The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, Riccardo Freda’s 1971 giallo, stands out within the genre for a couple of reasons. The film is set in Dublin, Ireland, and the exteriors were filmed on location. The film is also more confusing than the average giallo. That obtuseness has become its claim to fame and, oddly, the main reason to watch The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire.
The plot is needlessly convoluted. It involves a diplomatic family on the Emerald Isle, a disgraced police inspector brought back to work on a case, and a black-gloved killer who likes to throw acid in the faces of their victims. This particular deadly fetish leads to one of the greatest opening murder scenes I have ever witnessed.
The face of the victim is obviously fake. The effect of skin melting away looks more like paint peeling from an old farmhouse. When the killer slashes the throat of his already burned prey, it sounds like a raging waterfall. This may have not been intended to be utterly hilarious, but it is.
Then, when the victim is discovered in the trunk of the Swiss ambassador’s car, the doctor says her face has been rendered unrecognizable. They’ll never figure out who she is. Never mind the fact that her facial features are still present and obvious. She still has all of her teeth, so they could identify her through dental records. There is also a giant, expensive ring on her finger that could be traced! The camera zooms in on the piece of jewelry twice, just to be sure we see the thing.
That’s all in the first ten minutes.
From there, the film settles into a basic police procedural, except for one major flaw. You can’t tell the differences between the characters. I thought the main character, played by a stoic Luigi Pistillo, was named Jones. Nope! His name is Norton. There are at least four suspects with a similar look. During a pivotal scene in a bar, characters spend an inordinate amount of time giving each other knowing looks. That would be fine if we had a decent understanding of who those people were. Instead, the viewer gets to see random strangers slightly nod, steal money, and order drinks while glancing knowingly at each other.
It’s not just me. In the special feature, “Of Chameleons and Iguanas,” film critic Richard Dyer confesses to having the same difficulties with the film I had! For a short documentary piece labeled as an “appreciation” of The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, Dyer spends an inordinate amount of time talking about how mediocre the movie is.
But for film fans, there is a difference between bad and bad. A bad movie is easily dismissed with a wave and a snarky comment. But a bad movie becomes a thing of mystery, something to be examined and analyzed. That’s the greatest draw for Iguana. The plot resolves itself, albeit wonkily, but something happened within its 94-minute running time that makes this movie a wreck. And like most wrecks, it is impossible to turn away from.
Enjoying The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire requires a hefty masochistic streak. It is undeniably terrible. Even the director used a pseudonym, Willy Pareto, in the credits because he was dissatisfied with the final product. But it is compulsively watchable, especially in the 2K restoration from Arrow Video. Every improbably moment is presented in crystal clarity. With audio commentaries and special features, including an interview with assistant film editor, Bruno Michelli (who doesn’t believe the film’s incoherence is his fault), this is a great package for a ridiculous film.
Fans of Italian horror already know that searching for logic within those movies is a fruitless endeavor. The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire smashes its lack of sense into the viewer’s face like a pie during a food fight. Then again, who doesn’t like pie?
The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire is available from Arrow Video, Amazon, and wherever fine movies are sold.