Stigmata (1999)

I always remember this haunting the shelves of video shops alongside End of Days at the turn of the millennium so there was certainly a twinge of VHS nostalgia pulsing through my veins upon hitting play.

Stigmata is a stimulating visual experience, though dated somewhat by the rock video filmmaking which rose to prominence in the 90s. With the advent of digital editing systems, filmmakers could go cut-crazy and layer all kinds of shots over one another until their heart’s content. It wasn’t long until a new hyper-reality started to dominate genre storytelling, with ferocious, flashy editing patterns, attacking sound design and helter skelter camerawork trumping slower, more cerebral shock tactics; all things which Stigmata is shamelessly guilty of.

There’s texture here though. The New York of Stigmata is icy, chilly, drenched in blue and dominated by pierced and tattooed subcultures as well as grafitti’d back alleys. It’s all on the brink of chaos and collapse. Our heroine is a goth-rock Patricia Arquette who works in a piercing salon. She suddenly becomes tormented by violent hallucinations and suffers symptoms of stigmata which gains the attention of the Vatican and Gabriel Byrne’s conflicted priest. The scene in which they first meet – think “Priest walks into a tattoo parlour” – captures the essence of Stigmata in microcosm. Seeing these two contrasting characters sit down and discuss their issues brings the film together. It’s so good in fact that I almost wish it’s all that existed. Arquette and Byrne both dig into the material, taking it seriously but not too seriously. They’re very good.

At a certain point I started to tune out of the plot and just enjoy the film’s aggressive visuals. Arquette’s visions are similar to watching the first three Hellraiser movies at 1000x speed – all punishing, stabbing cuts, fierce sound and slashes of blood and frenzied eyeballs rendered in blown-out whites, deep blacks and muted colours. Again, there’s probably a fun version of Stigmata that is just these sequences strung together as some kind of wild extended montage of religious violence in ’99 New York; all set to Billy Corgan’s score. It’d make a good companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead too (which would certainly be the A picture in the double bill), as a more sensationalised genre-bred vision of the big apple ravaged by rot and catholic guilt. The fact Arquette stars in both only makes the connection stronger. It’s fun to imagine the two films as parallel stories of twin sisters. While Arquette in Stigmata is being ravaged by the devil, her sister is across town having a cigarette outside a hospital with Nic Cage’s ambulance driver. THAT’S THE KIND OF SHIT I THOUGHT ABOUT WHILE WATCHING THIS MOVIE.

In short, Stigmata is every bit the 1999 prestige horror pic it’s remembered as, if it’s remembered at all that is. It aint bad for the 100 minutes it’s on and has some entertainingly committed performances from the two leads but it never rises above its flashy, ferocious exterior. I need to rewatch End of Days now.

Watched on Eureka Classics blu-ray.

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