It creeps and leaps and slides and glides along the wall… and then it eats your face, dude. Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda’s ultimate monster mastication epic now looks sensationally gory, thanks to a full restoration. Arrow’s disc has pretty much everything, including two transfers and two audio commentaries. And Savant has a guilty admission to make — it was the tripe, the whole tripe, and nothing but the tripe.
Caltiki, The Immortal Monster
Blu-ray + DVD
Arrow Video USA
1959 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 76 min. / Caltiki, il mostro immortale / Street Date April 11, 2017 / Available from Arrow Video / 39.95
Starring: John Merivale, Didi Sullivan (Perego), Gérard Haerter, Daniela Rocca, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Daniele Vargas, Arturo Dominici, Gay Pearl
Cinematography: John Foam (Mario Bava)
Special Effects: Mario Bava
Film Editor: Mario Serandrei
Original Music: Roberto Nicolosi
Written by Filippo Sanjust
Produced by Bruno Vailati
Directed by Robert Hamton (Riccardo Freda) & Mario Bava
Who says that Blu-ray is dying? So many boutique labels are releasing so many hotly desired older pictures that there never was a better time to be a film collector on home video. In simultaneous U.S. and U.K. editions, Arrow Video has just released Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava’s terrific sci-fi horror thriller Caltiki, The Immortal Monster. It’s the first U.S. home video exposure for this elusive show, which ten years ago came out in a Region 2- only DVD from the much-lauded company NoShame. Although not of the best quality, that Italian disc was a revelation when all we could see were smeary public domain copies of the American version released by Allied Artists.
The show is a nostalgic favorite for Savant, and the fact that its acting is pedestrian and its dramatics shallow means little to me. For lovers of monster movies it’s an almost-perfect assembly of borrowed ideas. I wrote about Caltiki back in 2007 for the NoShame release. For the basic facts — like, who ‘Robert Hamton’ is — that’s the place to start. Other than repeating the synopsis, I’ll try to go in a different direction here. The older review also has the footnote with my personal story of being ‘attacked’ by Caltiki . . . which I also won’t repeat.
An exploration party to the Yucatan ruins of Tikal is disrupted when one professor returns to camp in shock, babbling nonsense. Dr. John Fielding (John Merivale of A Night to Remember and Circus of Horrors) bids his unhappy wife Ellen (Didi Perego, using the name Didi Sullivan) goodbye and investigates with his associates Max Gunther and Bob (Gérard Haerter & Daniele Vargas). They find a camera by a grotto pool overseen by a statue of the Goddess Caltiki. When the film is screened, the researchers watch their colleagues descend into the grotto and then fire their guns in panic at some unseen threat. Bob explores the pool with scuba gear and finds a fortune in gold relics, but is killed when a horrible, shapeless, flesh-dissolving creature emerges to attack the intruders. John kills the monster with fire but Max is taken to the hospital with a piece of ‘Caltiki’ that has completely consumed his forearm.
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 in the sixth century? And why is it suddenly active now? It takes an astronomer to solve 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. Max has been deranged by Caltiki’s effect on his brain, and arrives to threaten both of them. 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.
Caltiki is indeed cobbled together from motifs that had already proved successful with Italian audiences. Commentators Tim Lucas and Troy Howarth, Kim Newman and others all properly nail Caltiki as having raided The Quatermass Xperiment, X The Unkown and maybe even The Blob for inspiration; to that I would add Them! for the introduction of a delirious character shouting the title buzz-word, and the military assault at the finale. Interestingly, Caltiki takes on a mass-attack scene that Warner Bros. giant ant saga shied away from, because of the expense. Mario Bava’s incredibly creative special effects work miracles elsewhere in the picture, only to stumble somewhat when the film’s finish becomes too ambitious.
Caltiki is finally out in a presentation that allows us to examine Mario Bava’s ingenious special effects, the marvels that distinguish his work from ‘blobs’ made of silicone: Jack H. Harris’s The Blob and Toho’s The H-Man. When it rises at the finish as one giant ‘amoeba,’ the Caltiki monster seems a close relation to the huge blob monsters at the end of the second Quatermass opus, Quatermass 2. The three living mountains of alien protoplasm in that show looked like piles of rubber scraps, but Bava’s monster fully earns the descriptor ‘visceral.’ I’ve resisted for years the notion that Caltiki is made from tripe, which I’ve only seen scraps of on a plate. The blobby things in the movie are convincingly organic in their menace. The bag-like cow innards look appropriately revolting when enhanced with something viscous & sticky, and manipulated from inside like greasy, drippy gut-muppets.
