‘Stigmata’: A Criminally Underrated Religious Horror Film
I have heard the ‘90s referred to as a lost decade for horror. But I think that assessment is a bit shortsighted. We’re talking about the time period that gifted us with Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Frighteners, Candyman, The Craft, New Nightmare, Misery, Dead Alive, Silence of the Lambs, and so many more. Sure, there are some misfires that saw release in the ‘90s. And it’s true that the slasher genre took a downturn between the late ‘80s and the release of Scream in 1996. But the ‘90s actually proved to be a pretty stellar decade.
While Stigmata may not be one of the more celebrated titles of the aforementioned time period, I think it deserves far greater acclaim. Rupert Wainwright’s supernatural horror is a chilling and visually appealing affair. And seeing as the flick observed a release date anniversary on September 10, there’s no more perfect time than the present to show this underrated effort a little love.
Stigmata follows Frankie (Patricia Arquette), a hairdresser living her best life in Pittsburgh. She works at a trendy salon and her coworkers are just as chic and fashion-forward as she. At the onset of the film, Frankie’s biggest worry in the world is that her boyfriend doesn’t seem to take their relationship as seriously as she’d like. But when Frankie’s mother sends a mysterious rosary as a gift from her travels, Frankie’s world is turned upside down. She becomes stigmatic and suffers violent hallucinations. Frankie eventually joins forces with Father Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), the priest sent to investigate the cause of her stigmata, and the pair work together to uncover what evil has taken hold of this fabulous young woman.
While I will be the first to admit that Stigmata may not give The Exorcist a run for its money, this supernatural chiller is still a much better cinematic offering than it gets credit for being. Upon retrospective viewing, the film effectively captures the look, feel, and sound of the ‘90s, complete with plastic footwear, leather pants, inflatable furniture, and music by Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins fame.
Speaking of the film’s depiction of the era in which it unfolds, the picture’s set design is spot on. Many of the spaces featured are like eye candy. I vividly remember being envious of Frankie’s loft when I first saw the film. It looks like it was furnished by the ghost of Andy Warhol. I’m not entirely sure how Frankie is able to afford such a swanky pad working as a hair stylist but I will gladly suspend my disbelief in exchange for the opportunity to ogle her stylish home.
There’s more to Frankie than just a great loft space, however. She also serves as a compelling protagonist with some exceptionally memorable dialogue courtesy of screenwriters Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage. One of my favorite exchanges occurs when Frankie is admitted to the hospital with wounds in both of her wrists. The doctor draws the logical conclusion that the injuries are self-inflicted, which Frankie indignantly denies, responding: “I love being me. Ask anyone.”
That single line of dialogue sums Frankie up pretty effectively. She’s spunky, sarcastic, self-confident, and unpredictable. I immediately connected with her the first time I watched Stigmata and I continue to find her an accessible lead more than two decades on from the film’s initial release.
Another aspect of the Frankie character that works well for me (and for the film) is her status as an atheist. The realization that she isn’t religious only adds to the intrigue. As someone not affiliated with any particular faith, I sometimes find myself struggling to invest in religious horror films. There’s an underlying notion that what I don’t subscribe to can’t hurt me. So, the idea that this spiritual presence haunting Frankie is able to reach a non-believer raises the stakes, signaling that this evil is bigger than faith. And it is that very distinction that makes this film resonate with me.
I further appreciate the fact that Stigmata isn’t afraid to paint Catholicism in a less-than-complimentary light. The Catholic faith and its practitioners are the real villains of the piece. And that is a pretty bold stance for a big-budget release, circa 1999. But it’s a bold choice that makes the film relatable to a much larger audience.
All in all, Stigmata may not be perfect but it’s a chilling supernatural thriller that is far better than its critical reception would lead a person to believe. If you’ve steered clear of the flick based on its reputation as a dud, I implore you to give it a second look. If you’re inclined to do so, you can find the film streaming on YouTube, Pluto, Tubi, The Roku Channel, and Prime Video as of the publication of this post.