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Call him a cult director if you must, but Monte Hellman is really just a filmmaker who went his own way. His modest Beast from Haunted Cave was not only the first good feature by a Roger Corman acolyte, it has a distinctive style of its own. Hellman spent most of his 'Filmgroup' years doing odd pickup shots and sequences, like new padding material to stretch some of Corman's 60-minute movies to minimum TV length. But he also made a solid connection with aspiring writer Jack Nicholson. Their collaborative westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind are due soon from Criterion. Hellman's erratic career was established after the critical acclaim and commercial failure of his great Two-Lane Blacktop, one of the few youth-oriented films of the early '70s that, for lack of a better phrase, 'gets it'.
The balance of Hellman's career is marked by time gaps between films. One of the least-seen of the director's work is 1988's Iguana, a bizarre European production that mixes genres. It's both a pirate movie and a non-supernatural horror film with plenty of uncomfortable sex and violence. But it also follows through with a well-developed allegory about absolute power and the nature of society. Filmed with minimal resources on devastatingly beautiful locations in the Canary Islands, it's definitely one of Hellman's best movies.
From a novel by Alberto Vásquez Figueroa's, the story crosses themes from Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad. On a sailing ship in the 1800s, Queequeg-like native harpoonist Oberlus (Everett McGill of Quest for Fire and Dune) resents the fact that he's hated and despised by all. Due to a birth defect, half of his face has the appearance of a demonic lizard. Unfairly punished with a painful branding, he jumps ship at a desert island, establishes a camp in a cave and begins to capture and imprison lost sailors. Strong, brutal and intimidating, Oberlus forces them to serve him and calls himself a king. He breaks the will of young sailor Dominique (Joseph Culp) by making him execute his own friend (Tim Ryan). A sailor named Sebastián (Michael Madsen) becomes Oberlus' overseer and informer. Carrying through with his one-man-war against the rest of humanity, Oberlus singlehandedly captures the ship on which he served, murdering all of the crew and imprisoning Captain Gamboa (Fabio Testi). But Oberlus' most shocking crime is the kidnapping of the beautiful widow Carmen (Maru Valdivielso of Lovers of the Arctic Circle). Kept in a cave, Carmen becomes Oberlus' sex slave. The captives exist only to do the bidding of their leader, a state of affairs that is soon accepted as the norm.
It's no surprise that the exciting Iguana did not find a distributor in 1988, as it's primarily an art film, but with content not likely to please art film patrons. Its ugly view of human nature has little positive to say. Oberlus is already seething with hatred when we meet him; like Shelley's Frankenstein Monster his malevolent personality was formed by the rejection of other men. Oberlus at first prays to the pagan god he left behind in the land of his birth. He then founds a cruel little society dedicated to serving him. The allegory becomes apparent when his prisoners accept the status quo. The literate Dominique loses all thought of rebellion and another feeble-minded sailor is easy to control. The formidable-looking Sebastián is bought off with a safe 'Kapo'- like job where he doesn't have to work. Oberlus simply kills those that resist or rebel. His primitive kingdom aligns neatly with any dictatorship ruled by force and fear. With the passing of time the captives simply accept the established authority, and their visible chains are no longer required.
That's the political angle. Iguana's sex angle is just as unpleasant, yet entirely logical. The lovely Carmen has outlived one husband and is enjoying life with a succession of lovers. Her life on the mainland at first seems separate from the primitive action on Oberlus's volcanic island. He's utterly merciless with her, while she has no choice but to accept slavery to his desire.
Everett McGill is completely convincing as the savage King. Oberlus easily defeats rivals and his villainy would seem absolute were it not for his curiosity about literature. He forces Dominique to teach him to read and is soon taking in any and all books that come his way. Will Carmen be able to reach him on poetic terms?
The producer of Iguana had earlier made a lot of money with the torture and mutilation porn horror film Cannibal Holocaust and perhaps thought that Monte Hellman would deliver an equally depraved/commercial item. The filmmakers instead created something totally unique.
