Horror VS: September 1999
In this age of movie pirating, VOD and day-and-date, it’s hard to remember a time when theatrical horror releases were strategically staggered throughout the year like little reward nuggets. Now horror fans just gather at the trough every January and October like gore-starved cattle. But hell yeah, those halcyon 90's, when theatrical genre releases were spaced weeks apart, purposely opening against a cheesy-as-balls Jules Roberts rom-com, then owning that weekend’s horror market share like a straight-up fucking Freddy. You’re a horror dork with barely enough bread for one movie ticket? No problem, the studios already made the choice for you. Sure, mini-studios like Dark Castle and Artisan weren’t necessarily making the years-in-advance tentpole chess moves of production companies like Fox and Paramount. But there was a casual, unspoken respect within the market in regard to horror releases.
This all changed on September 10, 1999, when a veritable turf war erupted in theaters across America. After an ad campaign so aggressive it barely avoided criminal charges, MGM released Stigmata on 2,900 screens against Artisans’ smaller, humbler Stir of Echoes, released on a comparatively quaint 1,900 screens. Considering that The Sixth Sense was still showing on 2,700 screens nationwide, I don’t believe I’m overstating things when I say that horror fans were overwhelmed with horror options on September 10th. Many felt compelled to choose between the two new films on opening weekend, while some wanted to scrap them both in favor of revisiting a known Bruce Willis commodity. These were trying times.
Of course, we all remember how this cautionary tale ended, with Stir of Echoes left in a toothless, hypnotized stupor on opening weekend, placing a dismal (and very distant) third at the box office. To many, Stir of Echoes is arguably a better film than Stigmata, with a more enduring legacy, so…what exactly happened? Did MGM knock the marketing out of the park? Did the previous month’s release of The Sixth Sense hurt Stir of Echoes chances? Were horror fans duped? Or has Stigmata actually been the better movie this whole time?
We may never know the answers to these questions, but we can sure strap on some Hindsight Oakleys and armchair quarterback the hell out of this thing.
Let’s start here, since blockbuster casting dominated almost all of the top 10 box office earners of 1999 (The Blair Witch Project is the glaring outlier). Stigmata showed up packing some serious heat with Patricia Arquette and Gabriel Byrne as leads, two actors hitting a mid-career pinnacle of sorts. Byrne had been riding a wave of roles since 1995’s The Usual Suspects, appearing or starring in a prolific 5-6 films a year. The somewhat choosier Arquette was banking on the street cred she earned through 90's cult classics like True Romance, Flirting with Disaster, and Lost Highway. She gets top billing here.
When it comes to star power, Stir of Echoes wagered its entire bankroll on Kevin Norwood Bacon. Although Bacon had recently contributed to top-shelf ensembles in movies like Apollo 13, Sleepers, and Wild Things, this was his first real chance to carry a studio release. The jury was still out. Advantage: Stigmata
Stigmata: An atheist woman suffering from spontaneous wounds mirroring those of a post-crucifixion Jesus Christ works with an investigative priest to get to the bottom of some mysterious Catholic bullshit.
Stir of Echoes: A Chicago man goes bonkers after a session of hypnosis gives way to sightings of the ghost of a dead neighbor girl. Advantage: Toss Up
Stir of Echoes was written/directed by David Koepp, a veteran Hollywood scribe with a resume littered with unsung screenplays like Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, and Panic Room, which, in 2002, would set a record for the most expensive screenplay ever sold. Koepp developed a burgeoning fanbase right around 1996’s The Trigger Effect, a sparse but effective sociological thriller. He instinctively purchased the rights to Richard Matheson’s novel, ‘A Stir of Echoes’, after discovering it in a used book store.
The mid-budget Stigmata had Rupert Wainwright at the helm, a guy known for a few music videos and 1994’s Blank Check, a kiddie flick with the little boy from TV’s Family Ties getting deep into bank fraud. Advantage: Stir of Echoes.\
Stigmata: $29 million
Stir of Echoes: $12 million
This is a tough one, as both trailers are all over the place. The Stigmata trailer opens with provocative footage of Arquette taking a languorous bath, then smash-cuts to the inexplicable wrist wounds and some random screeching on the subway. It’s chaotic as fuck. Byrne shows up as some sort of priest detective, there’s a bunch of flashy imagery, we get barked warnings of ‘destroying the church!’ and ‘if she gets one more wound, she’ll die!’, etc. It’s all very ominous. But the trailer’s true payoff comes at the end, when a gnarly-looking Arquette speaks to Byrne in guttural, demon-possessed Latin. The whole thing comes off as muddled and loud, seemingly stitched together from parts of other movie previews from the era.
