The horror genre hasn’t boasted an “Exorcist” knockoff in some time, and those who’ve been suffering the lack will get their fix with “Stigmata.” Aggressively silly, this possession thriller starts out promising a good-time mix of unintentional laughs and director Rupert Wainwright’s visual hyperbole. Unfortunately, even those guilty pleasures soon pall under the dulling effect of a murky, rather uneventful scenario. Pic is unlikely to break MGM’s recent string of B.O. horror disappointments (“Disturbing Behavior,” “The Rage: Carrie 2”), though its more gaga aspects make it marginally the most distinctive among a weak bunch.
De rigueur Third World prologue is set in a Brazilian village, where Vatican investigator Father Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) discovers the “miracle” of a blood-weeping Virgin Mary statue and other strange phenomena that have occurred since a local priest died. A thief steals a rosary from said cleric’s corpse; the object is purchased at market by an American tourist, who mails it as a souvenir to her daughter.
The recipient is Frankie (Patricia Arquette), a larky 23-year-old Pittsburgh stylist who works in a hair/manicure/piercing salon and spends most of her time out clubbing with roommate and fellow salon worker Donna (Nia Long). Soon Frankie is experiencing spooky visions and seizures that leave her mutilated with Christ-on-the-crosslike wounds. Father Kiernan is dispatched by his antagonistic superior (Jonathan Pryce) to examine her once the attacks attract media attention.
There’s much somber mumbo-jumbo about a supposed “secret gospel” penned by Jesus Christ, and its apparent cover-up by the Catholic Church. But just what power is possessing Frankie, and why, remains muzzy.
That wouldn’t be much of a loss if the script (by Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage) provided some decent twists and thrills. But momentum dissipates as little really happens, beyond Frankie’s recurrent bloodletting fits and the rather ridiculous mutual attraction between her and Father K. (recalling another May-December horror love-match, Linda Blair and Richard Burton’s in the not-dissimilarly nutty “Exorcist II”). A fiery, convoluted finale fails to deliver any satisfying payoff.
Pic’s eventual talky tedium is unfortunate, because in its early going “Stigmata” whips up an entertaining hysteria of stylistic overkill, tittersome dialogue and giddily outlandish situations. The fashion-victim hipness of Frankie and her pals, combined with commercials and musicvid vet Wainwright’s hyperkinetic visual design, suggest this as a sort of “Romy and Michelle’s Demonic Possession.” The fun doesn’t last, but the director (who previously helmed indie feature “The Sadness of Sex” and Disney’s direct-to-vid “Blank Check”) deserves credit for keeping the level of energetic, if senseless, ocular stimulation high.
Arquette, who hasn’t always had the presence to fill out weightier roles for the likes of David Lynch, John Boorman and Stephen Frears, does just fine here as a party girl in incongruous peril. Byrne maintains an admirably straight face; other thesps get little to do. Splashy lensing and design effects conjure an atmosphere somewhere betwixt “Batman” Gothicism, MTV and fashion layout; Billy Corgan of the alt-rock group the Smashing Pumpkins contributes, with Elia Cmiral, a score heavy on dance tracks. Tech package is slick.