Caltiki, the Immortal Monster / Caltiki, the Undying Monster / Caltiki, il Mostro Immortale (1959/1960) -***
There are several obvious things that a person might think of immediately upon hearing the phrase, “Italian horror movie.” They might think first of the gore-soaked zombie and cannibal films from the turn of the 80’s, or perhaps of the escalating proto-slasher excess of the gialli stretching back from there to the mid-1960’s. They might focus on the mass-produced rip-offs of internationally successful Hollywood blockbusters, like the innumerable cheap copies that rose up in the wake of The Exorcist or Jaws. Or maybe the first thing that springs to mind is the always stylish but often nonsensical gothics of the early 60’s. But no matter what, I’d be willing to bet that nobody’s first association with that phrase is a tacky, stereotypically 50’s monster movie, compete with half-baked science, stuff that gives off ionizing radiation for absolutely no reason, and a running time not much in excess of 75 minutes. And yet here’s Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, proving that the Italians did indeed make at least a few films meeting precisely that description. More incredible still, Caltiki, the Immortal Monster was made in collaboration between Horrible Dr. Hichcock director Ricardo Freda and his even more talented protégé, Mario Bava. So would anybody like to explain to me how this movie wound up being so delightfully lousy with those two calling the shots? The only thing I can come up with is a combination of disorganization and disinterest. Credited director Freda has said that he all but abandoned the project about halfway through in order to force cinematographer Bava— whom he’d been attempting to push into directing— to take a more active role.
Wait— I forgot about another piece of the traditional 1950’s B-Hollywood monster formula which you’ll find employed here. Caltiki, the Immortal Monster begins with an ostensibly educational voiceover describing the disappearance of the Maya from their heavily urbanized homeland in the south of Mexico early in the seventh century. This is because the filmmakers would like us to believe that their monster was responsible for driving the Maya out of their cities, and because they would like us to believe further that this movie is actually based on an ancient Mayan legend about the return of their mighty and implacable goddess, Caltiki. I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy it for a second. Especially considering that this movie was made in 1959, what do you think the odds are that the Indians of southern Mexico ever prayed to a goddess whose name ended in “tiki?” No, I believe it’s safe to say that old Indian legend is about as real as the proverbial three-dollar bill, and that the name “Caltiki” owes more to Trader Vic than it does to the Maya.
But all that aside, the de-urbanization of the Maya really is something of a mystery, and as we begin our tale, a team of anthropologists is poking around in the jungles of Mexico hoping to solve it. One of those scientists is named Nieto (Arturo Dominici, from Black Sunday and Medusa Against the Son of Hercules), and we meet him as he comes running in hysterics and delirium back to his team’s campsite, ranting about his partner, a volcano, and Caltiki. Neither John Fielding (John Merivale, from Circus of Horrors and House of Mystery) nor Max Gunther (Gérard Herter, of Ursus in the Valley of the Lions) has a clue what to make of their colleague’s ravings, and they soon commit Nieto to the care of Ellen (Didi Perego) and Linda (Daniela Rocca, from Colossus and the Amazons and Giant of Marathon), their respective mates, whom they have brought along on the expedition for no easily understandable reason. Heaven knows Ellen fiercely resents being dragged down into the wilderness, hundreds of miles from the comforts of Mexico City, and Linda, for her part, is less than thrilled with having to watch Max try (admittedly without success) to cheat on her with his partner’s wife. As for Bob (Daniele Vargas, of The Arena and Spirits of the Dead), the last member of the party who isn’t a native guide or porter, he seems to be in it mainly for the opportunities that traveling in the bush affords for ogling cute Indio girls, like the one who takes the lead role in the ceremonial dance of appeasement which the logistics personnel begin the moment word gets out that Nieto may have had some sort of brush with Caltiki. In any case, Nieto’s solo return from the volcano he was exploring leaves a man unaccounted for, and John, Max, and Bob set out as soon as possible to try to find him. All they turn up is the man’s camera, lying on the bank of an underground pond that was exposed beneath the mountain when it erupted a few days before— a pond overlooked by an ancient statue which John identifies as a representation of Caltiki.
The film in the missing man’s camera reveals that he was attacked from behind by something that came out of that pond, and armed with this information, the other three anthropologists return to the grotto under the volcano with a full diving rig. Bob dons the diving gear, and while he doesn’t find any further trace of his vanished colleague, he does discover a virtual cemetery at the bottom of the pond. The explorers had heard that the Maya used to offer human sacrifices to Caltiki by throwing them into bodies of sacred water, and the hundreds of skeletons littering the bottom would seem to verify the stories. Equally interesting is what Bob finds mingled with the bones— a fortune in pre-Columbian gold and silver jewelry. But while he scrambles to gather up as much of the ancient treasure as he can, Bob is seized by something huge and powerful, and by the time John and Max overcome the pull from beneath the surface to haul the man up, he is dead, the majority of his flesh melted right off of his bones. A moment later, the mystery monster follows its prey to the surface to continue its attack. You’re not going to believe this, but it’s a big, soggy bag, made out of some thick, coarse material— heavy canvas, maybe, or even burlap. The flesh-eating sack extrudes a pseudopod at Max while he stupidly attempts to grab the treasure from Bob’s corpse, enveloping his right forearm. John succeeds in hacking the pseudopod away with his hatchet, but it’s too late to save Max’s arm. The perilous pouch continues to advance, and the day is saved only when John thinks to drive one of the expedition’s trucks into the entrance to the cave. The truck explodes, and the resulting flames apparently destroy the monster.
