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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
1959's Caltiki, il mostro immortale (Caltiki, The Immortal Monster) was an Italian copycat monster movie that mimicked either England's The Quatermass Xperiment or America's The Blob, depending on which version of events one is reading. It's also one of the first Italian fantasy films to be marketed as a stealth-Anglo production, hoping to be confused for a then-popular English film in the wake of Hammer's highly lucrative international success. All advertising credits used names that disguised their Italian origins, even on Italian prints. The once proud director of Italian costume epics Riccardo Freda saw nothing wrong with hiding behind the screen name Robert Hampton, and went out of his way to defer to his cameraman-effects maestro Mario Bava. Bava had taken over the earlier I Vampiri when Freda's schedule was truncated, and here we're informed that Freda simply abdicated his director's chair, letting Bava take over. It may have been Freda's way of forcing the imaginative Bava into becoming a director.
Caltiki shows Mario Bava literally making something out of nothing, with real locations limited to his usual quarries, beaches, grottoes and villas. Much of the movie is clever visual effects, some of which were really shocking when seen on American screens. With a story built around a couple of truly brilliant narrative devices, Caltiki went The Blob one step further, showing what really happens when the flesh-eating monster embraces its human prey.
Fielding installs his family in a house outside Mexico City while experts determine that the surviving fragment of Caltiki is virtually ageless. Did Caltiki destroy the Mayan civilization six hundred years ago? And why is it suddenly active now? It takes an astronomer to piece together the missing parts of the puzzle: Caltiki is energized by the radiations from a comet that has only now returned to proximity with the earth. Back home, Ellen and her maid Linda (Daniela Rocca) are in double jeopardy. Deranged by his experience, Max is armed and coming to kill Linda and claim Ellen as his own. Down in John's basement lab, the sample of Caltiki is already growing inside its glass container, eager to escape, multiply and search for more flesh to consume.
Irwin Yeaworth Jr.'s The Blob was a perfect model of minimalist menace, with an outer space monster as simple as 2001: A Space Odyssey's Monolith: a red mass that functions as a 'universal solvent' for organic matter. Like Kurt Vonnegut's Ice 9 in the book Cat's Cradle, whatever the blob touches becomes more blob, contributing to the blob's Gross National Product and keeping taxes low.
Writer Filippo Sanjust's Caltiki is a unicellular creature that expands to the size of a small truck, and is more closely related to the massive aggregate heap-monster that bursts forth in the last minute or two of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass 2. Caltiki outpaces The Blob's simple "Life Will Find A Way" consumer imperative with an M.O. that brilliantly combines the supernatural and the scientific. A wandering comet returns to Earth every six centuries, and its radiations activate the dormant creature. Caltiki is thus 'immortal' but limited to a cyclic calendar event of the very kind that Central American astronomers charted and predicted. "Hiya Xochipetl! Are we gonna have a ho-hum eclipse this year, or an apocalyptic scourge of the Gods?" 1
Caltiki's second stroke of brilliance is its scare build-up created by a second-hand media experience, first seen in the 'found footage' from the space capsule in The Quatermass Xperiment and so cleverly exploited for The Blair Witch Project. With the 'reality TV' logic that states that events perceived through a camera are more 'real' than a simple dramatization, Caltiki stretches its first act into three separate hikes to the dreaded Caltiki cave. First, the doomed explorer staggers out of a blinding white light that expresses his scrambled mind. The explorers retrace his steps, ready for trouble. They instead find only an empty cave and an abandoned camera, overlooking a shriveled head hidden behind a rock. After screening the film taken by the dead men our heroes return once more, by which time the suspense is almost unbearable. We're no longer thinking about the gaps in logic. Why is the base camp located so far from the Caltiki cave, necessitating multiple Val Lewton-style suspense walks? We're given to understand that the Caltiki Cave is a remote and undiscovered ruin. Why then is a conveniently parked truckload of explosives sitting on a road just outside - with a sign reading "Danger: Explosives"?
Caltiki can ignore points like this because the film's real content is a series of unforgettable shock images. When the diving mask is pulled from frogman Bob, his face has been reduced to an oozing skull with a wild, staring eye. It's a huge close-up reveal that elicits screams from audiences. Even Dr. Fielding grimaces in disgust. Clumsy Max runs back for the gold and gets an arm stuck in the Caltiki mass, like the proverbial Tar Baby. John has to hack it off with an ax. The shot of the doctors pulling the piece of Caltiki Goo from the steaming remains of Max's right hand and forearm is a true clinical horror. After these body blows, Caltiki can settle into more conventional storytelling until the immortal monster's rebirth in the third act.