Let’s get up close and personal with cow innards!
At Wiki’s tripe article are several photos of the various kinds of tripe. Bava may have found out that Hammer’s final-stage ‘Victor Caroon’ monster was partly made from tripe, as the ‘reticulum’ variety from stomach #2 has a similar honeycomb texture. Caltiki looks viscous and wrinkly, like the ‘abamasum’ tripe from another bovine stomach chamber. Both Lucas and Howarth quote first-person sources that confirm that hundreds of pounds of tripe were used in the production, and was even draped over wire armatures when full-scale ‘walls’ of Caltiki were needed. A few hours out of the fridge, and the heaps of tissue surely earned the expression, ‘bad enough to gag a dog off a gut wagon.’
Bava stretches his miniature effect skills to the maximum for Caltiki. The excellent miniature interior rooms and house exteriors look as if built to serve the specific needs of a storyboard. The film’s entire final act is a series of suspense crescendos that begin with that unnerving shot of a Caltiki mass growing in Fielding’s basement lab, making its glass container clink. We do not want that thing to get out of there. It immediately begins dividing itself, as in educational films about cell mitosis. Multiple ambulatory blobs are soon swarming through the house and its garden. Although some angles are better than others, Bava’s visualization of these scenes is superb. Only one split screen effect puts Didi Perego in the same frame with a miniature blob, yet the presence of the things is sold with expert POV cutaways.
Tim Lucas points out the exceptionally good editing that helps ‘sell’ the effects in these scenes – the cutting isn’t compromised by insufficient effects material. Bava emphasizes the notion that the Caltiki blobs are cutting off all avenues of escape for Ellen, as it climbs the stairs and bursts into her room. When Caltiki prepares to knock down the decorative screen that separates it from the villain Max, a little Max silhouette keeps continuity with the live-action actor on the other side. The things seem unstoppable. Maria Serandrei’s most impressive edit, with composer Roberto Nicolodi’s help, is a shock cut from Fielding being restrained in the police station, to a Caltiki blob smashing through a pair of doors. Note to music editors — the accompanying burst of music anticipates the cut by a couple of frames. It’s no mistake – I think touches like this add to the feeling of unpredictability.
Both Lucas and Howarth feel compelled to defend the film’s miniatures, which are often obvious. A candelabrum falls over, for instance, and none of its candles breaks. Various doors and walls seem made of fiberboard, etc. Excellent lighting helps to make these miniature sets, most likely only three or four feet in width, look real. Bava’s deep focus also adds to the realism. But he doesn’t use slow motion, which would have really helped in many shots, such as a refrigerator being knocked over in the basement lab. Better sound effects for furniture and doors being smashed would have helped, too.
The Caltiki blobs themselves look appropriately icky at sound speed, as they fold and unfold like real viscera. They compare well to the international competition. The Blob is eerie and abstract, but is seen only in limited cutaways that don’t always ‘sell’ its presence with the actors. X – The Unknown is seen only in a few limited angles. The H-Man behaves differently in almost every shot, often using sound effects to indicate its presence. By contrast, the slimy goo in Caltiki is always in our faces. Some views of the blobs look uncomfortably pornographic, like unidentifiable ‘dirty’ bits of anatomy . . . particularly to us repressed Americans. Was Caltiki a formative influence for David Cronenberg? I can imagine a Cronenberg remake where the monster is simply a giant mutated human organ, running amuck but still motivated by its owner’s libido.
Mario Bava over-cranked his camera in Black Sunday to achieve glorious slow-motion effects. But he didn’t do it here, where it’s really missed. Caltiki’s giant blob action is comparable to similar effects in 1958’s The Trollenberg Terror. That film’s well-designed miniature effects are also betrayed by the small scale and normal frame rate. Mario Bava was such a camera magician that I’m willing to believe that Caltiki doesn’t use slow motion for a technical reason. Perhaps his personally- owned cameras had no provision to use variable-speed drive motors. Along with the overly ambitious shots of badly scaled fire, the obvious army tank toys fool nobody.
