Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959) Blu Ray & DVD (Arrow)
A group of scientists take part in an expedition to the ancient Mayan city of Tikal in Mexico, to investigate why it was abandoned by its inhabitants many hundreds of years ago. When two group members named Nieto and Ulmer go exploring in one of the caves, the former runs back to the camp in hysterics with his colleague nowhere to be seen. When the rest of the team look for Ulmer they fail to find him, but they do come across a huge statue of a goddess known as Caltiki. Later on another member of the team is attacked by a mysterious creature while diving in a treasure-filled pool. When he is dragged out of the water the scientists find him dead, his flesh stripped away.
Afterwards a huge amorphous blob-like creature emerges from the pool and attacks another member of the team named Max (Gerard Herter) by absorbing his arm. While his colleague John Fielding (John Merivale) manages to cut him free, removing the remnants of the amorphous form results in the flesh of his arm being pulled away. What’s left of the team leaves the site, but John takes the remaining part of this mysterious entity home to study it.
Unfortunately, whatever attacked Max is starting to affect the rest of him, partially disfiguring his face and turning him gradually more insane. John races against time to understand the biological form of this strange creature and hence have a chance of treating Max. However, it may already be too late.
Watch a trailer:
Caltiki the Immortal Monster is notable for being one of the earliest forays into directing by Mario Bava, a seminal Italian horror and genre filmmaker whose work only gradually gained appreciation over the years. Riccardo Freda was the original director but left the project long before filming was due to wrap, leaving Mario Bava, who handled the cinematography and special effects, to complete it himself on an uncredited basis. The same situation had occurred on their previous film together, Lust of the Vampire (1957). It is known that Freda had left deliberately so as to give his friend Bava the chance to show off his talents to producers.
It’s an uneven but rather enjoyable sci-fi horror featuring a creature that’s uncannily similar to that of The Blob from the previous year, and a story that takes a heavy influence from The Quatermass Experiment (1955). In turn, it feels a lot like a precursor to the 1985 Tobe Hooper favourite Lifeforce in terms of its overall style and structure, albeit on an infinitesimally smaller budget.
There’s plenty of flaws here. Despite the slender runtime of 76 minutes some scenes have the clear air of padding, a native dance early on being a classic example. The pacing feels lumpy and the editing jumpy. The Bava-created effects are at times surprisingly good given the budget and rather crude means of execution; the amorphous creature, for instance, was created from tripe-covered sheets dumped on top of an actor. However at other times the effects are rather too obvious, in particular the shots of miniature tanks near the end.
Nonetheless, the whole thing works well in its own way, blending various genres with a shameless abandon and staggering sense of ambition given its budgetary limitations. The first first act comes across like an Indiana Jones style adventure but with a more overt horror atmosphere. The midsection is basically a fugitive-on-the-run film mixed with a bit of Quatermass-style science fiction detective work. The final third shifts into a Godzilla-style monster-on-the-loose flick with miniature architecture turning to rubble and the army getting called in. A few padded or talky scenes may cause the attention to wander, but there’s never a moment of action or terror far away to bring it right back.
Bava’s cinematography and matte paintings display his impressive ability to depict atmospheric and otherworldly spaces on screen. While his decisions were doubtless motivated by severe financial limitations - cheap sets were hidden via expressionistic use of smoke and shadows, or made to look more grand than they actually were via effectively-placed mattes - the end results do have a sense of undeniable artistry. While Caltiki has plenty of shortcomings, it’s hard to deny that it’s a great-looking film.
Runtime: 76 mins
Dir: Riccardo Freda, Mario Bava
Script: Filippo Sanjust
Starring: John Merivale, Didi Sullivan, Gerard Herter, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Vittorio Andre, Daniele Vargas, Arturo Dominici, Daniela Rocca
The 2K restoration is a thing of B & W beauty, with the blob-like creature coming out in all of its slimy, tripe-composed glory. Contrast levels are superb and lead to some impressively rich imagery.
The soundtrack wavers a bit, but the sound effects and dialogue are fine. Both Italian and English soundtracks are available.
