body (unlike the girl from The Exorcist) although quite a few of her lines are so sappy that they are almost insulting. Gabriel Byrne, with his typical withdrawn demeanor, flubs his way through the role of scientist/priest confronted with the temptations of lust while questioning his calling to faith. Rade Sheredgia and Jonathan Pryce, on the other hand, turn in commendable supporting roles.
The cinematography (Director of Photography - Jefferey L. Kimball) must also be recognized for its powerful imagery contrasting color, lighting, and symbolism to convey the dark and ethereal tones. Most noticeable are the transitions with blood and/or water dripping onto the floor, often in reverse-motion at various points. Plus, there are several excellent tracking shots that put the audience right at the heart of the action. In addition to the excellent photography, the soundtrack put together by Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins and Elia Cmiral (Ronin) complements the supernatural feel of the film well.
All in all, this is a potentially entertaining movie that is as enjoyable as the viewer will allow it to be.
The Exorcist 20 years later? You decide.