STIGMA (1972)
Director: David Durston
Code Red DVD

Director David Durston’s notorious I DRINK YOUR BLOOD (1971) remains a prime sampling of exploitation/drive-in cinema to this day. A New York-shot tale of rabies-induced paranoia and sub zombie antics, I DRINK YOUR BLOOD was later followed up with Durston’s STIGMA, probably his second best known feature film and one he also wrote the screenplay for. Although the film deals with the dangerous effects of a small-scale epidemic, STIGMA takes on a less exploitive and more dramatic and socially conscious stance than BLOOD, but that in absolutely no way should hinder viewer curiosity, especially with this eye-catching special edition DVD which puts all the previous video versions out there to shame.

After being locked up in the state penitentiary, young Dr. Calvin Crosse (Philip Michael Thomas) is released, accepting a position with an aging physician in a small island community populated by Caucasians. Hitch-hiking his way there while befriending returning Army vet Bill Waco (Harlan Poe), Calvin, who is African American, arrives to discover his would-be employer dead, involuntarily becoming his replacement. Learning that the late doctor had discovered some kind of unidentified epidemic, his subsequent investigation is jolted by his first patient; an incoherent geezer with a bone-mutating venereal disease. Calvin quickly suspects the local whorehouse as the root of the problem, but he gets no cooperation from the bigoted sheriff (Peter Clune) and the estranged community. With the sheriff’s rowdy teenage daughter (Connie Van Ess) at the forefront of a nightly fornicating orgy gathering of bored youngsters, Calvin is determined to expose the heart of the virus while landing upon some severely dark secrets.

Surprisingly low key despite its subject matter and not exactly a horror film, STIGMA does possess some macabre aspects in its plot of a sexually transmitted disease ravaging a secluded population, including several death scenes and a climax which mostly takes place in an old lighthouse for effect. But as a whole, it’s a hard film to classify in that it dips its feet in several different genres, sort of opening up as a comedy, and also being part blaxploitation (with its black hero, jive dialog and the frequent racism he encounters) and part sexploitation (scenes at the country whorehouse and the seaside frolicking allow for some occasional female nudity). But this is what makes it unique and unpredictable, with Durston’s script containing a nice ending twist, a surprising level of suspense, some quirky characters and a strong lead character to hold things together.

Philip Michael Thomas, in his first film and more than a decade before his career-changing turn on TV’s “Miami Vice”, gives a standout performance as Calvin, an atypical hero in that he has a sorted past and is not impartial to mouthing off to anyone (there’s an opening bar scene where he mocks a hooker and a gay hustler) but can get down to serious business when its called for. The other performances are good overall, with several being somewhat campy (Peter Clune’s sheriff seems to be channeling Rod Steiger’s Bill Gillespie, without the Oscar accolades of course) but that suits the film well. Anyone who grew up listening to radio in the New York area (namely WCBS 101.1) might find it jarring but ultimately amusing to see famed DJ 'Cousin' Bruce Morrow as the narrator of a 16mm instructional film warning us about the dangers of VD (viewed by two of the main characters). Wearing a leisure suit and a very early 1970s mop of hair, Brucie talks in his usual casual style (“kids, this is very heavy”) while pics of victims with severe scars, mutated joint expansions and chunks of their noses missing pop up on the screen.

After “Miami Vice” became a hit, STIGMA was released on VHS with a cover pic depicting a 1980s era Thomas in bright blue attire, and the film was issued (unauthorized) more recently as multi-title budget DVD set. Code Red’s official DVD release is very welcomed indeed, bearing the Cinerama Releasing logo and containing a transfer taken from a new HD master made from the original InterNegative. Presented with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, the transfer's detail is sharp and color is excellent, so it's very much a revelation when compared to what we had to deal with in the past, and aside from a few blemishes on the master source, it looks immaculate. The mono English audio comes across perfectly fine, with no noticeable flaws.

Sadly, David Durston passed away just shortly before this DVD’s release, but luckily the director/writer was on hand for its production. Durston does a full commentary moderated by Jeff McKay and William Olsen, and he’s a pleasure to listen to, and as always, was a very kind and approachable guy. Durston remembers quite a lot about the making of the film, discussing how he wrote the script with a black lead in mind, casting Thomas after seeing him in a Broadway play, and how he originally cast Lawrence Tierney as the sheriff, but he was refused the part by the producer due to his alcoholism. Durston is also on hand for a video interview (18:03), touching upon the multi-leveled meanings of the film’s title, producer Charles Moss, how he was hired to write and direct the film, the cast and more. A trailer and TV spot for STIGMA are both included as well as a batch of trailers for other Code Red current and future DVD releases (including SLITHIS, HORROR HIGH, THE BLACK KLANSMAN, RIVALS and many others). (George R. Reis)