The enclosed booklet includes a trio of essays. The first, “Gothic Monstrosity, Radioactive Terror” by Kat Ellinger, takes a look at the genesis of Italian horror movies and how Caltiki fused sci-fi and gothic tropes, as well as its parallels with the British sci-fi/horror ventures of the 1950s including X the Unknown and The Quatermass Experiment. The second, “Deconstructing Caltiki” by Roberto Curti, is a wonderfully detailed essay which looks heavily into the contribution Mario Bava, his father Eugenio, and nominal director Riccardo Freda made to the film. The final, “Caltiki, More or Less” by Tim Lucas, looks at a print (supplied as an extra) that was in full aperture 1.33:1 format. Some scenes were matted to be in 1.66:1 format (which was the format of the cinema release) but others (including most of the effects shots, which would have been shot by Bava) were not. Lucas speculates that the hard-matted shots were Freda’s footage, and that the non-matted were Bava’s.
Tim Lucas Commentary
A commentary by the author of “Mario Bava - All the Colors of the Dark”. As you might expect the commentary is loaded with trivia about how Bava handled the various effects shots, plus many references to his wider career. We learn that his contract with the studio (Galatea) had meant that his co-directing work with Riccardo Freda went uncredited. Freda himself was reportedly a scary tyrant who regularly came on set with two leashed, barking dogs - and had more of a passion for gambling on his horses than for cinema itself. Apparently 100 kg of tripe was used for the creature effects during 3 days of shooting, and by the end of this the smell of rotten meat was “killing people for real”. A highly enjoyable commentary for anyone with an interest in Bava’s work.
Troy Hogarth Commentary
The author of “The Haunted World of Mario Bava” and “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films” gives a wonderfully lively and enthusiastic commentary on the film. He goes a lot further into the careers of the actors here than Tim Lucas did. He also dispels the myth that Mario Bava directed the underwater sequence in Dario Argento’s 1980 film Inferno (although Bava was indeed involved in shooting some other sequences for that film). It’s arguably the better of the two commentaries due to Troy’s punchier approach.
Full Aperture Version of the film
It’s the version of the film that Tim Lucas talks about in his booklet, allowing us to look at Mario Bava’s non-matted effects shots. In full aperture some of these shots look more impressive (such as those of the amorphous creature rampaging in John’s family home), but those of the miniature tank finale are even more laughable than they were in the default 1.66:1 format. Still, it’s a nice extra for buffs.
From Quatermass to Caltiki
The always-entertaining Kim Newman talks about Caltiki’s influences, i.e. the gothic and sci-fi horror cycles. In particular, he covers the parallels between Caltiki and The Quatermass Experiment, The Blob and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. As ever, Newman displays a spectacular breath of cinematic knowledge and an infectious, almost boundless enthusiasm in his delivery.
Riccardo Freda, Forgotten Master
Italian language documentary featuring an interview with critic Stefano Della Casa, who was a friend of Riccardo Freda. He reminisces about the director and his work. It’s mostly talking heads stuff along with a few clips from Caltiki. Stefano rattles through it so rapidly that, as a non-Italian speaker, it is difficult to take in the English-language subtitles that flash by. Some more video footage and/or stills from his various films would have helped enormously. As it is, this is rather dry, and hard work to sit through unless you know some Italian.
The Genesis of Caltiki
An interview with Italian genre director Luigi Cozzi taken at his Profundo Rosso sci-fi/horror memorabilia store in Rome. He is full of love for Caltiki, a film he first saw as a child at a “fleapit” that allowed him in despite the film’s X certificate. While much of what he says overlaps with the other material here, he does note the oft-neglected contribution of writer Filippo Sanjust, who reportedly performed a lot of uncredited work on the film’s production design. He also mentions that one of the major issues with creating a monster from tripe was that, after rotting for some time, it drew flies, which was an issue in particular during scenes where it was onscreen with scale models.
Stefano Della Casa Introduction
A very brief archival intro by the Italian film critic.
U.S. Theatrical Trailer
Caltiki! Caltiki! Caltiki! A wonderful period trailer with that starts off with the narrator repeating the film’s title over and over with an echoplex-style effect.
Alternative Opening Titles
The English-language opening narration and titles used for the U.S. release.
Vintage French Caltiki Photocomic
A .pdf file accessible via BD-ROM or DVD-ROM
An entertaining low budget film despite its problems. The extras are plentiful and generally superb.