Cult Movies 101: Stigma
“Stigma” is a vastly underrated drama from the early seventies, which unfortunately got stuck with the stigma of being considered an exploitation movie. The picture deals with the taboo subject matter of sexually transmitted diseases, but the picture handles it in the most sincere fashion, elevating it beyond most people’s expectations. The only limitations the picture has are with the small budget, which the actors and the director seem to be unaware of, which is apparent in the heart and message of the movie.
With the era of free-love coming to a halt, the harsh realties of sexually transmitted disease are dealt with in “Stigma,” while the picture also examines the ignorance of racism. The film is bold, but balances itself out excellently, allowing the audience to become immersed in the story and characters. The picture doesn’t hit you over the head with the message, and is the complete opposite of the overrated, and incredibly stupid Oscar-winner, “Crash.”
The premise is centered on Dr. Calvin Crosse, (Philip Michael Thomas) who comes to a small town to help an old friend, who is also a doctor. Hitchhiking proves futile for Crosse, since nobody in the town will pick him up, because everyone seems to be a bigot. Along his travels he meets up with Bill Waco, (Harlan Cary Poe) whom he quickly befriends. Waco, who is home from servicing his country, loans Crosse a uniform. The theory, which proves to be true is that if a black man is in uniform then it is alright to give him a ride.
However, uniform or no uniform, doesn’t really help Crosse when he enters the town looking for his friend. The tension can be cut with a knife, while Crosse just tries to get directions to the good doc’s house. Once he arrives to the house, the story shifts gears as Crosse discovers the body of his old friend. A recording in the house exposes that the town seems to be stricken with some form of super-syphilis. The outbreak is spreading an extreme rate, since sex seems to be the only thing people do in this boring little town.
Interesting side-note, the trailers painted the portrait that this was more of a horror picture, where syphilis has created sex-crazed zombies. Sadly, that isn’t what the picture was trying to achieve.
The town doesn’t want the help of an outsider, especially one that is African-American. But all that changes when Waco tricks Crosse into saving his “drowning” brother. However, that fake display of heroism is bought, hook, line, and sinker by the pedestrians watching. This doesn’t last long, since the town sheriff is biggest racist of all, and he makes life tough for Crosse.
Crosse is far from the cookie-cutter character, and his animosity towards the town is constantly on display. Crosse seems to enjoy annoying this small community and this adds more of a layer to the character. Thomas proves what a solid actor he can be in this early film role, which predates “Miami Vice” by about 12 years. Thomas’ rising star burns bright in “Stigma.”
Aside from Thomas’ performance, it is the direction of David E. Durston that helps make this a winning independent drama. Durston had previously directed, “I Drink Your Blood,” and maybe that caused some people to assume this was an exploitation movie. However, this picture proved what an excellent director he was, but unfortunately he didn’t get the chance to direct much after this picture, despite the rave reviews it received.
Durston passed away on May 6, 2010 after completing work on a commentary track for Code Red’s DVD of this movie. What was amazing about Durston was his passion for his work, and his knowledge of the whole movie making experience. His interview in Stephen Thrower’s “Nightmare USA” gives a small glimpse into this man who loved what he did and will forever have a place in the heart of cult movie lovers.
The film blends top-notch acting with break-neck speed to provide excellent entertainment for the adventurous movie-goer with a strong stomach. The strong stomach is needed because mid-way through the picture Crosse, and Waco watch a video on the dangers of syphilis. That scene seems to have been slightly borrowed in “Planet Terror,” when Josh Brolin’s character is looking at some weird pictures in his examining room.
“Stigma” embodies the heart and soul of this underrated director. Keep in mind that “Stigma” isn’t for the faint of heart, but holds true to the message it wants to convey, and in a lesser director’s hands the whole experience could have been hokey.