Richard Foreman Jr.
September 10, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

In ”Stigmata,” a young hairdresser (Patricia Arquette) is mysteriously afflicted with gory wounds mirroring those of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, and in the process gets thrown around a subway car, half-drowned, almost strangled by a priest, and tossed into a flower cart. It’s all rough-and-tumble enough to make ”Agnes of God” look like a regular yuk-fest. But director Rupert Wainwright isn’t afraid that the movie’s dark take on stigmata — a phenomenon usually associated with true believers — will rile viewers. ”There are some people who are a little more died-in-the-wool religious who may believe some of the things in the movie are a threat to them,” he tells EW Online. ”But I don’t think any movie that is provoking you to reexamine the life and words of Jesus Christ could be considered that controversial.”

Tell that to Arquette and her costar Gabriel Byrne, who both almost turned down the project. Byrne was initially concerned about how the story would treat the sensitive (and potentially cheesy) subject matter. Arquette’s issue with the film was more personal. ”I wasn’t going to do the movie because of my religious beliefs,” says the 34-year-old actress, who claims that her ”primary relationship in life has always been my relationship with God. I used to wish I had stigmata when I was a little girl, so when I heard about the script I was kind of excited. But then I read it and said, ‘What is with this getting thrown around and all this scariness? Is God being mean to this woman?”’

Changes were made in the script, and Arquette’s research into the lives of real stigmatics ultimately reassured her that her character’s creepy behavior, which includes trying to seduce a dashing priest played by Byrne, wasn’t a slam against the Guy Upstairs. ”The more research we did, we found that stigmatics usually do have this demonic accompaniment, like they’re a radio station that’s open to all these weird sound waves.”

Still, ticking off a higher power wasn’t all that Arquette was worried about. She suspected that the movie’s themes, no matter how holy, would bring comparisons to ”The Exorcist.” After all, Arquette finds herself slowly being taken over by an unseen force that makes her speak in tongues and levitate, a priest comes to her rescue, and a botched exorcism is thrown in for good measure. All that’s missing is the pea-green soup. ”I thought this could have been a dangerous thing because ‘The Exorcist’ was so well done and was the first movie of its kind,” she says. ”There’s definitely a tip of the hat to that movie in this, but then it goes on to its own story and has a contemporary feel and soundtrack and look.”

Wainwright shrugs off the Linda Blair comparisons. ”Anytime you have a horror movie with a guy wearing a priest outfit, they call it the next ‘Exorcist,”’ he says. ”I can’t stop that. But I don’t think we’re copying anybody. We’ve come up with a phenomenally unique miracle — stigmata — to investigate, and then we sort of segue from that into this whole conspiracy to suppress a lost gospel, which I haven’t seen in a bunch of movies lately.”

But will audiences feel that ”Stigmata” is a rerun of this summer’s many paranormal thrillers, from ”The Blair Witch Project” to ”The Sixth Sense?” Perhaps. ”Stigmata” was scheduled to beat those movies into theaters but got bogged down in studio red tape thanks to a change in management at MGM. ”I originally wanted it to be the first crucifixion-themed movie to come out on Easter day, but I was voted down on that,” jokes Wainwright. ”But I was hoping we would be the first of these horror movies. Now I just hope we haven’t missed the boat.” Hmm, saying a little prayer might not hurt.

Tom Lazarus,
Rupert Wainwright
Gabriel Byrne,
Various Artists
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