IGNORE ANYONE who tells you the "last great Hollywood era" is the one that made Chinatown, Godfather, and Nashville. The true cinematic history of the '70s is found in Jaws, Carrie, The Omen, Halloween, and right at the tail end, Friday the 13th, which ushered in the streamlined, give-them-what-they-want '80s with its nearly plotless succession of gory slayings.

What comes around goes around, and once again the multiplexes are packed with faceless, unstoppable slashers, nature-run-amok monsters, and demons, witches, and goblins of all stripes. There is one big change, though: We apparently feel a lot better about ourselves these days. After the social chaos of the years before, horror films 20 years ago were -- almost without exception -- huge downers. It was good versus evil, and most of the time evil held the trumps. After Vietnam and Watergate this seemed a logical, maybe even inevitable conclusion. Today, on the other hand, wars seem like no big deal to the aggressors, nobody cares what the President does, and horror movies seem to be entering the realm of feel-good films. The recent Haunting remake not only desexed the original, its ghost was revealed as a nasty slave laborer who gets his comeuppance; Lake Placid saw a giant murderous alligator as a perfect justification for the cast's playful banter; The Sixth Sense, for me, weakened its ingenious set-up with a New Age happy ending; even The Blair Witch Cash Cow is more about grumpy campers than elemental evil.

And now comes Stigmata, which basically refashions the possession of The Exorcist as a no-big-deal event that not only cheers up its protagonists, but might even save the world. Patricia Arquette -- a truly awful actress who will probably always get juicy parts for her willingness to play out any humiliation on camera -- stars as Frankie Paige, a twentysomething hairdresser/party girl who suddenly gets stigmata, the physical wounds that Jesus suffered on the cross. There she'll be, minding her own business in the bathtub or the subway, when suddenly the lights start flickering, annoying MTV edits and stupid "spooky" music flares up, and blood starts flowing from her punctured wrists or whipped back.

The Catholic Church sends out an investigator (Gabriel Byrne, even glummer than usual), Frankie's wounds keep coming, and before long the antagonistic Cardinal (Jonathan Pryce) is ordering a suspicious halt to the Church's investigations. Up to this point, Stigmata is merely atrocious: bad acting, silly attempts to generate mood by dumping a monsoon season rain on Pittsburgh, an annoying rock video aesthetic (there is no cinematic style less scary than rapid edits). It's so atrocious, in fact, that it sometimes threatens to become fun. At least one scene -- where a possessed Frankie tosses Byrne's Father Kiernan around like a rag doll, floats in midair, and stabs herself with a kitchen knife -- is a potential camp classic. By the end, though, the film turns out even worse than I could have imagined.

The filmmakers, having proven themselves incapable of frightening us, or even telling a story logically, fall all over themselves with a clumsy attempt at spirituality. The Exorcist is no great film either, but it believed in its own religious hokum, in the importance of the battle being waged, and it is that conviction that carries the film even for nonbelievers such as I. Here, as in so many of the new breed of horror films, by the end you're left feeling things would have turned out fine no matter what. And if that's your attitude toward life, what are you doing making horror films in the first place?

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