First, the acting is excellent all around. Maru Valdivielso is a sensitive and likeable actress and retains her character's dignity throughout. Fabio Testi is also fine as the self-confident sea captain who underestimates Oberlus' rage. Michael Madsen was already established in small parts by this time; he adds credibility to the 'kingdom' by showing Sebastián's acceptance of a passive role. Noted Euro-horror actor Jack Taylor has a brief role as an older Spaniard. Young Joseph Culp is the son of actor Robert Culp; twenty years later he played Don Draper's father on TV's Mad Men. The scene in which Culp's sensitive Dominique is forced to make a life & death choice, is the best directed and acted moment of this kind I can remember. After watching thousands of movie scenes in which people play noble in reaction to ugly survival choices, Culp's totally correct response seems especially honest. Do you really think your moral scruples can override basic self-preservation?
The production is also impressive. The director talks about the film's minimal funding but we see impressive sailing ships, handsome period rooms and credible costumes. The Las Islas Canarias filming locations provide Hellman and his cinematographer with one incredible image after another. Hellman described the setting as being as alien as the surface of the moon, a harsh landscape that makes the human intruders seem even more vulnerable. McGill's reptilian makeup is excellent, looking both fanciful and like a credible genetic mutation, sort of an enormous scaly birthmark.
The movie is not for gentle tastes. The brutal sex scenes are explicit but not graphic -- we know exactly what's going on and it's not pretty. This is definitely not a date movie. Art audiences that claim to be above Political Correctness prefer their rape fantasies to have a sense of humor, as in Pedro Almodóvar's Átame! And Everett McGill looks more like Jim Morrison's Lizard King than he does Antonio Banderas. Oberus growls his sexual demands to Carmen in a hostile dead-pan. His object is to humble and subjugate his victim-lover, as well as express his anger and frustration.
The best thing about Iguana is Hellman's surprisingly satisfying ending, which feels poetic even as events transpire that are normally unthinkable. Hellman does this without violence or gore; in fact the film's last scene is almost tender. It makes us think of Greek myths in which rebellious monster-men accept terrible fates handed down by the gods. Hellman doesn't have to burn up a freeze frame to find an ending -- his picture is already on fire.
Rarovideo's Blu-ray of Iguana is a terrific HD transfer. The color is beautiful and audio excellent, suggesting that the film elements have been well preserved. After being trimmed of ten minutes by its producer, Hellman was permitted to reinstate it back to its full premiere length at Cannes.
Monte Hellman satisfies our curiosity about Iguana in a lengthy video interview and an insert pamphlet interview with Chris Alexander. He explains that the producer didn't release the picture in America because he didn't like the money offers from distributors. It reportedly came out briefly in a shorter VHS cut, and then was sold to Anchor Bay and restored. Hellman reports that tow minutes were accidentally left out and that he's happy that Raro has put it back in. 2
When pressed to describe his achievement Hellman just calls the movie 'a job'. He praises his actors and gives thanks that it could be restored for Blu-ray, but also remembers the show as a tortuous shoot, with a producer that held up progress by refusing to pay for things as petty as a bunch of bananas. We're happy to report that in the last ten years Monte Hellman has been more active. His newest film project is variously reported as West Texas Three, or Love or Die. 1
I couldn't find any decent photos online to illustrate Iguana. But here's a very fuzzy Italian trailer that gives one an idea of the film's raw content, even if you won't be able to appreciate Rarovideo's stunning visuals.
Seeing Iguana makes me wish someone would release an uncut copy of The Light at the Edge of the World, the equally gory 1971 pirate picture with Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner and Samantha Eggar. The two shows have many things in common, and the existing Region 1 DVD has a frustrating censor cut.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Back in 2004 Hellman graciously agreed to be interviewed for our DVD extras on MGM Home Video's presentation of A Fistful of Dollars. One of his many quickie jobs was to film a short prologue for the film's network premiere, to revise Sergio Leone's 'amoral' gunslinger into a secret agent for the U.S. Army. Hellman told us all he could about the shoot but was surprised that anyone cared.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.