It is the 19th Century and aboard this sailing ship the resident harpoonist, known as Iguana (Everett McGill) for his disfigured, scaly face, has gotten himself into trouble thanks to his surly attitude. Throwing a spear at one of his superiors after their idle taunts get too much, he is beaten on deck by way of punishment which only strengthens his resolve to get away, so when everyone else is asleep he takes some belongings and jumps overboard, swimming off to the nearest deserted island. It's an inhospitable place, but that suits him fine and he tries worshipping a pagan god for comfort, but a fat lot of good that does him as his old shipmates land on the island and recapture him. Yet if Iguana could get away, he could tell the world what he really thought of it...
Director Monte Hellman spent most of the eighties crafting second unit photography, something of a comedown after his cult acclaim during the previous decade as now that kudos didn't amount to very much when you were reduced to helming a Silent Night, Deadly Night straight to video sequel. However, he did have the chance to apply himself to projects where ostensibly he was calling the shots, and he came aboard Iguana as a director for hire, in spite of not being entirely convinced this was right for him. It turned out to be what he described as one of the worst experiences of his career, mostly thanks to a producer who refused to step up and actually get them the material and funds they needed.
Therefore it was just as well the film was shot mostly on location in Lanzarote, since sets were not an optimum necessity, but they still had a story to tell and after some rewriting from Hellman he got it into a kind of shape he was more or less happy with. You could tell he didn't get everything he had wanted, however, with a choppy editing technique suggesting the coverage he needed was simply not available, and what with it being a film that built to a climax mixing sympathetic humanity with an act that few would find it possible to forgive, this was going to be a tough sell, even to the arthouse crowd who Hellman's most personal works would be most recommended. Nevertheless, there were those who judged it one of his best films.
It wasn't, but it was interesting in telling a purportedly based on fact tale that refused to sweeten the pill of what happens when an outcast stops trying to fit in with the society which shuns him and decides to pit himself against it instead. Granted there were only so many representatives of Planet Earth Hellman could place in this, so in the main Iguana, or Oberlus as he is really called, terrorises a select group of hapless souls who have arrived on the island he is determined to call home. After escaping a second time, he rounds up three men, including Michael Madsen's Sebastián who loses two fingers thanks to his new boss's strict regime, and sets them to work as his slaves, using force to get them to comply though Sebastián oddly begins to see his point of view and starts to agree willingly.
Most controversially, or would have been if anybody very much had seen it, is when a woman shows up, taking a break with her fiancée on the island before heading off to their wedding. She is a Spaniard with some noble blood, Carmen (Maru Valdivielso), and at first she is horrified at being captured and used for sex by Oberlus, but then in the sort of scene you'd hoped had been left behind in the seventies we get a bit with her being raped then finding herself enjoying the experience against her better judgement, not the sort of sequence that is going to make you many friends. As if that were not bad enough, the natural results of all this intercourse will have the audience balking at the lead character's reactions; he thinks he is humane for possibly the first time in his life, but we cannot agree when his notions of decency and mercy have been so twisted by the punishment meted out to him for being different. Fabio Testi was the Captain who represented the unyeilding prejudice Oberlus has suffered, yet you cannot excuse him his actions in a harsh, spiky work. Music by Franco Campanino.
"Existential" is a word often used to describe the films of this American director, who after working for Roger Corman on Beast from Haunted Cave, Back Door to Hell and The Terror directed two cult westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. In the 1970s he continued his cult acclaim with Two Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and China 9 Liberty 37, but come the 80s the directing work dried up, with only Iguana and Silent Night, Deadly Night 3 to his name. He also worked behind the scenes on The Wild Angels, Robocop and Reservoir Dogs, among others.