An in-the-camera magician, Bava rarely if ever used film-duplicating tricks with an optical printer, where slow motion fire could have been combined with sound-speed footage. I see no rear-projection process photography in the show at all. But the camera tricks Bava does pull off are remarkable. That opening illusion of Tikal, with its collage of photos and bric-a-brac and a large aquarium to hold a volcano belching smoke (tempera paint) is pretty amazing. It’s a live-action illusion done right on the set. Live actors thirty or forty feet behind a sheet of glass appear to be part of the photograph cutouts of Mayan ruins. Photo cutouts also place actors in an observatory setting, creating production value with nothing more than a photo blow-up. But Bava’s best designs are beautifully realized, full-scale sets. The opening Caltiki cave is a masterful piece of polished art direction. Bava’s flickery lighting gives it a big-budget look that easily competes with Hollywood efforts of the time. Bert I. Gordon couldn’t achieve something like this in Bronson Caverns.
Other notes: the excellent transfer allows us to see fine details more clearly. Online folk have already pointed out Didi Perego’s racy costume choice in her first scene. Mario Bava apparently wasn’t interested in displaying skin — he doesn’t exploit all the filmy nightgown opportunities in later scenes. And why not note some minor continuity issues . . . when John Fielding leaps into the truck outside the cave, its door is hinged on the left, opposite to the hinge on the door of the truck from which Fielding’s stunt double leaps, just a moment later. And just what is that truck of explosives doing there? I guess it’s possible that scientists might need to blast their way into a delicate archeological site . . . maybe. In the very next scene comes the film’s most horrific visual, the excruciating-looking separation of a chunk of Caltiki-flesh from Max’s forearm. The arm has been reduced to a skeleton, but in the wider shot that follows, the peek at Max’s arm and hand reveals them to be just fine. That’s a relief!
Caltiki is yet another overachieving ‘something made from nothing’ epic that boosted Bava’s reputation in the Italian film industry. Had his producer sprung for bigger names in the cast, perhaps an American or English star, the show might have been far more successful. I can attest that it played to a packed weekend house in Honolulu, and when I saw it at the local Air Force base theater, even the airmen reacted in vocal surprise to its unexpected shock scenes. The shots of half-dissolved skull-faces gurgling at us were far stronger than anything made in Hollywood, so much so that I’m surprised that Allied Artists wasn’t asked to cut them out. Yet Caltiki refrains from overdoing its grisly effects. Poor Bob and Max are dissolved before our eyes, but the film doesn’t depict the same happening to the body of the unlucky Linda. This will forever be a favorite unpretentious monster chiller, one that really delivers the goods.
Arrow Video USA’s Blu-ray + DVD of Caltiki, The Immortal Monster is a brand-new 2K restoration from the original camera negative, something that’s obvious from the start — it looks far better than anything I’ve seen in 56 years (cough). Image detail is exceedingly good, showing how well Mario Bava’s special effect tricks are done. With their perfect nodal point pans and tilts, his glass matte shots are all but imperceptible. The lighting is always delicately shaded, lending drama even to rather hokey scenes, such as the computer with all the blinking lights.
Viewers will be impressed by the ultra-clear picture and audio track. Although the English dubbing is fairly good and matches the lips of the players, the English dialogue is poor. Even with the English hero speaking Italian, the expertly mixed Italo track sounds better. I know I’ve heard Caltiki’s special sound effect used elsewhere, but can’t pin it down — perhaps someone knows. Most of the movie blob monsters come with ‘signature’ sound effects, although Steve McQueen’s The Blob gets along just fine creeping and leaping in silence.
Some ‘archival’ extras are from the older NoShame release, and although they are spotty I remember being grateful for them at the time. This new disc has not one but two new, expert audio commentaries by two of the top Bava experts. Although there’s some unavoidable repetition, both Tim Lucas and Troy Howarth are good listens, with slightly different takes on the material. They acknowledge that Bava was a sci-fi fan, but his sci-fi shows (and his comic book movie Diabolik) make as much use of gothic lighting and atmosphere as do his straight horror classics. Caltiki dips deep into both specializations. I personally think that the gimmick of the Mayan calendar prediction is brilliant screenwriting. The superstitious hocus-pocus fits in well with the ‘scientific’ astronomical cycle. Caltiki is both a superstitious curse and a standard ’50s radiation-related monster. To impressionable little kids, it seems quite believable.
