Some bad movies curry favor because the incompetence of the filmmaking is endearing, and others win cult followings because the content is so extreme as to be hypnotic. And then there are bad movies on the order of Stigma, which fascinate because the storytelling is profoundly misguided. At various points during its 93 strange minutes, Stigma is a blaxploitation melodrama, a medical thriller, a sexualized psychodrama, and an uptight message movie. Very often, Stigma is just plain weird, as during a meaningless scene of a small-town merchant leading a band practice inside his store by using a plunger as a baton. Throughout, the movie suffers from glaring technical flaws, so even though some scenes are passably rendered, others feature grubby photography and audio that was clumsily added during post-production. Capping the project’s peculiarity is the presence of Philip Michael Thomas in the leading role. Best known for the ’80s series Miami Vice, he’s among the worst actors to earn significant Hollywood careers. Watching Thomas play this mess of a movie straight sends Stigma into the realm of unintentional humor.
The story takes place on an island off the California coast. Dr. Calvin Crosse (Thomas), recently released from prison after serving a term for performing illegal abortions, arrives in town at the invitation of his mentor. Calvin encounters racism from small-mined locals until reaching his mentor’s house, where he finds the man dead. The mentor was investigating some sort of public-health epidemic, and Calvin discovers an instructional film (!) about STDs. (Nonsensically, the film is hosted by beloved New York City radio personality “Cousin Brucie” Morrow.) Soon Calvin resumes his mentor’s work of alerting locals to the dangers of a disease that’s working its way through the island’s bedrooms. Hence the time Calvin spends at the local whorehouse. Eventually, the good doctor identifies patient zero, thereby opening up a new storyline with incestuous overtones—and this somehow leads to the film’s bizarre two-part climax. First Calvin encounters a group of hippies prepping for a seaside orgy and lays down a heavy rap about STDs, complete with facts and figures. Then a confrontation occurs between patient zero and someone else (no spoilers here), resulting in a wild death scene right out of a horror movie.
Attempting to determine how the different pieces of this flick fit together would be a threat to anyone’s sanity, because, for instance, the earnestness of the “Cousin Bruce” sequence clashes mightily with the “comedy” of the whorehouse scene. It should also be noted that somewhere amid the muck of the storyline, a minor character shouts this immortal line: “I don’t want to be venereal!” Stigma isn’t one of those quintessential ’70s head-trip movies that makes viewers feel as if they’ve ingested controlled substances, and neither is it one of those bad-taste extravaganzas that leaves viewers slack-jacked at the insensitivity of the filmmakers. It’s a hot mess that arose from what might have been good intentions.