Appellate Judge Tom Becker's found that most curses start with dinner and a movie.
The curse that begins with a kiss.
Calvin Crosse (Philip Michael Thomas, Miami Vice) gets out of prison and heads to see his mentor, a doctor who lives on a small island off the coast of New England. Calvin is also a doctor, and his mentor believes in him so much that he is going to give him a second chance.
Unfortunately, when Calvin arrives, he finds his mentor dead. Not knowing what else to do, he stays at the old doctor's home and decides to try to take his place. This doesn't sit well with the locals: Calvin is black, and evidently the fine folks of Stillford Island have never encountered such a being; needless to say, Calvin is going to have an uphill climb starting a practice.
One lazy day, Calvin and his lone friend, Bill (Harlan Poe, Toys Are Not for Children), decide to watch an instructional film on VD. Narrated by DJ "Cousin" Bruce Morrow, this dreadful little epic (shown in its entirety) proves eerily prescient.
It seems that, unbeknownst to the locals—who can't tell a chancre from a grease stain—the island is host to a raging syphilis epidemic. Dr. Crosse discovers this when a Crazy Old Hermit—a.k.a., the Last Person Anyone Would Want to Roll With—shows up with an advanced case of the boogie-woogie blues. He has no idea where he got it (Crosse emphatically states that it couldn't have been a toilet seat, which doesn't seem to register with the diseased codger).
Soon, Crosse finds himself playing Venereal Detective, educating himself by visiting a friendly cat house and a decidedly unfriendly midnight beach party, where he makes shocking and stomach churning discovery.
If Mannix had battled a syphilis epidemic in an expanded Very Special episode, it would have looked something like Stigma, an earnest if slightly overwrought '70's indie that tackles two social diseases in one modest package: VD and racial intolerance. Laudably serious, if occasionally didactic, this is a reasonably well-made film on a topic that at the time was fodder for the exploitation circuit (The Hard Road) and would later be explored in a "daring" (at the time) Movie-of-the-Week starring Cloris Leachman (Someone I Touched).
Although it could easily have devolved into a sexploitation epic, and the inclusion of "Cousin" Brucie's tour of sores suggested an educational "roadshow" attraction, Stigma is more concerned with social drama and medical sleuthing than debased babes and debauchery. Unfortunately, writer/director David Durston's script is wildly, and often hilariously, uneven.
On the one hand, it takes itself quite seriously, with the proceedings frequently grinding to a halt so the characters can engage in long bits of didactic dialogue about venereal disease, race relations, and the small-mindedness of small-town America. But then Durston lets loose with bizarre stereotypes, out-of-whack action sequences, soap-opera high jinks, and a high-melodrama twist straight out of Ibsen.
Philip Michael Thomas' Dr. Crosse is a strange and uncomfortable creation. Sometimes, he's a dedicated professional with a confrontational but caring manner. Other times, he seems to have wandered in from a Blaxploitation film, shooting zingers like, "If I find anything unhealthy, your ass is gonna be a lot blacker than my nose" at the bigoted and corrupt white sheriff, and teasing his hair into a "natural" to tick off the townsfolk. The townsfolk themselves—including Police Captain Whitehead, who repeatedly refers to Crosse as "boy"—are New Englanders the way the townsfolk from In the Heat of the Night were New Englanders. This is most Southern Northeastern movie I've ever seen, complete with a down-home, drawling, trailer-park Madame who compares her backwoods accommodations with fancy "houses" in New Orleans. It's pretty funny and entertaining, but it dilutes the impact of the message.
Stigma is yet another relic resurrected by the folks at Code Red, and again, they treat the film with more dignity than it probably got when it was released. The transfer is in pretty good shape, and the mono audio does the job fine. We get a feature-length commentary with the late David Durston, as well as an interview with the man who directed this film and the bona fide sleaze classic I Drink Your Blood (about a rabies epidemic). Durston, who passed away May 6, 2010, is a great listen, offering up lots of anecdotes and trivia. The disc also features trailers and TV spots for Stigma and trailers for other Code Red releases.
Even though it veers off the rails some, Stigma is an above-average early-'70's low-budget indie. Code Red's satisfying treatment gets this one a recommend.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Code Red
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