Iguana (1988) Poster


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A stark allegory on the darkest recesses of human nature.
chaos-rampant21 September 2009
I have immense respect for Hellman. The art-house establishment deigned to stoop down and pick Two-Lane Blacktop from the grindhouse cracks and curious bystanders have ventured into his early films to watch a young Jack Nicholson, but he's remained largely forgotten with long dry spells of not getting work or getting in paycheck movies. But here he is back in 1988, assembling a cast of marginal stars at one time or another (Everett McGill, Fabio Testi, Michael Madsen), by way of a story about a disfigured harpooner haunted by ridicule and ostracism who finds himself stranded on a deserted island and declares himself there sovereign king and ruler of a bunch of hapless sailors he keeps as slaves, Hellman creates a stark allegory on the darkest most base instincts of human nature: the need to oppress and avenge wrongs real and imaginary, to reassert one's individuality through strength if by no other means, to bridge one's alienation and lovelessness by using that very alienation and lack of love as a battering ram against those who denied them to him. The movie is heavily flawed, the narrative in the first half that switches between the deserted island and some unspecified Spanish colony is disjointed, and the movie, try as it might to mask the fact, has a low budget look, but Hellman does great job with his material. At times gorgeous to look at, with interesting interplays between the characters that keep the plot from veering too far into selfconscious allegory, the movie plays like an exotic adventure undercut with philosophic undertones that Herman Melville might have written, and indeed I think there's a similar story about a halfmad hermit-king who lived for years in the Galapagos related in his travelogue Los Encantadas.
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A compellingly stark and harsh allegory on human cruelty
Woodyanders18 September 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Character actor Everett McGill gives an excellent performance in a rare substantial starring role as Oberlus, a bitter and misanthropic outcast harpooner with a grotesquely disfigured face which gives him a hideous lizard-like appearance. Oberlus is severely mistreated by his fellow sailors, so one night he escapes to a small remote island. Oberlus makes himself ruler of the island and declares war on the rest of mankind. Anyone luckless enough to wash up on the shore of this island becomes subject to Oberlus' cruel tyranny. Cult director Monte Hellman offers an intriguing and provocative allegory on the darkest and most bestial aspects of human nature, specifically addressing how a man can be transformed into a foul and vicious monster by the inhumanity of others. McGill excels as the angry and venomous Oberlus; he receives fine support from Fabio Testi as his mean chief tormentor Gamboa, the lovely Maru Valdivielso as the fiery, free-spirited Carmen, Joseph Culp as whiny intellectual Dominic, Michael Madsen as the cowed Sebastian, and Jack Taylor as a stern ship captain. Josep M. Civit's bright, crisp cinematography, Franco Campanino's haunting score (the ending credits theme song sung by Joni Mitchell is truly beautiful), and the poignant ending further add to the overall hypnotic power of this offbeat and interesting item.
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Dark moral prophecy concerning alienation
I haven't watched every Monte Hellman film ever made, but I've now seen this, Cockfighter, Two Lane Blacktop, Ride in the Whirlwind, The Shooting, and of the movies he was part director of, Avalanche Express and The Terror. The subject matter is usually some pretty tortured stuff, The Shooting is a mad forced march into the oblivion, in a claustrophobic universe, what is called by some an existential Western, Ride in the Whirlwind is a bitter Western noir, two peaceable cowboys end up sleeping in just the wrong cabin of a night. Cockfighter and Two Lane Blacktop are almost fetishistic in their nihilism.

Iguana is the most tortured of them all perhaps. It's a movie about a harpooner, Oberlus, half of whose face is blistered and deformed. His shipmates take a disliking to him, deciding that he's some sort of Jonah, and end up tearing his flesh. Oberlus in his deep torment escapes to a deserted island of which he then proclaims himself king and declares war on the world. The soul of it is the Phantom of the Opera, which Hellman thought this movie would be like after reading a summary of the script. It wasn't so much what the original novel was like I think, but that's the mark of an auteur, to take the script and make it their own.

It feels like a spiritual return to the origins of his film-making with Roger Corman, indeed this movie could be given the title of Hellman's first movie, Beast from Haunted Cave. Oberlus enslaves washed up sailors and even a young lady. There is some graphic content in this movie and Oberlus, well let's just say he doesn't have any hang-ups.

This is a perfect example from Hellman of Roger Corman's philosophy of film-making, he liked to give the audience something to look at, but he wasn't happy unless he was making it on two levels, giving people who liked to think about the film something to think about. You never feel demeaned watching any type of movie that comes out of that philosophy, that's the true greatness of the Corman technique.