The Stir of Echoes trailer isn’t quite as muddled, but it’s just as incoherent. After quickly establishing that Bacon was on the receiving end of a super-bad hypnosis sesh, the trailer glorifies his descent into apeshit madness by showing him alternately screaming and smashing stuff (with a shovel! a pickaxe! a chair!), all set to the thumping baseline of Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint it Black’. With abrasive editing and mumbo-jumbo dialogue about ‘doors in your mind’, it is virtually impossible to tell from the trailer that Stir of Echoes is the small-scale neighborhood ghost story it would turn out to be. Advantage: Toss Up
Pre-release horror coverage
With a few minor exceptions, Fangoria was King of the Court in 1999. Stigmata earned a cover spot on Fangoria’s 20-year anniversary issue (184), but was pushed to a teeny-tiny square on the side panel. Stir of Echoes landed the main cover story for issue 186, complete with a set visit focused on the behind-the-scenes FX, albeit accompanied by a truly shitty cover image. Advantage: Stir of Echoes.
Revisiting both films almost 20 years later serves as an interesting film study exercise. Stigmata is glossy and dull, throwing around cheap Catholic imagery in a Satanic fit of 90s excess, none of it really sticking to the screen. It’s a quasi-blasphemous blur, a low-end Netflix original, at best.
Stir of Echoes builds its mood slowly, meticulously, and with considerable skill. It’s a jolt of pure, uncut ghost story, with director Koepp as an old-fashioned dog learning some new tricks (casting dancer Jennifer Morrison as the ghost and shooting her at an ephemeral 6-frames-per second in quarter time is nothing short of brilliant). It doesn’t hurt that Bacon is completely on board, delivering a riveting performance that’s simultaneously deranged and fun. Advantage: Stir of Echoes.
After opening weekend, negative reviews for Stigmata were legion. Critics seemed poised to set flame to a big budget failure, while praise for a second-tier release like Stir of Echoes was somewhat hard to come by. Roger Ebert found time to review both films, singling out Bacon’s intensity in Stir of Echoes (‘one of his best performances’), while summarily dismissing Stigmata as ‘the funniest movie ever made about Catholicism’. Advantage: Stir of Echoes.
Box Office (domestic)
Stir of Echoes: $21 million
Stigmata: $50 million
Stigmata would go on to earn an additional $39 million at the international box office, while Stir of Echoes did not receive a global theatrical release. While hard numbers are unavailable in regard to video/streaming, Stir of Echoes was later cited in a 2003 CNN story about movies that find a second life through DVD rentals and sales.
Viewed today, there is little question that Stir of Echoes is the superior film. With Koepp carefully crafting his cinematic narrative, as opposed to Wainwright’s technique of using film and sound to bludgeon his audience, it’s surprising that horror fans weren’t more discerning on the weekend of September 10th. How did Stigmata crush Stir of Echoes so decisively?
Many have speculated that the crazy-successful release of The Sixth Sense—released only four weeks prior but still buzzing with heavy word-of-mouth—left movie audiences disenchanted with the prospect of another creepy kid movie. But let’s not forget how quickly audiences were willing to embraceThe Sixth Sense even in the wake of 1998’s Mercury Rising, an ill-advised attempt to pair Willis and a kid on the spectrum who use their formidable code-breaking powers to thwart international assassins.
On the flip side, weren’t audiences totally sick of Satan movies by 1999? With The Devil’s Advocate, Fallen, and The Ninth Gate, the Satan movie market was completely oversaturated. Gabriel Byrne even found time to co-star in a whole ‘nother Satan movie in 1999, that Schwarzenegger yawner End of Days, presumably wearing some of his Stigmata costumes. Satan movie fatigue was apparently a non-issue.
In the case of this particular horror beatdown, it all comes down to marketing. And not even better marketing. Simply more of it. Horror fans were swamped by Stigmata trailers. But here’s the real kicker: MGM advertised Stigmata in theaters, as a trailer on the big screen, before major genre releases, while Artisan, raised on the bread-and-butter tactics of home video advertising (‘If you liked that, you’ll definitely like this’), front-loaded the Stir of Echoes trailer onto their biggest horror video releases. The message was subliminal but clear: Stigmata is something you have to catch in the theater, while Stir of Echoes is best reserved for the home video experience. Sure, MGM had the big bucks for P&A, but had Artisan sold Stir of Echoes as a pure theatrical experience along the lines of It Follows or Get Out, it would stand today as a David who felled a studio Goliath, rather than the deserving indie horror that eventually might. Legacy: Stir of Echoes.