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Schlock & Awe: CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER

Schlock & Awe: CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER

Every monster that made its way to movies seems to have had a major heyday at some point. From vampires to werewolves to zombies, if it works once, chances are filmmakers are going to try to make it work again. This was even true of enormous, pulsating goo monsters. In 1955, Hammer made The Quatermass Xperiment about an astronaut turning into an alien blob, then they made the similar X the Unknown the following year. And even ’50s drive-in movies from America took a key with the colorful The Blob from 1958.

But those were all scientific menaces. What none of these movies had was the blob as an ancient, world-destroying behemoth. None of them, that is, except the 1959 Italian-American production, Caltiki, the Immortal Monster.

Possessing elements of H.P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu mythos, a setting like a Mayan take on The Mummy, and a finale right out of Quatermass, Caltiki, the Immortal Monster has a ton of elements that make it stand out in the world of monster movies, while still being very familiar. It’s also mainly notable for having gorgeous black & white cinematography and impressive-for-the-time special effects by future horror maestro Mario Bava, who ended up directing all of the action and effects sequences in order to prove he could direct his own pictures, a gift from his friend Riccardo Freda, the credited director.

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Caltiki is a very interesting movie in terms of how it’s constructed; the beginning is suitably creepy before turning into kind of a weird romantic melodrama (that flatly doesn’t work), and finally becoming an all-out effects explosion by the end. It’s set in Mexico and is purportedly based on a real Mayan legend, but there’s no evidence of that in it, really. Its lead is an incredibly boring Canadian-born British actor named John Merivale who was seemingly only cast to give the movie some English theatre clout (the Italians loved British films), and any time Bava’s effects aren’t on screen, the movie drags…and yet any time they are, it’s electric.

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The film opens on an archaeological dig in Mexico for Mayan artifacts. One archaeologist comes stumbling back to camp, his partner dead, raving about having seen something in a cave. The team leader, Dr. Fielding (Merivale), becomes intrigued and takes the team into the cave to investigate. Once there, they find a deep pool of water and a giant statue to the ancient Mayan goddess Caltiki, said to be vengeful and in need of human sacrifice. One of Fielding’s associates goes into the pool and swims down to find sunken gold and treasures. Going back a second time (because he’s a greedy idiot), the man’s line becomes mysteriously taut, so they pull him up only to find, after removing his diving mask, that something has made his body instantly decay.

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The shapeless form that attacked said greedy idiot then comes looking for more, and another associate, the boorish Max (Gérard Herter), is subsequently grabbed on the arm by it. Fielding chops Max’s arm free (still engulfed by a portion of the creature) make an escape, driving a gasoline truck into the beast and having it engulfed in flame. Max’s engulfed arm has been turned into skeleton and goo. They all return to Mexico City, where Fielding has the portion of the blob held in quarantine. Max, meanwhile—already a pretty shitty person to begin with—starts to act more and more abhorrently, treating his ex-prostitute girlfriend like crap and making passes at Fielding’s wife.

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As you might have guessed, Max has been overtaken by the beast, and not only that, but the bit of the monster they have begins to move around in its container, due to a particular comet flying over the Earth, which hasn’t happened in 850 years. More pieces of this monster reawaken from around the temple and Fielding has to convince the Mexican authorities to do something about it, which leads to an explosive army-versus-blob-monster finale.

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The first thing that’s noticeable about the movie is that it’s incredibly dark. Like physically, I mean; the black and white photography has deeper blacks than most movies, especially of the era. This was so Bava could more accurately control the shadows and light, but also to better hide the joins in the special effects images. He loved to downplay his own techniques—which were top-notch—and liked to tell people that the monster was nothing more than tripe with a man inside to move it around. Whatever it is, it’s incredibly effective. It’s also got some insane gore that I’m surprised was allowed in 1959; nobody did gore like the Italians and the monster engulfing people and dissolving everything but their bones is as chilling and grotesque an image as any you could see.

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Bava also perhaps offered cinema the first found-footage sequence. In the story, the first archaeologist and his deceased and never-seen partner are in the cave, and the partner is shooting 16mm film of their findings. This is watched after the fact by Fielding and the others, and every trick you come to associate with found-footage is there. And while Bava’s doing this really innovative photography and low-budget effects, and the story brings in everything from god-worship to alien entities to the literal end of the world, the movie’s second act feels almost totally concerned with what the two couples are up to…which, let me assure you, I am not.

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I’d never seen this movie until it was released by Arrow Films this week. The beautiful thing about this Blu-ray (and really every Blu-ray Arrow releases) is that it’s packed with information. There are two feature length commentaries: one from film scholar and Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas and another by critic and Bava biographer Troy Howarth. There’s also a great interview with critic and author Kim Newman about the filmic antecedents of Caltiki, how it feels like Cthulhu but was probably just accidental, and why Blobs were a thing people feared there for awhile. Great for people curious about weird old movies, for sure, or—like me—if you’re a big fan of Lovecraft, Bava, and Quatermass author Nigel Kneale.

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Caltiki, the Immortal Monster is a weird and clearly imperfect movie, and while the acting is pretty poor from everyone except the villain of the piece, the look is incredibly moody and eerie with effects most impressive, given the limitations. Bava—who’d go on to become the father of the giallo with Blood and Black Lace and would make his stamp with Gothic mood pieces like Black Sunday, The Whip and the Body, and Kill, Baby, Kill—was first and foremost a brilliant cinematographer and special effects director, and this movie really lives and dies by this alone. Worth watching for this, and hey, it’s only 76 minutes so it’s not even much of a commitment.

Images: Allied Artists/Arrow Video

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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