By Rod Lott.
If the first two minutes of Riccardo Freda’s The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (1971) had failed to grab me, the next two of this 1971 giallo certainly would. Indoors at night, a beautiful woman suddenly becomes the opposite as acid is thrown in her face moments before her neck is gutted at the hands — black-gloved, natch — of a killer. In this sequence, only one thing stands out more than the chintzy, faker-than-fake makeup effects: the Stelvio Cipriani score … and then the sudden absence of it. The music builds in suspense as the woman realizes she is not alone, and then stops with a jarring abruptness as the killer’s hand cuts the power supply. This simple stylistic touch lets the viewer know that Iguana aims to play more self-aware; it is more than, as critic Richard Dyer says in an interview on Arrow’s new Blu-ray release, “just another giallo.”
Submitted as further evidence: its Dublin setting. That young woman’s great-looking corpse surfaces at the palatial home — all hedges and horses — of pompous Swiss ambassador Sobiesky (Anton Diffring, aka Hammer’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death, 1959) — specifically, in the trunk of his Rolls Royce. Secret passageways on the Sobiesky grounds amplify suspicion, and the mistress is hardly the last to be murdered. Called to investigate is John Norton (Luigi Pistilli from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966), a disgraced former inspector specializing in methods most unorthodox. He finds no shortage of suspects just among the Sobiesky family and staff, from a frigid wife (Valentina Cortese of Robert Aldrich’s The Legend of Lylah Clare) to a conjunctivitis-suffering chauffeur (Renato Romano, 1969’s The Italian Job).
Serving as the audience’s surrogate is Norton’s nearly blind mother (Ruth Durley, in her lone feature). Directly comparing herself to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, she susses out clues from news clippings on the crimes, then relays her theories to her amused son while also acting as play-by-play commentator on the genre’s tropes and, thus, Iguana itself. Herrings abound, as red as the blood erupting from throats (and elsewhere) like dollar-store tomato soup.
Shot in slightly unreal colors, the film culminates in a showdown marked by a nastiness in violence more realistic than Freda portrays beforehand. Its well-choreographed intensity belies Iguana’s initially awkward frame compositions and Jess Franco-style zooms, as if Freda upskilled himself as the film progressed. This is not an impossibility, given that some of the depictions of homicide may illicit unintended hysterics; in particular is a bobsledding mishap that had me reaching for the remote for an immediate replay, although a refrigerator gag qualifies as a close runner-up. These contribute to the film’s charm, as do scenes that achieve Freda’s desired reaction, whether suspense (a drawbridge foot chase, shot partially from the killer’s POV, virtually placing the open straight razor in our hands) or shock (a close-up of a head wound being surgically stitched — obviously phony, but recalling the cut-ins of genuine medical footage as a surefire sick-jolt tactic, à la René Cardona Sr.’s Night of the Bloody Apes).
Then known primarily for horror (1959’s Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, 1962’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, 1963’s The Ghost, et al.), Freda had just transitioned into the Italian thriller two years prior with the Klaus Kinski vehicle Double Face (due for Arrow release in June), but Iguana was his first true giallo. Despite what you or I think of it, Freda disowned it, which is why the print gives authorship to one “Willy Pareto.”
In the disc’s 22-minute “Of Chamelons and Iguanas,” the aforementioned Dyer offers a mixed appreciation, calling the movie both “routine” and “fascinating” as he picks the nits of plot annoyances and confusing contrivances. While he is not wrong, he appears to have let these weigh more heavily on his mind than viewers more than willing to cede to the film’s hour and a half of significant pleasures. (Speaking of, Arrow’s welcome inclusion of Iguana’s fumetti adaptation from an issue of Cinesex magazine accentuates the carnal; note how the pages’ frame sizes expand in presumed accordance with male characters’ members.)
One barely has to guess what Brian De Palma must think of The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, because his Dressed to Kill owes a huge debt to Freda’s frenzied conclusion. As for what influenced Iguana itself, that’s transparent, starting with its unwieldy animalistic title; unlike most gialli, the script at least makes a reasonable attempt to justify it.
Rod Lott runs the genre film website FlickAttack.com. A former professional journalist, he has written for Psychotronic Video, Something Weird Video and numerous books.