Iguana Review

The nineteenth century. Oberlus (Everett McGill) is a sailor, nicknamed “Iguana” due to his severe facial deformity. Beaten by his shipmates, he escapes to a desert island where he makes himself ruler of a slave empire. Shipwrecked sailors become his servants and Carmen (Maru Valdivielso) is forced to become his mistress…

In my reviews of Hellman’s previous work, I’ve used the word "wayward" to describe his career. That’s the only word to describe the last twenty-five years or so. After making Cockfighter, he completed The Greatest (1977) and Avalanche Express (1979) after their respective directors – Tom Gries and Mark Robson respectively – died during production. He worked on the editing of Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite. Peckinpah turned up in the cast of Hellman’s next film as director, the interesting western China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), shot in Italy with an eclectic cast also including Warren Oates, Jenny Agutter and Fabio Testi. Iguana was Hellman’s first film in a decade, though he had shot second unit on RoboCop. Hellman’s last film to date is Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!(1989), made as a favour and by all accounts not very good. He also executive-produced Reservoir Dogs.

Based on a novel by Alberto Vasquez Figueroa (itself based on a real sailor called Patrick Watkins), Iguana is a fascinating, though flawed, film, with a higher level of violence and sexual content than most of Hellman's work. It was shot largely on location in Lanzarote, with the cave scenes outside Rome. Iguana never achieved a cinema release in either the US or the UK, so this DVD from Anchor Bay is probably the first chance many people, including me, will have had to see it. (It was shown at the National Film Theatre during their Hellman retrospective in 1995, but I didn’t see it then.) Oberlus/Iguana is a typical Hellman anti-hero: obsessive to the point of being sociopathic, and never conventionally sympathetic. His relationship with Carmen begins with rape. Unfortunately Everett McGill, though he tries hard, doesn’t really have the presence to carry off the role. He’s really a supporting actor than a leading man. Iguana is dedicated to the late Warren Oates, and you have to wonder what he might have done with this part. There are plenty of striking sequences, but despite the locations Iguana doesn’t have the visual strength of Hellman’s early work. Cinematographer José Maria Civit does a competent job, but he’s not in the same league as Nestor Almendros (who shot Cockfighter) or Gregory Sandor (The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind, Two-Lane Blacktop). Some scenes, especially those in the caves, are noticeably lacking in shadow detail.

Iguana was composed for 1.85:1 but as with Anchor Bay’s Cockfighter disc and VCI’s editions of The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind its DVD picture is an anamorphic one in the ratio of 16:9, which would appear to be Hellman’s preference as he supervised the transfer. The colours are solid and there’s no noticeable artefacting, but the shadow detail is not what it should be, as I state above. I suspect that’s the fault of the original material, though. Iguana had a Dolby Stereo soundtrack, which becomes Dolby Surround on this disc. It’s not the most elaborate of sound mixes, but it’s noticeably fuller than those on the other DVDs, with a greater dynamic range. The surrounds tend to be used for ambient sounds, noticeably the roaring of the sea in certain sequences. There are no subtitles, apart from those translating some scenes which are in Spanish. These subtitles appear to be burnt in. There are twenty-six chapter stops, which is perfectly adequate for a film of this length.

Compared to their Cockfighter disc, Iguana sees Anchor Bay being relatively stingy with their extras, though I doubt they had much to work with. There’s no trailer, for example – quite probably one was never made. What there is, is an audio commentary. As with all the Hellman DVDs, it’s a group effort. Hellman is joined by Everett McGill and co-writer Steven Gaydos (who also appears on the Cockfighter commentary). As with all the DVDs except Two-Lane Blacktop, the commentary is moderated by Dennis Bartok of the The American Cinematheque. It’s as interesting as the others, with a real rapport between the men. Believe it or not, the producer was a believer in numerology, and chose Hellman to direct because his phone number had two threes in it! The only other extra is a Hellman biography. It’s identical to that on the Cockfighter DVD except for a different still between the end of the text and the start of the filmography.

Iguana is certainly not for the squeamish, the easily offended, or by anyone too hung up about political correctness. It is however, a rare item in the filmography of one of the most interesting (and cultish) of American directors, and Hellman’s many admirers would do well to buy this disc. Full marks to Anchor Bay for making this film available.

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