Color, 1971, 102 mins. / Directed by Monte Hellman / Starring James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, Dennis Wilson / Criterion (US R1 NTSC), Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1

Perhaps the strangest entry in the big studios' existential road race craze during the '70s, Two-Lane Blacktop immediately distinguishes itself from the likes of Easy Rider and Vanishing Point by offering bizarre, Godardian dialogue about car mechanics, delivered by rock musicians and established screen actors. Coupled with splendid widescreen photography and concise direction and editing by Monte Hellman (The Shooting; China 9, Liberty 37), the result is an underrated classic of '70s drive-in cinema.

Two buddies, the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson), tear back and forth across the country's highways in their '55 Chevy. After an encounter with the abrasive G.T.O. (Warren Oates), who drives - surprise! - a G.T.O., the boys decide to race each other to Washington, D.C. for their pink slips. Along the way the boys pick up a female hitchhiker (Laurie Bird) with a proclivity for skinnydipping, causing their already abstract relationship to deteriorate.

The last word in automotobile fetishism, Two-Lane Blacktop presents The Car (the Chevy) as a crucial character and the closest emotional link for the two younger men. Though this bizarre scenario was hyped as a groundbreaking mainstream project, the film never really took off during its initial run, despite a legendary hype job from Esquire magazine. Thanks to a constantly growing cult following, coupled with the unavailability of the title to most venues due to music rights issues, the film's reputation began to soar, making it one of the most requested catalog titles on home video. Of course, the presence of cult icons Taylor and Wilson didn't hurt; both of them give fine, understated performances, but Warren Oates easily steals the film in his best non-Peckinpah performance.

Unavailable to the publci for decades after its release, this film managed to sneak in a few sparse TV screenings on VH-1 and other channels, usually heavily censored, which continued to whet fan's appetites. Two-Lane Blacktop finally appeared on laserdisc from the Roan Group in a widescreen edition with all music intact, then again on a superior anamorphic DVD from Anchor Bay. Not surprisingly, the 5.1 remix roars to life from the opening frames and never lets up; each channel constantly rumbles and putters throughout the film, though much of the intentionally obscured dialogue remains difficult to hear. Hellman provides a slow, studied commentary which pauses often but does provide some nuggets of information, particularly concerning the music issue (which extends all the way to Bird muttering the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" in a greasy spoon). Strangely, all of the leads except for Taylor have already died, which contributes even further to the film's mystique and makes the bizarre, abrupt conclusion even more resonant. The disc also includes the original trailer and a 15 minute short, Monte Hellman: American Auteur, directed by George Hickenlooper. Featuring brief snippets from Hellman's films, this mini-documentary makes for fascinating if sketchy viewing and makes the commentary more enjoyable in context.

Of course, since this was sublicensed from Universal, the Anchor Bay disc went out of circulation a couple of years after its release and quickly commanded absurd amounts of money among the traders' market. Fortunately Criterion resurrected it again with an appropriately obsessive two-disc set, and the difference in transfer technologies between 1999 and 2007 results in a much sharper and better-compressed presentation. Even better, Hellman supervised the transfer, resulting in more vivid and lifelike colors. Since this film was early '70s and always looked like it was being projected on black leather (especially the ink-black opening and closing sequences), the visuals will always look a little gritty and heavily textured, but this is representative of its intended appearance. The widescreen framing appears identical, but the Criterion benefits from sharper detail and much more colorful daylight scenes, with better fleshtones to match.

Of course, collectors will still want to hang on to their old Anchor Bay discs since the two editions have no overlap at all in terms of special features (aside from the theatrical trailer). Hellman offers a new Criterion commentary track along with filmmaker Allison Anders, which covers some of the same ground as the old track but from a bouncier, more indie-oriented angle; then screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and author David Meyer contribute another commentary track in which they talk about their intentions for the film, the interactions of the characters and their cars, and how such an unorthodox project could possibly make it all the way through the studio system. Then skipping on to disc two, on the video end you get new interviews with Hellman, Taylor, actor/musician Kris Kristofferson, producer Michael Laughlin, and production manager Walter Coblenz, with very little overlap into the material covered in the feature-length discussions. You also get a handful of never-before-seen outtakes from the actors' screen tests, a survey of the restoration of a '55 Chevy from the movie and an overview of how the film's locations look today, and a photo and promotional gallery. The set comes packaged with a separate book containing Wurlitzer's original screenplay (which is understandably light on dialogue, and yes, the ending is exactly the same), plus an insert liner notes booklet with essays by Kent Jones, amusing appreciations by Richard Linklater (from a 2001 screening) and Tom Waits, and a reprint of a 1970 Rolling Stone article reflecting the immense hype surrounding the film before its release. Obviously a film for specialized tastes, Two-Lane Blacktop has aged remarkably well as a "European" American film, and those who have pined for it over the years should find their patience well rewarded.