Or at any rate, they destroy its main body; John still has the severed pseudopod, and he’ll spend the rest of the movie studying it in company with Professor Rodriguez (Vittorio André) and his assistant (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, of Planet on the Prowl and The Snow Devils), hoping to find a way to counteract the poisons the creature pumped into Max while it was eating his arm. Their investigations first reveal the astonishing fact that the creature is made up of but a single cell, despite its titanic size, then the even more astonishing fact that it is at least twenty million years old. The thing appears to be, for all practical purposes, immortal. Also, in addition to being radioactive itself, it thrives on radiation from other sources, and grows at an alarming rate whenever it is exposed to radioactivity. None of that, of course, explains anything about the nature of its poison, or gives any hints as to how Max might be saved. And worse yet, the doctors who have been treating Max since he was rushed home to Mexico City believe that the toxin will soon reach the man’s brain, driving him irrevocably— and perhaps dangerously— insane.
You guessed it. Max breaks out of the hospital the moment his mental symptoms begin to show, and when he does, he makes a beeline for Ellen Fielding. Linda, in an apparent bid for 1959’s Unclear On the Concept award, initially tries to aid Max by giving him food and shelter within the basement of the Fielding house (Ellen invited her to come stay with the Fieldings until Max was released from the hospital), but she rapidly comes to fear him, both on her own account and on Ellen’s. And as if having a lunatic in the basement weren’t enough trouble all by itself, Rodriguez makes a discovery that puts an even more dismal spin on the situation. Delving into the Mayan legends concerning Caltiki, he uncovers a prophecy describing a mate for the goddess who is supposed to come from the sky. Would you believe it just so happens that there’s a radioactive comet on its way to Earth’s neighborhood even now, and that the last time said comet appeared in the sky coincided almost exactly with the fall of the Maya? Hanging onto that pseudopod doesn’t seem like such a good idea anymore, now does it?
Considering how much Freda’s and Bava’s subsequent gothic horror movies owed to their counterparts from Hammer Film Productions (esthetically, if not necessarily in terms of subject matter), I find it interesting that Caltiki, the Immortal Monster should play to such an extent like a straightforward cross between two older Hammer outings, X: The Unknown and The Creeping Unknown. As in X: The Unknown, we have a nearly indestructible, radioactive blob serving as our primary threat. As in The Creeping Unknown, the monster essentially takes over a human being, who escapes from the hospital and goes on a fairly effective rampage despite having a gimp arm as a souvenir of his initial encounter with the beastie. Caltiki, the Immortal Monster will never be mistaken for either of those films, though, for whereas its British predecessors were sober, tasteful, and occasionally even thought-provoking affairs, this movie is an unapologetic slab of concentrated cheese of the sort that only the Italians can deliver. It’s hard to say just how to apportion the blame/credit for that, however, because by far the most enjoyable of Caltiki’s many failures— outweighing even the charms of an “Immortal Monster” that’s really just a big burlap sack soaked with water and slimed with shredded tripe— is some of the most determinedly ridiculous dialogue you’re ever going to hear. This is a film in which scarcely a single line makes any sense whatsoever. Syntax is so tortured that even inmates at Abu Ghraib feel sorry for it. Anyone who appears at any point wearing a white lab coat can be counted upon to deliver a steady torrent of very large words assembled seemingly at random into sentences with no discernable meaning. And in general, total non-sequiturs come fast and furious from practically everybody. Obviously the dialogue could be purely the fault of the fools at Allied Artists who dubbed the film for import to the United States, but knowing what I do about the Italian movie industry, I have a rather hard time believing that’s all there is to it. All I know is that somebody out there was okay with a line like, “The first thing I think about this is, as soon as that reaches a point, the radioaction will appear and then it will show life.”
The one good thing that can honestly be said about Caltiki, the Immortal Monster is that the parts of it that don’t take place on tacky little laboratory sets look marvelous. Of course, with Mario Bava handling the cinematography, they’d almost have to. The film’s in black and white, so don’t expect the kind of hallucinatory color riot that became Bava’s calling card in the 60’s, but Caltiki is far away indeed from the simplistic point-and-shoot sensibility of most contemporary Hollywood monster movies. Not even Bava can make a soggy canvas bag look scary, but it’s obvious that he tried his damnedest.