Movie horror has done a bit of shape-shifting in recent months, abandoning the corpses of "Scream" and its silly slasher kin in favor of such vessels of the supernatural as The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, The Haunting and Stir of Echoes. Frightening notions about the spirit world, it seems, are often scarier than bimbos and pretty boys in peril.
"Stigmata" occupies a separate supernatural horror subgenre, if you will, one that might be referred to as God (and/or the Catholic Church) vs. the Horned One. The nominal thriller, starring Patricia Arquette as a carefree party girl suddenly afflicted with the wounds of Christ, desperately wants to be a pseudo-religious spookfest on the order of such truly frightening '70s classics as "The Exorcist" or "The Omen."
Director Rupert Wainwright ("Blank Check"), screenwriters Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage and a cast that includes such notables as Gabriel Byrne and Jonathan Pryce, sadly enough have turned out a movie more akin to 1988's laborious "The Seventh Sign" or 1997's campy "The Devil's Advocate" than anything truly disturbing.
Liberally ladled piles of mumbo jumbo, cool and occasionally bloody special effects, flashing pyrotechnics, buckets of rainwater, a throbbing techno soundtrack created by Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins and a plot ultimately implicating the Vatican unfortunately aren't enough to counter the ill effects of strangely enervated performances by Arquette and Byrne, and a storyline that's less than suspenseful.
A prologue offers an intriguing setup, as we observe a funeral mass at a church in remote southeastern Brazil. Parishioners are caught up in various stages of religious ecstasy. Blood trickles from the eyes of a statue of the Virgin Mary. What's it all mean?
Back in the big city (Pittsburgh trying to groove like New York), vivacious 20-something hairdresser Frankie (Arquette) is living the wild life, partying hard at trendy dance clubs with co-workers Donna (NIA Long) and Jennifer (Port de Rossi), and hoping to figure out the intentions of sometime boyfriend Steven (Patrick Mullion). "Stigmata" even hints at "Rosemary's Baby," with a possible pregnancy, but thankfully stops short of heading in that direction.
Life is sweet enough for Frankie, until the fateful evening when a soothing bath, in a tub surrounded by dozens of softly lit candles, is interrupted by a strange attack of unseen forces, which continue to escalate in ways that owe something to "The Exorcist." Along the way, Frankie reveals her special talent as a writer and speaker of 1st century Galleon Aramaic. That's the language that was spoken by Jesus, according to some scholars.
Andrew Keidanren (Byrne), a scientist-turned-priest whose mission is to check out reported miracles around the globe, is dispatched by Vatican official Cardinal Horseman (Pryce) to investigate Frank's strange malady, which leads to suspicions of high-level corruption within the church.
The filmmakers bend over backward to connect Frank's bizarre experiences with the work of the priest whose death was being mourned at the film's start. And real, historical stigmatics are discussed, but there are too many connections that are not satisfactorily explained -- like how a self-described atheist might undergo such an experience, which previously were documented as happening only to the devout.
Then again, God (and Satan, in this case) works in mysterious ways. Maybe a leap of faith, or a simple suspension of disbelief, is all that's required to allow Stigmata to work its intended spell on us. It didn't work for me.