Stigma

Dir: David E. Durston, 1972. Starring: Philip Michael Thomas, Harlan Cary Poe, Josie Johnson, Peter Clune. Thriller.
Stigma

Shortly after the release of Durston's cult classic, I Drink Your Blood, another movie was crafted with a rampant disease as the focal point. Seeing as how I Drink Your Blood was so ridiculously good and over the top, I imagined this to be similar in plot,  but I was wrong. A young doctor named Calvin Crosse (Philip Michael Thomas) is released from prison, his crime being an illegal abortion he performed as a med-student in which the woman did not survive. Dr. Thor, his old professor, has called him to the city of Stanford in order get his help with a disease that might be affecting the town. While hitchhiking he meets Billy (Harlan Cary Poe), a handsome soldier who is returning from duty and grew up in Stanford. The two arrive and part, Billy being smothered by his family and Calvin being met with hostility from locals who don’t like newcomers, especially black ones.

Upon arriving at Dr. Thor's house, Calvin finds him dead and has nothing to go on except a tape recording left for him should the old man die before he arrived, and a note on his desk that reads "D-D?" Sheriff Whitehead (Peter Clune) moseys over to the house and meets Calvin, who becomes his mortal enemy at sight. Their issues are put on hold and Calvin gets to work trying to figure out why he was requested from his old friend. He is visited by a mysterious girl named D.D. (Josie Johnson) who was receiving help from the doctor and is distraught by the news of his death. She just so happens to be the daughter of the menacing sheriff and the new girlfriend of Billy, who turns out to be the only friend Cal has in the town.

From there the movie offers up a mystery that has to do with the town's promiscuous teens and an old man who witnesses their group romps near a lighthouse on the island. D.D. and her friends are all involved in an outbreak of syphilis that could eventually spread with the slightest physical contact. The suspense is not so much planted in the disease itself, but in the mass cover-up involving the sheriff and the task of figuring out where it came from and who it has already infected. The locals become divided with the young and the bored on one hand and the close-minded elders on the other. Those who know about the problem eventually resort to violence and possibly murder in order to keep the church-going town from being marked as a disease-infested wasteland.

This scenario is not as far-stretched as Durston's other films, and I imagine that for an audience in the '70s, it induced a practical sense of paranoia that could come close to that of a horror movie. The soundtrack is basically the same as Durston's other films, but with less synth and a little more flute which gives it a bit more pull as a serious movie. As a whole, the movie does in fact play out like a good suspense thriller. I love how in the '70s a star like Thomas (Miami Vice) was still hot up for roles enough to get involved in something that would be marked as a trashy movie, but wasn’t. True there are a lot of scenes with topless women running around that most likely have no importance to the plot, but it reflects the "free love" of the time.

One could look at this and see it as extremely progressive. If it were made by anyone else it might come off as propaganda, but I really do think that mentioning such a grizzly venereal disease in great detail was pushing the envelope, even for the '70s. There is a scene where Cal and Billy are hanging out in Dr. Thor's vacant home and find a film reel of those cheesy educational films about VD that showed some images that could scare the pants off anybody. But the movie is not all serious and I definitely had many laughs, as I'm sure it was intended. So there you have it—a suspense thriller from a cult director that met somewhere in the middle to produce a genuine piece of work.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Sep 22, 2010 3:33pm
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