Tim digs deep into the innovative Found Footage story structure that gave the first act its early ‘reality’ kick. The found footage concept goes back at least as far as Fritz Lang’s Fury, but the dramatic possibilities are better exploited here than in Nigel Kneale’s clever The Quatermass Xperiment. Both commentators pick up on likely inside references, such as the use of the name ‘Professor Ulmer’ for a missing archaeologist. Howarth also spots Mario Bava in a brief cameo. Although I’d never catch it, the nose on view does seem a good match for Il maestro.
Kim Newman uses his smooth on-camera appearance to also describe Caltiki in terms of motifs lifted from other sci-fi thrillers. Like Howarth, Newman seems amused by Allied Artists’ hyped poster that depicts a giant glob of Caltiki crushing an entire city. I’d have pointed out that the original Italian art doesn’t even picture a blob, but instead centers on the secondary human menace. The snarling Max Gunther is given almost equal emphasis in the storyline. That gives Caltiki yet another similarity to The Trollenberg Terror: both films redirect our attention from weird crawling monsters, to an unlucky human transformed into a murderous fiend. I wonder if the Italian producers wanted to downplay the presence of a glob-monster, of if the film would have done better had its advertising been more direct.
The disc has one more extra, a second un-matted scan of the full feature. It’s not much more than a curiosity. As a rule Caltiki’s live action footage is hard-matted in the camera at 1:66, while the effects material is un-matted. Do the two aspect ratios indicate which scenes Freda shot and which were filmed by Bava? No, say Howarth and Lucas, who agree that Bava directed almost, if not all, of the picture. Effects cameramen like Bava typically maintain a favorite camera for their specialized work. If he was like the ‘special shoot’ cameramen I observed, Bava would know his ‘hero’ lenses so well that he could function perfectly even if he lost his light meter, just eyeballing lighting setups. Some but not all 35mm cameras have aperture plates that change out to switch from one aspect ratio to another; sometimes they have to be custom-machined, just like aperture plates for projectors. On 1941 William Fraker’s camera assistants would pop the aperture plate out every very few takes or so, to blow away any dust or hair that might be lodged in the gate. The effects cameramen I knew preferred a full-aperture plate so as to have as much film ‘real estate’ as possible for later optical work.
But Bava didn’t normally do opticals. It’s possible that his effects camera didn’t have a changeable aperture plate. It’s also possible that Bava kept his effects camera full-ap so that the two camera sources cut together wouldn’t result in two 1:66 images, slightly misaligned. That guess was made by camera expert Richard Yuricich, when I showed him part of my 16mm print of Diabolik. It has the same off-and-on matting as well.
Watching Arrow’s un-matted version reminds me of the QC projection booths at the old MGM lab, where new prints were evaluated while running at twice-normal speed. Those projectors showed the entire frame all the way to the sprocket holes, so the checker could see that the optical track looked clean and sharp, and look for other problems as well.
Yes, it’s easy to cite Caltiki as a lesser work alongside Mario Bava’s more celebrated pictures, but I’m still mightily impressed. Il mostro immortale equals the jarring effects of other ‘living blob’ movies, and bests them for taut suspense, excitement and pure cinematics. Riccardo Freda will be more appreciated here when we can see the Italian original for his L’orribile segreto del Dottor Hichcock. The way Tim Lucas praises Freda’s big-budget costume pictures, it would be great to get a look at some of them as well. Alas, Italian period dramas and sword ‘n’ sandal epics haven’t gotten nearly the respect given the horror thrillers.
Caltiki, The Immortal Monster
Blu-ray + PAL DVD rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: (from Arrow:) Original mono Italian and English soundtracks (lossless on the Blu-ray Disc); New audio commentary by Tim Lucas; New audio commentary by Troy Howarth; featurette with lecture by Kim Newman; (and from the NoShame disc:) featurette Riccardo Freda, Forgotten Master with critic Stefano Della Casa, featurette The Genesis of Caltiki with Luigi Cozzi; introduction to the film by Stefano Della Casa; alternate U.S. titles. Illustrated color booklet (first printing only) with essays by Kat Ellinger and Roberto Curti.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD in Keep case
Reviewed: April 20, 2017
Here’s long-time Bava fan Ernest Dickerson on Caltiki!
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson