|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Dec 23, 2004)
CALTIKI – IL MOSTRO IMMORTALE
Alternate Titles: CALTIKI – THE IMMORTAL MONSTER; CALTIKI – THE UNDYING MONSTER; THE IMMORTAL MONSTER.
RT: 76 mins
Pro Co: Galatea Film/Lux Films SpA/Climax Pictures
Dirs: Mario Bava (uncred); Robert Hamton (=Riccardo Freda);
Wr: Philip Just (=Filippo Sanjust);
Pros: Bruno Vailati,
Exec Pro: Lionello Santi;
Phot: John Foam (=Mario Bava);
Film Ed: Salvatore Billiteri;
Mus: Roman Vlad (=Roberto Nicolosi).
SFX: Marie Foam (=Mario Bava); Eugenio Bava (uncred).
US Version: Samuel Schneider (Pro); Lee Kressel (Dir/Sup); Maurice Rosenblum (English dial).
Cast: John Merivale, Didi Sullivan (=Perego), Gerard Herter, Daniele (=Daniela) Rocca Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Daniel (=Daniele) Vargas, Victor (=Vittorio) Andre, Blake Bernard (=Nerio Bernardi), Arthur Dominick (=Arturo Dominici), Gay Pearl.
Even more so than their British counterparts, the Italian film industry were late in joining the boom in science fiction cinema, initiated by the likes of Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950) and Christian I. Nyby’s The Thing (1952), with only two genre-related projects appearing on the scene, Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1956), a reworking of the Countess Bathory legend, with overtones of medical horror, and Paolo Heusch’s La Morte Viene dallo Spazio (1958), which prefigures the basic premise used by later Hollywood blockbusters like Ronald Neame’s Meteor (1979), and Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998).
I Vampiri, began by director Riccardo Freda but taken over and completed by the production’s cinematographer Mario Bava (Le Fatiche di Ercole 1957), when Freda abandoned the picture after a few days of filming, is now considered a key work in the horror and sci-fi genres in general, and Italian commercial filmmaking in particular. At the time of its release, however, it was dismissed as a commercial and critical failure. One of the reasons forward for this was that domestic audiences and critics alike found the notion of an Italian directing a horror movie, entirely ridiculous. Freda, in particular took this reaction to heart, and emphasised the English or American-sounding identities he adopted for his subsequent works. This set a precedent for many of his fellow countrymen, particularly in genres like the Western, where concealment of a project’s true identity became very important.
The movie under review here, Caltiki – Il Mostro Immortale, is another attempt by Freda, with Bava, to break into an area of filmmaking usually seen as the preserve of American and British studios, that of the “monster-on-the-loose” subgenre, of which this seems to have been the only Italian example for many years. Learning from the debacle that was I Vampiri, the production goes out of its way to obscure its European origins in terms of content, setting and the identities of those involved.
The ancient ruined city of Tikel was the centre of the Mayan civilisation in Mexico for many centuries until 607 AD when the entire population suddenly and mysteriously abandoned their home. In recent years various archaeological expeditions have investigated the reasons behind the migration, with little success. The few herdsmen who venture near the metropolis talk of a legend whereby the Mayans fled the wrath of an angry goddess called Caltiki. A new expedition has descended on the city at the same time as increased activity from a nearby volcano. A member of the team, Nieto, is seen emerging from Tikel in a state of some distress, and heads back to his camp. There he collapses in a tent, now completely delirious. It transpires that he left earlier that day with a colleague, Ulmer, to explore a grotto, and that the other man has not returned. The leader of the expedition, John Fielding has his wife Ellen tend to Nieto, as he organises a search party for Ulmer. The stricken man begins raving about an ancient deity called Caltiki. Fielding, together with fellow archaeologist Max, and a journalist called Bob leave for the grotto, guided by local natives. As they leave, Ellen and Max’s mixed-race girlfriend Linda discuss the Caltiki legend and the belief among the Indians that the archaeologists have awakened evil forces, and that the natives may abandon them. Nieto’s condition worsens. The expedition makes it way into the heart of the Mayan city, eventually venturing into a deep cavern. Seismic tremors appear to have opened an entrance to some sort of chamber. They enter and walk down a steep flight of stairs and are astonished to discover a large pool next to a sacrificial altar, dominated by a statue to Caltiki. Max runs a Geiger counter over the chamber and discovers a source of radioactivity that seems to be coming from within the body of water. Ulmer’s camera is discovered at the edge of the water, and it is decided to take it back to camp and develop the film in it, before coming back with diving gear to look for the lost comrade. Unknown to them, Ulmer’s badly decomposed corpse is located on the far shore of the pool. Back at camp, the film is developed and the group watch it in one of the tents. It appears to show Ulmer and Nieto exploring the ruins and later the ceremonial chamber, with Ulmer operating the camera, when something offscreen attacks Ulmer while Nieto shoots blindly at it. That night John and Ellen Fielding have a blazing row about the wisdom of staying with the party, with her deciding to leave for Mexico the next morning. Max, listening nearby, later makes advances on Ellen who dismisses him out of hand. Bill, the journalist decides to film a secret native ritual dance, despite warning of dire consequences by Linda. He goes ahead anyway, but is soon spotted and the dance ends abruptly. He quickly leaves. Linda and Max have an argument about his play for Ellen. She and her husband later make up, but agrees that she should leave for Mexico City the next day. The following morning, at the ceremonial chamber, Bob dons his diving gear and enters the pool, watched by the others. There at the bottom, he finds many skeletons, all adorned with priceless golden jewellery…
As part of the makers’ subterfuge to convince domestic audiences Calitiki – Il Mostro Immortale was anything but an Italian production, Lux and Galatea managed to secure co-production financing from independent American producer Samuel Schneider’s Climax Pictures, so that not only could achieve large-scale distribution through Allied Artists, but also a more varied cast selection than would normally be the case for such a venture. Thus the production has acquired the talents of Anglo-Canadian performer John Merivale (Circus of Horrors 1960) as the leading male, along with German import (and regular performer in international co-productions throughout the 1960s) Gerard Herter (New York Chiama Superdrago 1966). This was in addition to the largely Anglicised names of the Italian cast members, whereby female lead Didi Perego becomes Didi Sullivan, Vittorio Andre (La Morte ha Fatto L’Uovo 1967) is credited as Victor Andre and Nerio Bernardi (Satanik 1968) becomes Blake Bernard. The Anglicisation extends to the crew with Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava listed as Robert Hamton and John Foam respectively.
In a move away from the European locales featured in I Vampiri, Felippo Sanjust’s screenplay takes plain in contemporary Mexico. This serves two purposes, an exotic backdrop, steeped in ancient myth and legend, ideal for exploitation by genre filmmakers, and it relatively close proximity to the United States, where the country had been represented in many Hollywood productions, so that what are perceived as American icons by the movie’s intended audience, such as automobiles, computers and the role of the military, can be introduced into the work, emphasising its international credentials. In fact, outside of some travelogue footage of Mayan and Aztec ruins, location filming is actually restricted to more budget-friendly and accessible Spain.
Even though at this time, Italian contributions to the science fiction genre were very thin on the ground, Caltiki – Il Mostro Immortale, shows that some filmmakers were very aware of the conventions and trends in the field on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the year prior to the release of Bava and Freda’s work, one of the most successful (and enduring) titles to merge from Hollywood’s sci-fi cycle was Irwin S. Yeaworth’s The Blob. There, an amorphous red mass, encased in a meteorite, crashes to earth, whereupon it proceeds to absorb any unwary humans it comes into contact with, eventually causing it to grow to an enormous size and terrorise the residents of a small town. Screenwriter Filippo Sanjust (La Freccia d’Or 1962) retains the basic premise of an organic mass on the rampage, and reworks a number of key sequences from Yeaworth’s production, notably where the Gerard Herter’s character has a piece of the material attached to his arm, eating away at it, and the entity breaking out of its glass case in a laboratory and embarking on the rampage.
However, two other productions, both from Britain’s Hammer studios, also seem to have had a bearing on how the movie would turn out. The first is X-The Unknown (1956), originally a project for Joseph Losey (The Damned 1961) but taken over in its early stages and completed by Leslie Norman. That picture features a large organic mass erupting from a fissure deep within the earth, and like the one reviewed here, the life-form is shown to feed and thrive on radioactive emissions, and dissolves its victims. Direct allusions to the Hammer piece include a sequence where scientists feed the mass controlled amounts of gamma radiation, and are astonished to see it rapidly grow in size, and the scenes where the archaeologists explore the underground chamber, checking for radiation with their Geiger counters.
The other Hammer production referenced is Val Guest’s The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), credited with reviving the fortunes of the troubled company, and helping establish it as a major force in British commercial cinema. Probably the major plot element derived from that work is that involving Gerard Herter’s character infected by the mass, and slowly being driven insane as it enters his bloodstream, eventually corrupting his mind. Material familiar from the 1955 production includes the scenes between Herter and his girlfriend (Daniela Rocca, La Vendetta dei Barbari 1961) as he lies in the hospital bed, his escaping in to the open country, pursued by the police, and where he has to fight the compulsion to kill a small child who almost crosses his path.
