You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. That is Hollywood’s take on duplicating the cinematic event known as “The Exorcist.” Filmmaker’s are damned if they try, because the effort is always inferior. They’re damned if they don’t because Hollywood loves success and is always trying to find new ways to improve on it.

It’s Catch 22 all over again. It appears that the powers that be believe each generation deserves their own “Exorcist.” They also know that the inevitable comparisons will follow, so they try and beat the odds by raising the bar.

The filmmakers behind “Stigmata” sabotaged an interesting premise by placing their bar too high. Everything is over the top in this suspense thriller that has something important to say yet garbles every word.

The screenplay by Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage is built on a solid foundation, but the hyper kinetic direction of Rupert Wainwright shakes things up to the point of being distracting. Even at their most earnest, the performances are laughable. Wainwright seems more pleased with the films stylish look than with the performances.

The performances all over the place, from Patricia Arquette’s chipper Frankie Paige, a Pittsburgh hairdresser who is pretty and carefree. Poor Frankie. Her seemingly perfect life is about to come crashing down around her when she receives a gift from her mother, who is vacationing in Rio.

It is a set of rosary beads she bought in an open market. Unbeknownst to dear old mom, the beads were stolen from a dead priest, whose spirit was transferred into them.

Now the dead priest has possessed Frankie, forcing her to go through the living hell known as “Stigmata,” where one exhibits the wounds suffered by Christ on the cross. Frankie suffers violent seizures followed by puncture marks on her wrists, feet, and head. The doctors at the hospital believe they’re self-inflicted, but the Catholic church knows better.

“Stigmata” attempts to be both a theological mystery and a horror film, and the hybrid is less than satisfying. I actually preferred the first half, which deals with Vatican investigator Father Andrew Kiernan, played by Gabriel Byrne. A sort of religious Carl Kolchak from “The Night Stalker,” Kiernan travels the world investigating reports of miracles.

When we first meet him, he is in Brazil, investigating another crying statue of Jesus. Kiernan is perplexed by his latest case, where blood actually seems to be emanating from the statue. When he reports back to his superior, Cardinal Houseman (Jonathan Pryce), his findings are dismissed. Kiernan is then sent to investigate Frankie’s case, and finds himself equally perplexed.

One moment Frankie is this frightened little girl, the next she’s a malevolent spirit capable of tossing men across the room and speaking in strange tongues.

Lazarus and Ramage lay a lot of ground work, and have obviously done their homework in an attempt to bring credibility to the proceedings. They raise some interesting questions, but none of them are answered satisfactorily by director Wainwright.

I can see why the Vatican would be upset by this film. It doesn’t paint them in a very flattering light, and actually attacks their very foundation. The irony is that by condemning the film, the Vatican mirrors their on-screen counterpart. If director Wainwright and none of the cast take any of this seriously, why should they?

The film is silly where it should be scary, and a hoot where it should be serious. You want to feel sorry for poor Frankie, but you feel more sorry for the stupid people around her who do nothing to help her. Credibility is thrown out the window at every convenient moment. Frankie suffers most of her attacks in crowds of people, and yet no one seems to care except the lead characters.

If I were sitting in a patio caf‚ and large bloody holes suddenly appeared on the lady sitting next to me, I can guarantee you it would be on next newscast. I real life, Frankie would have to go through her ordeal with a platoon of media sitting outside her door 24 hours a day.

I wish Arquette’s character were more sympathetic, because she’s forced to go through some horrific moments and yet I really didn’t care one way or the other. Kill her now, kill her later, I don’t care. Gabriel Byrne looks so much like Jason Miller in “The Exorcist” that I kept waiting for Max Von Sydow to join him for the exorcism. His role is basically one of disbelief and frustration, both played over the top. Nia Long has a couple nice moments as Frankie’s best friend, while Jonathan Pryce swirls his mustache as the Vatican villain.

Wainwright shows off his MTV roots every chance he gets. The film is top heavy with music video cuts and angles, taking a lot of the impact out of Jeffrey L. Kimball’s usually breathtaking cinematography.

What made “The Exorcist” so scary was that it was seamless. Director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty created an environment where you could actually believe that 12-year- old Reagan was possessed by a demon. The special effects were used to advance the story, not impress the audience.

All of the special and visual effects in “Stigmata” feel like grandstanding. Less would have been more.

I’m sure young audiences will flock to the first weekend of “Stigmata.” They, like I, can hope that perhaps this one time Hollywood got it right. We’d be wrong, but we can still have hope.



Patricia Arquette, Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Pryce, Nia Long, Rade Serbedgia in a film directed by Rupert Wainwright. Rated R. 100 Minutes.


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