Many reviews have picked up on the information that Mario Bava created Caltiki from cow entrails, leading to mental images of whole heaps of Moo guts being pushed around studio sets. A 'rendering byproduct' or two may have been used in a couple of close-ups but for most shots the Roman Glob Monster appears to be a sticky wet mass of something like a Chamois cloth, manipulated puppet-like from within. When it's growing, it looks as if (a guess) it's being inflated and deflated with compressed air. A full-sized 'wall of Glop' looks like canvas sprayed with goo and is seen only in a few angles; in most shots Bava uses cleverly matched miniature settings. The Caltiki masses thrash about in an excellent house interior, at one point tipping over an impressive miniature refrigerator. The illusion of size is let down only by the film's inadequate sound effects. Split screens and foregrounding the monster do the rest.
Not unlike The Trollenberg Terror, the conclusion of Caltiki suffers from unconvincing photography of miniature tanks and fire, which needed slow-motion overcranking that probably posed too many lighting problems. Although the various separate Caltiki Globs apparently rejoin to rise in a giant heap in the Fielding's front garden, the movie's toy tanks look foolish. The movie never approaches the promise of Allied Artists' wild poster hype: "Whole Cities Swallowed Up By Gruesome Mile-High Glob!"
Only now do we appreciate the scope of Mario Bava's visuals that transform the same dull Rome-adjacent quarry into a valley of giant Mayan towers, and create an optical-free volcano by using an on-set aquarium -- this trick must be seen to be believed. Many convincing split screens are put across through creative lighting alone, in the manner of classic stage illusions.
One needs to delve into Tim Lucas' Mario Bava tome to see if the movie did well in Italy, but it was reportedly a reasonable success in the United States. As Caltiki, The Immortal Monster it opened late in 1960 and was still playing on double bills the next year with Gorgo. When it finally hit TV's Chiller Theater, trimmed of the goriest bits of the unlucky Max's final demise, Caltiki was an instant focus of playground gab. It's remained a fond memory ever since. 2
John Merivale's scientist has a couple of perfunctory domestic scenes with his wife and child, and then listens while a ridiculous machine with flashing lights 'carbon dates' a sample of Glop sitting unmolested in its glass box. He's also impressed by an astronomer's pontificating about the comet in the sky, while we get perfunctory scenes set in hospitals and observatories. A car crash appears to come directly from an old Republic serial. Mario Bava 'sells' the effect of the comet by panning from the glass box to a window, dissolving to a smeary glow in the sky, and then returning to show the Caltiki sample swelling obscenely in its box, causing the glass lid to clink open. The effect is as creepy as the minatory drop of water in Black Sabbath.
Didi Perego naturally receives Caltiki into her home wearing a filmy nightgown (Didi, not the monster), adding a gothic element as she retreats down hallways invaded by the galloping Glop. Curious Daniele Vargas breaks a local taboo to photograph a stagy 'native dance', an act that prefigures his calamitous meeting with the zillion year-old monster. Daniela Rocca, soon to become a sex figure in costume pictures, is the suffering Mexican maid betrayed by Gérard Herter's sneering Max. Herter would later become familiar to Spaghetti Western fans by his portrayal of another German, the Baron von Schulenberg in La resa dei conti (The Big Gundown). The most depressing thing about the American version is its grating dubbing job. Although the actors are clearly speaking English nobody sounds natural, and the actress voicing Fielding's young daughter is atrocious. The dubbing for Max is also overdone to the point of comic excess. Roberto Nicolosi's score hits all the right moods, and punches through emphatically at key moments, like a shock cut from Fielding being restrained by the Mexican police, to Caltiki smashing through a hallway double door.
Caltiki, The Immortal Monster is one of the few monster romps where the story structure is as important as the Sci-Fi menace. It's a shame that the remake-mad idiots in today's film industry pointlessly remake memorable films instead of re-imagining the good ideas only partially developed in pictures like Caltiki, The Crawling Eye or Terror from the Year 5000. With Mario Bava's visual inventiveness backing it up, Caltiki is a darn good monster film, if not an immortal classic.
The NoShame label ceased releasing Region 1 DVDs in 2006, and Caltiki, il mostro immortale came out only in Region 2. The enhanced transfer looks very good, although a bit soft and dark, as if Galatea and Lux Film were contractually obliged to export the original negative to Allied Artists (where it may now be in the hands of Warner Bros.). Some of the effects are difficult to examine in detail, but the image quality is way beyond anything I've seen since the film was on movie screens.
The disc has Allied Artists' English language track but the Italian track is recommended for those who already know the story by heart. Although the lips don't match and no English subtitles are included, the mix and voice quality are superior in the Italo track. The extras include interviews with critic Stefano Della Casa and filmmaker Luigi Cozzi, although both are again in Italian without subtitles. A really ragged remnant of the over-hyped U.S. trailer is included, along with the U.S. opening credits sequence and a photo gallery.
Caltiki is a hot prospect for a Region 1 disc; Anchor Bay was considering releasing it here a couple of years back. Here's hoping one shows up soon, from NoShame or whoever can make it happen. 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Caltiki, il mostro immortale rates:
1. This one's a shot in the dark. In Diabolik, John Philip Law steals a set of emeralds from what sounds like "historic Sanjust Castle". Is this an in-joke reference to writer Filippo Sanjust? Aw, it's so pointless that it doesn't even bear checking it out.
2. Caltiki has not one but two indelible childhood memories for Savant. At age nine at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, I saw TV ads for Gorgo (early 1961?) and begged to be able to see the movie for my birthday. My parents had taken me to Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Lost World but must have drawn the line at sitting through a double bill of Gorgo and Caltiki. I was used to seeing pictures alone at the little base theater a block away, where I'd plunk down my 15 cents, see the show and then exit, all very neat and tidy. My parents somehow got the idea that they could drop me off in downtown Honolulu to sit through a double bill by myself, without so much as an explanation of how real civilian theaters worked. My mom bought the ticket at the Hawaii box office and asked the cashier when she should come back for me. I entered the theater alone with a mob of people; patrons just came in at any old time and left when the movies cycled, the 'this is where we came in' routine.
I didn't know anything about such things. I obeyed when an usher (in a uniform!) hustled me into a seat. Gorgo was just being paraded through downtown London, which means that the movie was already more than half over. I was of course enchanted; even starting in the middle, Gorgo was the most exciting thing I'd yet seen. The house lights came up and I realized I was in an auditorium with perhaps a thousand people, not just a couple of hundred. People were pushing and the ushers were giving hell to some rowdy kids a few rows in front of me.
So here comes the guilty confession part. As a kid I was obsessed with authority and following rules, and would become distraught when other kids acted up, in any situation (long story). A big usher in a red uniform ran down the aisle and shouted at some kids, and then turned to walk back up ... in my direction. Just the sight of him coming my way erased all rational thought from my mind ... I was sure he was going to single me out personally and start shouting for me to leave. After all, at the Air Force Base the lights coming up was the cue to exit. It didn't matter than many people were staying put; I jumped up and walked out of the theater to the sidewalk. Yep, I was that sheltered and naïve. So for the next 2.5 hours I stood waiting on a creepy downtown street corner. It must have been twenty minutes before I realized I'd cheated myself out of seeing the rest of Gorgo and all of Caltiki, and staring at the one-sheets in the theater facade didn't help. Yes, childhood tragedy takes many shapes.
In about three months, both features came to the little Hickam theater, the movie house about two blocks from my home, so I got to see them both. Military theaters had a great system. Each one had seven separate one-sheet display cases, showing the next seven movies, all single bills. Each film came with a trailer and a poster for the attraction to come in seven days, and the new poster went up as the one for the current film came down. So the outside of the theater was an ever-changing art gallery of coming attractions. I could see a movie if the poster wasn't too sleazy ... most horror films were off limits but Sci-Fi was okay, as long as it wasn't something like Village of the Damned, which advertised adult themes like children fathered by things from outer space. Caltiki was okay, as the poster just showed a city being engulfed by a blob while screaming people ran in panic. Nothing inappropriate for kids there.
I went to the theater at 7PM sharp, paid for my ticket and walked to the row of vending machines. My mother had given me four pennies to buy a bag of salty, dry popcorn, which of course tasted terrific when you're nine and eager to see monsters. But the machine was out of order. I had no pockets in my clothes so held the pennies in my hand. Caltiki was very scary and very enjoyable. It's weird that I'd freak when confronted by a uniform in a disorderly situation, and yet have no problem accepting screaming humans with the flesh melted off their faces. Now I knew what 'immortal' meant, too. I walked home and was told to get into my pajamas. That's when I finally opened my hand to put down the pennies ... and saw that the inside of my palm was a brown smear -- a dull stain spread from my fingers to my wrist. I let out a yelp -- Caltiki had got me and I was melting!
My father had to explain that the sweat from clenching my fist all the way through the movie had dissolved a film of nickel and copper from the pennies, and that I was perfectly okay. I guess that was proof that I had 'white knuckled' the entire movie experience.
3. So far, the only American source for this R2 disc that I know of is Xploited Cinema. I've never ordered anything from the company but it has an excellent reputation among my friends. Now, enough with the unpaid advertising, Savant.
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