Color, 1988, 98 mins. / Directed by Monte Hellman / Starring Everett McGill, Maru Valdivielso, Michael Madsen, Joseph Culp, Tim Ryan, Fabio Testi, Augustin Guevara / Anchor Bay / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

Cited by cult director Monte Hellman as one of the most miserable shooting experiences of his career, Iguana was consigned to video oblivion in the U.S. and received a half hearted theatrical run through Europe. Too bad, really, as this peculiar and often compelling cross between The Tempest and The Phantom of the Opera is easily one of Hellman's most satisfying and visually fascinating films. However, those of a politically correct nature may want to find entertainment elsewhere.

After enduring endless ridicule and torture at the hands of his fellow shipmates and their unsympathetic captain, Gamboa (Fabio Testi), facially disfigured sailor Oberlus (Twin Peaks's Everett McGill) dives into the ocean and washes onto a deserted Gallapagos island. Oberlus performs a private ritual in which he renounces God and declares a personal war against humanity, which he begins to exercise when ship's cook Sebastian (Michael Madsen) washes ashore soon after. Oberlus threatens to sever one of Sebastian's fingers for every unpleasant comment, a threat which produces Oberlus' first servant. Two more additions to Oberlus' domain, good friends Dominic (Joseph Culp) and George (Tim Ryan), find their bond tested by Oberlus' demands, culminating in an unforgettable execution ritual. Meanwhile unhappily married Spanish lady Carmen (Lovers of the Arctic Circle's Maru Valdivielso) goes for a romantic nocturnal trip to the island with her lover, a decision which sends her into sexual servitude for Oberlus. This strange community forms its own bizarre, unhealthy dynamic which begins to fray when Oberlus finally snatches Gamboa from his ship, a vengeful gesture which crosses with a bizarre twist of fate involving Carmen as well.

It's probably safe to say that there has never been another film quite like Iguana. Brutally horrific and sexually blunt (both verbally and physically), it mixes pirate movie conventions, horror, visual splendor, and twisted domestic drama into one unholy stew, capped off with a stunning final shot as poetic as anything you'll ever see. Like most Hellman films, this one isn't perfect and sports its own set of idiosyncracies, such as McGill's bizarre half-English accent and the weird mix of American, Italian, and Spanish actors. However, this potpourri casting tactic also adds to the film's flavor, making it a worthwhile venture for fans of both Eurocult oddities and psychotronic cinema in general.

Iguana was partially funded with a U.S. video deal to Media, who in turn handed it over to Imperial for a brief VHS release. The fullscreen transfer quickly vanished from the shelves and is now virtually impossible to find apart from the occasional mom and pop store. Anchor Bay's version looks quite attractive, with careful attention paid to the dusky lighting inside the ships and Oberlus' cave. The moody look is vital to appreciating this film's eerie atmosphere, and the DVD gets it just right. The surround audio is generally restrained but comes to life during some oceanside sequences, including one knife duel near the end which sends the sounds of crashing waves exploding from all of the speakers. The only drawback is what appears to be the accidental omission of one sadly important dialogue sequence; you can find more details by clicking here.

Since a trailer for this wouldn't exist, the only notable extra on the DVD is a running feature length commentary by Hellman, McGill, screenwriter Steven Gaydos, and the American Cinematheque's Dennis Bartok. The candid discussion explains the production difficulties (which Hellman refers to as abusive to both himself and his crew), the location and casting decisions, and the changes (often for the better, apparently) made to the original source novel by Albert Vasquez Figueroa. Interestingly, no one mentions the presence of two familiar Jess Franco actors, Jack Taylor and Luis Barboo (the butler from Female Vampire), during the opening ship sequences.

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