Stigmata (1999)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Pryce
Extras: Alternate ending, Commentary track, Deleted scenes, Music video

Stigmata: Marks or sores corresponding to and resembling the crucifixion wounds of Jesus.

With this explanation given in a dictionary, it quickly becomes obvious that "Stigmata" has to be a movie with religious overtones. A quick look at the cover of this brand new DVD from MGM Home Entertainment supports the notion, as it shows actress Patricia Arquette in a crucified pose with the title lettering superimposed. "Stigmata" is a horror movie with a strong religious current, a subgenre that has been dormant for a while, when it gave way to modern day effects spectacles and the more recent teenage slasher flicks. When the disc arrived on my desk, indicating that it is a special edition with a number of supplements, I was eager to dive in and take a look at this latest release from MGM.

Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette) is a young hairdresser living a rather regular live. She is an atheist when one day she is suddenly struck by a stigma. She has a vision of nails being hammered through her wrists, and in fact, she suffers severe injuries that resemble those nails. A few days later she is being flogged by an unseen force on a subway train in front of the eyes of numerous passengers who watch in horror as her clothes are shredded to pieces, revealing the bloody wounds.
A priest who is witnessing the event on the train brings it to the Vatican’s attention, who sends Father Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), an investigator who has specialized in stigmata. At first he does not believe that Frankie is experiencing true stigmata – after all she is not a religious person, something that completely contradicts the Catholic interpretation of the term. But one day he sees how Frankie is once again afflicted by the horrific marks. Given the severity of the wounds and encounter, he begins to worry for her life.
Slowly, Frankie is transforming, possessed at times, writing and talking in languages she doesn’t know of, and soon, Father Kiernan realizes that he has to discover the true origins of her possession in order to save the young woman’s life.

While I would say that the film is generally pretty good, it is hard gloss over some of the obvious problems it has. During the first minutes of the film, I greatly enjoyed the visual quality, the photography, and the editing. Much of it reminded me of "The Exorcist," a film I have always admired for its unique style. While at first it was only a hunch, the comparison soon became more evident and towards the end very much of the movie actually resembled "The Exorcist" so much that I could not help but think "They should not have done that." Inevitably, "Stigmata" cannot live up to a comparison with Friedkin’s classic movie that has changed and influenced whole generations. What I personally find incomprehensible is why the filmmakers decided to make such obvious references to "The Exorcist" at all. For the most part, "Stigmata" tells a very different story and the floating possession, the exorcism scene and many others just felt completely superficial and out of place. The film doesn’t need them. While they do damage the overall impression of the film, I still went away from the movie with the feeling that it has been a long while since I saw a horror film with such strong and well-integrated religious tones.

The acting in the movie is adequate for the most part. Although generally quite good, I found main actress Patricia Arquette’s play too composed for such a paradox scenario. It doesn’t happen every day that you find yourself with puncturing wounds out of the blue that go all the way through your wrists and bleed like a slaughtered pig. I am sure every sane person would have problems accepting this, madly trying to find an explanation rather than falling asleep shortly after, rather unconcerned. During the entire film she is not even trying to find out what happens to her or how she could possibly stop it, simply giving in to her torment, which makes the portrayal utterly unrealistic. Gabriel Byrne is making a strong impression as the priest however, who doesn’t really know whether he wants to be a priest or a scientist. His stoic approach and analytical assessments help the story immensely, as he begins to raise the questions Arquette’s character is not willing to ask.

There are more questions that are unanswered in the film, like, why does the possessed Frankie turn violent? What happened to her boyfriend who was introduced to us in the beginning of the film? Why does the priest need a messenger at all? Unfortunately these aspects don’t really help to give the material the logical coherence it would have needed to make this a truly memorable movie.

However, despite all its flaws, "Stigmata" is not nearly as bad as it may sound. The visual quality and the subliminal tone of the film is very intriguing, and especially the editing of the film creates some very tense moments. Every time the girl is experiencing another stigma, the flashy sequence of agonizing images and sounds is perfectly conveying the horrifying experience she must go through. The movie’s dark lighting set up and the many pale blue-tinged images help to create an atmosphere of helplessness and fear that keeps the viewer entranced until the very end.

MGM Home Entertainment has prepared a nice special edition for "Stigmata" offering the movie’s theatrical cut as well as a Director’s Cut with an alternate ending on this DVD, using DVD’s branching capabilities to offer both versions without using up too much disc space. The image on this disc is superbly rendered and presents the movie in a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> version in its 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio. The image boasts of detail, finely reproducing every bit of detail from the film print. Colors are very strong but never over-saturated and nicely restore the film’s coloring scheme. Fleshtones are natural looking and hues are well delineated. The transfer exhibits a perfect black level balance, which is important given the film’s dark cinematography with very purposeful highlights. The blacks and shadows are absolutely black while the highlights are bright and balanced, allowing the rest of the image to run the entire gamut of shades and grades. The DVD does not show any signs of compression artifacts and only a hint of edge-enhancement is visible in selected parts of the image to give it more sharpened look. <$pixelation,Pixelation>, <$chroma,chroma noise> or other artifacts that would degrade the image quality can not be found on this transfer, making "Stigmata" a staggeringly bold transfer to watch.

The disc contains a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track that is very aggressive. Using surrounds in a large number of scenes quite ferociously for effect purposes, the film also uses surrounds to create an active, bustling and often unsettling atmosphere by carefully placing certain noises and sound effects in the mix. The result is an engrossing audio mix with a wide sound stage. The bass extension is also very good, although never truly exaggerated. However, I found that dialogue was mixed a tad too low, making it problematic to understand certain lines over the ambient sounds of the environment in the film. "Stigmata" also contains a <$commentary,commentary track> by director Rupert Wainwright. He uses to explain many of the underlying intentions of the film and aspects of the production directly.

Other extras on the disc include a series of deleted scenes from the film that would have added some backstory and character development, and would have brought the aforementioned boyfriend back in the picture, but for the most part they are not very exciting. These deleted scenes also contain the alternate ending of the movie, in case you wish to access it directly without having to go through the entire movie. The movie’s theatrical trailer and a music video by Natalie Imbruglia round up this release.

Despite the flaws "Stigmata" evidently has, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I was captivated by its almost brooding quality and the stunning visuals the filmmakers bombarded me with. It made me look over and accept the many holes and inconsistencies in the plot for the most part because the emotional and visual delivery is so superb. This film is certainly not for purists who tend to analyze every grain of doubt or inconsistency, but if you have been waiting for a great movie that uses religious themes and explores them, you will be enjoying it probably as much as I did. Given the excellent treatment of the film on this DVD from MGM, "Stigmata" is a very good candidate for your shopping list