The ending is disturbing and you really can't believe Hellman ended it like that, he's well named indeed. There's also the liberal theme that if you treat people like animals they become animals. Oberlus is shunned because of his physical ugliness, which then becomes spiritual ugliness, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when his shipmates refer to him as a voodoo devil.
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IGUANA (Monte Hellman, 1988) ***
MARIO GAUCI31 July 2011
After less than encouraging outings like THE PIRATE MOVIE (1982), YELLOWBEARD (1983) and Roman Polanski's PIRATES (1986; partly shot over here in Malta), pirate movies in the 1980s were an incongruity – more so for one that was really a character study and filmed partly in Spanish, while incorporating sex, equally explicit language, gore and even horror trappings! It proved Hellman's return to the director's chair after 10 years in the wilderness – for which he was re-united with the leading man of his last, Fabio Testi (here allotted "special participation" status but actually essaying a large supporting and pivotal role) and dedicating it to that one's co-star Warren Oates who had died prematurely in the interim!

Apparently, the film and its source novel were inspired by a real person (the fanatical Queequeg character in Herman Melville's classic "Moby Dick" was also said to be based on him) and events: a harpoonist (played by Everett McGill and wearing make-up once again, following his turns as a caveman in QUEST FOR FIRE [1981} and a werewolf in SILVER BULLET {1985}!) is shunned and abhorred for his lizard-like countenance, over which he renounces God (by ostensibly invoking a zombie during a voodoo rite!) and wages war on the rest of mankind. Escaping his latest crew members' torments to a deserted island, he decides to lord it over the land and whoever happens to turn up there. Soon, he has a handful of slaves (two played by the sons of popular character actors, namely Robert Ryan and Robert Culp!), one a mute, yet another constitutes an early role for Michael Madsen but, above all, a free-spirited Spanish aristocrat (well played by the lovely Maru Valdivielso). In another unexpected – and potentially mystifying – touch, her life and McGill's occupy separate plot strands within the film until their paths eventually cross (their relationship making for a disturbing twist on the "Beauty And The Beast" theme).

Unfortunately, we do not really pity the protagonist's plight because he treats everybody as his inferior and enemy (even when he does show compassion during the very last scene, his actions are construed as criminal and inhuman!) – his deformity but also his sneaky, vengeful and domineering ways actually bring to mind 'The Phantom Of The Opera'! Madsen, Ryan (in a remarkable decapitation scene evoking a similar one in Werner Herzog's AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD {1973}) and the girl (whom he repeatedly rapes and ultimately impregnates!) get the worst deal from him, since the learned Culp teaches McGill how to read and write. "Iguana", as he is referred to, despite being given the evocative name Oberlus, harbors a particular grudge against the sadistic Testi (who struggles with the English dialogue throughout but, remarkably, has managed to retain his distinctively handsome looks): boarding the latter's ship, he single-handedly kills a couple of his mates, abducts him and blows up the vessel!

Incidentally, this specific bit of business takes place off-screen – which might give one the impression that Hellman is not interested in depicting action scenes: however, the inevitable showdown between McGill and Testi is certainly given its due. Still, the manner in which the villain perishes is deliberately left obscure and, in fact, the whole film (which Hellman personally edited) is filled with such ellipses: these include the afore-mentioned finale, where the crew of a Spanish galleon are about to land on the island in order to save the 'prisoners' and hopefully bring McGill to justice, yet we stick to the latter's personal dilemma without ever returning to them! This approach lends IGUANA a remarkably modern feel (the silken-soft visuals, then, seem to hark back to an earlier era in film-making, while the otherwise sluggish pace betrays its inherent artiness!), being also the mark of a true artist, without the need to resort to caricature and special effects as would prove the case with the recent PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies!

