Color, 1972, 93m.
Directed by David E. Durston
Starring Philip Michael Thomas, Harlan Poe, Josie Johnson, Peter Clune, William Magerman
Code Red (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Stigma StigmaAfter the MPAA threw a fit over his gory rabid-hippie cult classic I Drink Your Blood and ordered massive cuts in 1970, director David Durston was left in the odd position of trying to top a queasy horror film no one had seen on its best behavior. The result came two years later with Stigma, an odd, genre-blending concoction now most fascinating for the ways it anticipates David Cronenberg's two big Canadian venereal horror classics, Shivers and Rabid. Here the added nods to blaxploitation, hillbilly trauma, and sexploitation keep the viewer extremely off balance throughout the running time as a film that seems like a straight-up horror effort keeps taking 90 degree turns into unexpected territory that pays off the majority of the time.

Released from the slammer after doing time for his involvement in an abortion, Dr. Calvin Crosse (Thomas) crosses paths with a homeward bound military veteran, Bill Waco (Poe). They're both heading to an isolated island town where Calvin hopes to get a fresh start working with the town doctor, but his plans are changed considerably when his new employer turns out to be dead. Now the town's main physician, Calvin is confronted with chilling references to an epidemic creeping its way through the population, a deadly venereal disease that could wreak havoc in a community with a lot to hide and a racist sheriff (Clune) with an itchy trigger finger.

A modest but solid exploitation film, Stigma benefits from better writing and acting than expected and some bizarre sexual subtext (established in the wild opening scene in which our hitchhiking hero takes time out at a bar and issues warnings about a hooker Stigmathere, Stigmaonly to find out something unexpected about his drinking buddy). A stage actor discovered by Durston, Philip Michael Thomas instantly became a familiar face among '70s black actors thanks to a wide range of roles including Sparkle, Come Back Charleston Blue, Book of Numbers, and Ralph Bakshi's infamous Coonskin. He's already a magnetic presence here and much more fiery than he would be in his star-making role on TV's Miami Vice (which in turn led to a very odd music career). His participation led to this film being reissued many, many times on VHS over the years due to its presumed public domain status (often along with another alarmist exploitation film Thomas made in 1978, Death Drug), but the lousy presentations also had the effect of trashing this film's reputation.

Fortunately Stigma is allowed to shine again on DVD in 2010 courtesy of this fresh transfer from the original interneg, later revisited again for a fresh scan for a 2016 Blu-ray. The widescreen framing looks much better, while color and detail are vastly superior to any version on video (not to mention far better than the few scratched-up surviving prints). The Blu-ray looks especially strong, getting those problematic hot shades of red in check far beyond what NTSC can handle and looking like a nice freshly-struck print. Surprisingly, the DTS-HD MA English audio on the Blu-ray sounds fantastic; it's a very clean, robust mono track with a lot of depth and range for a cheapie exploitation film from the early '70s.Stigma

In one of his last public Stigmaappearances before his death in May, 2010, Durston contributes an audio commentary track (moderated by Jeff McKay) and an 18-minute video interview. He covers a lot of the same material in both, but it's great to have his thoughts preserved on one of the more peculiar, neglected titles in his filmography. He talks about how he discovered his star, the multiple meanings of the title, the odd distribution deals necessary to get the film released, and the social undercurrents within his script. He also spouts some dotty and surprisingly outmoded views on homosexuality, which is a little weird considering where his career went in the late '70s. Other extras include a theatrical trailer, a shortened 60-second trailer, a 30-second TV spot, and on the DVD, additional Code Red trailers ("for movies you probably won't buy") including Rivals, Slithis, and Horror High.