“The kingdom of God is inside you and all around you, not in mansions made of wood and stone.”
Last night marked the first Movie Lottery disaster. Delving into the seemingly never-decreasing bag of options, the underrated body horror Teeth (2007) was selected but, after more than several minutes of hunting the shelves, I gave up. Teeth has vanished. It must be here somewhere, but this appears to be a sign that (a), we have too many DVDs and videos or (b), our half-hearted organisation decisions are lacking. Confident it will turn up eventually, possibly having hidden itself behind one of the piles in the same way that the utterly dreadful River of Darkness (2011) also did for over a year, it has been put back in the bag and will be selected (and hopefully located) at a later date.
Our second pick was Saved! (2004), a teen comedy set in a strict Christian secondary school but as this is currently on loan to a friend, again we could not indulge. It’s a shame too, because Saved! is rather fun. Like Teeth, it will also be given a second chance.
Sticking with the Christian theme, our third and final pick was Stigmata, which has been a favourite of mine for many years. I have always been partial to religious themed horror movies – even the silliest of possession films make me cower pathetically – but more than that, I am interested in the ongoing debates surrounding religion generally, and Christianity specifically. So few films really embrace Christianity; one of the finest recent possession movies (and one in our collection) is The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), which is perhaps the most intelligent due to its decision to provide both a religious and scientific context. Stigmata is far less subtle – in fact, it is the antithesis of subtle – but its trashiness hides a surprisingly profound concept that, rather than damning faith, decries the Catholic church and the power-hungry egomaniacs within it.
Patricia Arquette is Frankie, a twenty-three year old atheist who happily chain-smokes, swears, and fornicates without fear of consequence. After she receives a parcel from her mother, holidaying in South America, which includes the rosary of a recently deceased priest, Frankie becomes haunted by visions, whispering voices and, most worryingly, the first signs of the stigmata – first, holes straight through her wrists, followed by slashes across her back. Having been whipped by an unseen force right in front of a man of God, her inflictions become known to the church, who send Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) to investigate; in a strange twist of fate, he had previously been at the small church in Brazil where Frankie’s rosary was stolen.
The implicit connection between the rosary and Frankie’s torment becomes more pronounced throughout the film; it is the catalyst, but it is not the film’s focus. Instead, Stigmata considers the power struggle of the Catholic church, who simultaneously proclaim the wonder of Jesus while disproving supposed miracles. The film’s message, which has been repeated in a number of theological debates, is to remember that the church is primarily made up of men – fallible, flawed men. To have faith is not dependent on buildings or rituals; it is an internal, personal event. Rules of celibacy and priesthood are challenged, particularly for Father Andrew, who begins to feel a connection between him and Frankie while struggling with his own feelings about religion and science.
The stigmata themselves, and Frankie’s apparent possession, are brutally realised, although the film’s music video aesthetic is less scary than atmospheric – jump cuts, strobe effects, and scenes intercut with dreamlike images are exploited frequently. Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins) provides the original music alongside the hypnotic tunes of Massive Attack and Bjork; the score is excellent although slightly dated now – a mix of eerie tenderness and hardcore electronica. The opening credits song perfectly sums up the tone of the film: a pseudo-religious dance track that follows a whispered Hail Mary with the lyrics, “no virgin me, for I have sinned, I sold my soul for sex and gin, go call a priest, all meek and mild, and tell him, Mary is no more a child!”
Religious iconography fills Stigmata – even Frankie’s bed is reminiscent of an altar. As rain incessantly batters Pitsburgh, so too does water infiltrate almost every scene; Frankie’s loft apartment offers little shelter from the onslaught of rain, and the drip-drip-drip of falling droplets is constant. So too does the flicker of candles, evoking an altogether ecclesiastic tone; like I said earlier, this is not a subtle film by any means. Yet Arquette combines vulnerability and youth to bring Frankie’s plight to life, while Byrne is sombre and strangely attractive as Father Andrew. Jonathan Pryce deserves a mention also, for being the villainous face of the Catholic church – his Cardinal Houseman is a complex, if under established, character filled with self-righteous piety and superiority.
Largely dismissed as a trashy, convoluted and illogical possession movie, Stigmata is all of these things but it is also more. Entertaining and thought-provoking, perhaps had it been slightly more discreet in its action, it would have been better received. Yet buried beneath a mass of dynamic, if silly, set pieces, its message – based on a real gospel rejected by the Catholic church – is both simple and profound and consequently, in my opinion it remains one of the more underrated movies of the 1990s.