In the accompanying Audio Commentary Hellman describes this as being the most difficult shoot he was on, because producer Franco Di Nunzio (the man behind the notorious CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST {1980}!) would constantly fail to provide the necessary equipment. Apparently, so badly-distributed was the film that only 7 copies were ever made of it – indeed, when Hellman met Quentin Tarantino (on whose debut, RESERVOIR DOGS {1992}, he would serve as Executive Producer), the former was surprised the latter knew IGUANA at all! However, he praises other collaborators (cast, cinematographer – whom he came to in a roundabout way, having originally asked for the d.p. of THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE {1973} who had long been dead by that point, nor was he able to secure the services of his assistant on that celebrated film). When asked if he had watched Roman Polanski's ROSEMARY'S BABY {1968}, in view of the fact that the all-important infant's face is never shown, Hellman ventures to joke that they actually recruited the very same child for the role!
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Excellent low budget action adventure!!!
hokeybutt19 June 2004
No, it's not some movie about a giant lizard that eats people... though that's what the title makes me think of. This is a pretty decent low-budget movie about a toughened sailor with a facial deformity that makes him look kind of lizard-like. His shipmates don't like him much and he jumps ship one night... but they find him again, beat and brand him. After a lifetime of such abuse he decides that from now on he will live the rest of his life taking what he wants, doing what he wants and forcing others to do his will. He takes over a small deserted island and enslaves the few people who wash up on its shores... cutting off their fingers (or heads) when they get out of line. Very interesting movie... the main character is a terrible person... but at times he also becomes the hero. We see that he has become this evil man because of the way he was treated by others all his life. Lovely (but sad) ending.
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Based on a book...
arqjobmendes14 August 2018
I get the impression that this movie is based on a book: Alberto Vázquez-Figueroa's novel "La Iguana", released on 1982. Here in Brazil it was released on 1989, with the title "O Iguana". Read this book when I was in school, at the suggestion of a teacher. A very good and interesting book.
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Hellman return in a slow moving melodrama
William1 June 2000
When this film came out on video, it probably cause problem on the video store owner for which section of the store to put this film on. The film is action (sort of), horror (because of the video box cover), drama (unsimpathetic characters) and other stuff all rolled up in one in a overseas production directed by cult director Hellman. Bruce McGill stars as a misfit seaman with a messed up face who escape from a ship and wages war against mankind by keeping any castaway as his prisoners. Michael Madsen, Joseph Culp (robert's son) and even Italian leading man Fabio Testi is in this film! Maruska Dettmers was supposed to be in the film as she was listed in the trade papers, but backed out. Not recommended, but McGill's character lines are funny at times.
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"Iguana" is total nonsense .................
merklekranz27 February 2011
"Iguana" is really beautifully photographed, but as entertainment it is a miserable experience. The editing is extremely choppy, however the fatal problem is a total lack of believability. The deformed protagonist controls five or six people who washed up on his island kingdom. Obviously the self proclaimed king never sleeps, or his captives didn't want to wake him with a rock to the head? This screenplay is really so far fetched that I lost interest almost immediately. The dialog is stilted and tedious, and director Monte Hellman drops the ball at almost every opportunity. Michael Madsen is totally wasted, as is 98 minutes of your life. This is one to be avoided, and has no redeeming qualities. It's truly painful to watch such nonsense .......................... - MERK
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'Iguana' has a good premise, but the execution doesn't stick the landing.
Bryan Kluger11 August 2015
Warning: Spoilers
You might be unfamiliar with the name Monte Hellman. Monte is a film director and producer, mostly known for his excellent film 'Two-Lane Blacktop', which is in the Criterion Collection. He also made 'Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 3', was a producer on Quentin Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs', and directed some of the big action scenes in the original 'Robocop' film, which was right before he made this interesting film called 'Iguana'.

Based on an actual guy, which was then turned into a Spanish novel, then adapted into this film.'Iguana' tells the tale of a man who has been treated poorly his whole life because of his ailment, but then enters a position of power where he uses this power to torture, kill, and rape anyone who comes in his path. The film follows a man named named Iguana Oberlus (Everett McGill), who works on a 19th century whale boat. The crew and captain all make fun of him and treat him like dirt because half of his face is covered in reptile like scales.

His whole life, he has been ridiculed and beaten because of his looks and when some men on the boat try to attack him, he jumps ship and swims to a nearby island. One on the island, he declares himself king of the island and anyone who comes into his path, rather it be people lost at sea, or a woman named Carmen (Maru Valdivielso). Oberlus is not a kind man. In fact he believes that since he has been harassed and beaten through his whole life, this is his revenge on all humankind for the horrors that he has endured. He forces his prisoners to do manual labor as he has a weapon by his side at all times in case people get out of line.

In that case they are maimed, tortured, and even killed. When Carmen comes along, he rapes her consistently. Iguana tries to do the best he can with all that he knows, meaning he treats his prisoners with some sort of decency, but has no mercy or remorse if anyone gets out of line. It seems like Oberlus always wanted a chance to succeed and be liked, but that was never afforded to him, so he is taking out his hate and vengeance on innocent people he comes in contact with, because on this island, he feels that he is the all powerful one. And just like an all powerful one, he can giveth and he can taketh away. And that's just what Oberlus does.

Make no mistake about it, Iguana is a monster. Whatever kindness and true human soul is long gone from him, but there are flashes of a gentle person deep inside him somewhere. What the film 'Iguana' suffers from is in its story telling and acting. The movie is to overly melodramatic and relies on telling things in an introspective manner rather than a literal one. It gets a little tedious and slow for what it could have been. The characters are also very one note here as well, always showing all their cards from the get-go, which hinders the suspense of the film. 'Iguana' has a good premise, but the execution doesn't stick the landing.
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Another disappointment
rwagn13 May 2013
I'd read a lot about this film and was excited to view it. While not a complete turkey this one may not be worth your time or effort. The script seems hurried and incomplete and requires a incredible amount of willing suspension of disbelief. Could not understand how this average sized man with one machete and an old flintlock pistol could maintain control over several hearty sea dogs. Adding to this mystery is why they readily submit to his authority without much attempt to gain the upper hand. Also one wonders how this group continue to survive on a rather smallish island that looks pretty desolate-lots of rocks and cliffs and shore but not much vegetation and no animal life-other than fish. In retrospect the whole thing seems pretty laughable. The Iquana makeup effect looks like a B-movie rubber appliance and the much touted beheading scene was done with a coconut on a dummy's shoulders. Listen for the Three Stooges "ka-thunk" sound effect when the head hits the ground. Really bad stuff here. I give it 3 stars for the cinematography as there are some beautiful oceanic scenes found here. If you're curious about this film then at least you have some idea of what you're in for.
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