The Number One Movie in America: Stigmata
By Sean Collier
April 28, 2020
The 1999 horror movie “Stigmata” has a significant place in box-office history — for no reason related to the film itself.
“Stigmata” premiered on Sept. 10 of that year, winning its debut weekend with $18.3 million. It swiftly fell down the charts amid poor reviews; USA Today critic Andy Sellner wrote, “The scariest thing about this appalling and seemingly endless movie is that you paid for your ticket and now have to sit through it.” “Stigmata” only claimed a spot in the Top 10 for four weeks, inching above a $50 million total and only barely cracking the list of the year’s 50 top earners.
The history: It ended the reign of once of the most dominant horror films in box-office history.
“The Sixth Sense” had won five consecutive weekends in the fall of 1999 after debuting on August 8 with $26.6 million. Its week-to-week drops were miniscule; in each of those five winning frames, it tallied more than $20 million. Yet “Stigmata” was able to topple the giant, bringing Shaymalan’s film down to a second-place, $16.5 million total.
“The Sixth Sense” would go on to land in second on the year-end charts — behind only “The Phantom Menace” — with more than $293.5 million. It bested “Stigmata,” in fact, in every other weekend both films were in theaters; by the following weekend, “Sixth Sense” landed in third and “Stigmata” was in fourth.
So how did a messy, scattered horror film with no on-screen villain and more plot holes than memorable sequences beat an iconic thriller? It may have more to do with “The Sixth Sense” than with “Stigmata” itself. The reign of Shaymalan’s debut marked a resurgence of interest in supernatural horror; the broader genre was swiftly burning off the slasher-revival moment heralded by “Scream,” and “Sixth Sense” had audiences eager for more mysterious, creepy stories. Crowds who had already seen — and, in many cases, rewatched — “Sixth Sense” may have been looking for a new thrill by week six, turning to “Stigmata” as a fresh alternative.
That’s speculation, to a certain degree, but interest in horror was high in the back half of 1999. In fact, all of the top three films at the box office that weekend dished (or attempted to dish) scares; the Kevin Bacon thriller “Stir of Echoes” debuted in third. (I cannot read any greater significance into the fact that the top three films also began with the letter S, but have at it if you’ve got a pet theory.)
As for “Stigmata,” it’s more of a late-’90s time capsule than a picture (note the “music by Billy Corgan” line in the opening credits). Patricia Arquette plays Frankie, an atheistic hairdresser, whose life of clubbing and sleeping in an impossibly chic loft apartment is rudely interrupted by mysterious wounds. The plot winds in and out of Rome, as a priest/investigator played by Gabriel Byrne — he was nominated for a Razzie for this and “End of Days,” where he played Satan — shows up first to disprove, then to save, Frankie.
If you enjoy looking at costumes that all seem to have been ripped from the Delia’s catalogue and editing that doesn’t so much create jump scares as intrusive walls of displeasure, you’ll get all that from “Stigmata.” It’s not an utterly useless film — USA Today was perhaps a bit hyperbolic — in that it’s too bizarre to completely dismiss.
It is certainly, however, no “Sixth Sense.”
“Stigmata” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1982. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: A prison break causes a bus crash that causes a train crash that causes a train derailment that causes a fiery explosion, and that's pretty much just the inciting incident.