While many of the features contained within Caltiki – Il Mostro Immortale may be very familiar to aficionados of n1950s genre cinema, the film does contain several imaginative and creative concepts of its own. One of the most intriguing is that entity discovered in the well of a Mayan ceremonial chamber is not merely ancient but in fact millions of years old, easily predating mankind’s presence on the planet, and most other forms of life. So ancient and powerful is the life-from considered by the Mayans that they have given it the name Caltiki, and worship it as a deity, with temples constructed to honour it, and sacrifices made to placate it.
The Mayan civilisation also based a prophecy around Caltiki, which predicted that when a particular comet appeared in the night sky, that the divinity would rise up and destroy the world. The link with the comet suggests that in the remote past, the entity’s origins may have been extraterrestrial, or possibly the radioactive emissions from it played a part in activating Caltki’s evolutionary process.
There is some circumstantial evidence contained in the screenplay that the Mayans managed to entomb their deity and fled the city in order to escape its influence, hoping that its existence would be forgotten about over time, and the prophecy remain unfulfilled. In a concept that looks forward to Stanley Kurbrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), it is implied that the sentient Caltiki, because of its great age, would be very willing to sit patiently to wait for members of far future generations to appear and reactivate it, in order to perform its role in the prophecy.
Some reviewers have suggested a connection with the works of American fantastic author H.P. Lovecraft, in that Caltiki is a god from Earth’s ancient past, possibly one of the first ever beings to appear on the planet, whose sole objective is to consume the world, giving it something in common with the Elder Gods who used to inhabit the planet in Lovecraft’s writings, and are waiting to reclaim it. While this is an interesting idea, the connection between this film and the universe created by Lovecraft is tenuous.
In a variation on the life-forms depicted in X-The Unknown and The Blob, not only does the titular creature grow to enormous size, eventually, like conventional size, it reproduces itself by splitting in two, which begins an endless cycle, culminating in a veritable army of voracious blobs. There are indications that in addition to thriving on water, the entity requires large amounts of water to survive, as evidenced by its normal habitat in the deep ceremonial pool, the infected Herter’s obsession with the jug of water on his bedside cabinet, and his scrambling drink from any available source of water, including filthy mud pools, when he is on the run.
One intriguing notion that is not developed to any degree involves the role that Herter’s character plays in the proceedings. In dialogue exchanges between him and his girlfriend, he talks about a powerful, new and destructive force that exists within his body. There are two possibilities here, firstly that Caltiki has infected Herter to use as some sort of human vessel, allowing it to move among the human race, as a kind of hybrid being, to promote whatever scheme it has for the planet. Secondly, the character may be being used as a vessel by the entity to distribute its offspring over a far wider area, once they are activated, creating much more devastation than would normally be the case. Sadly, this plot thread leads nowhere, and Herter ends up merely being blob fodder.
There has always been some debate over how much Riccardo Freda contributed to the completed version of Caltiki – Il Mostro Immortale. Reportedly, the temperamental Freda quit the project after only two or three days of principal photography, leaving the movie in limbo. The producers managed to convince Mario Bava to take the reins (something he had done on more than one occasion in the past) and so he is largely responsible for the completed work. Freda’s scenes seem to involve the hoary melodramatics of Merivale and Perego’s fraught marriage, with Herter lusting after the latter while his long-time girlfriend looks on, deeply concerned. Showing little in the way of imagination or style, Freda’s stilted direction slows the narrative pace down quite significantly, and will prove challenging for less tolerant viewers, especially so early on in the plot. Matters are not helped by tedious dialogue exchanges in the original Italian print, and atrocious (often nonsensical) translations in the English-language print, something that pervades the whole enterprise. Freda also ineptly handles an “exotic” native dance routine featuring Gay Pearl (Il Ladro di Bagdad 1961), which appears to feature a much stronger African influence than anything from South America.
With the production in some disarray following the departure of its original director, it was inevitable that his replacement would be required to cut corners in order to complete the project. This has resulted in a rather short running time of 76 minutes, with several events, such as the blob’s destructive rampage through a laboratory, with loss of life, largely taking place off-screen, with only brief visual cues (shadows of panicked personnel seen reflected on walls) being used. There is also evidence of padding to fill up the meagre running time, with much expositional dialogue between Perego and Rocca , and the introduction of a subplot where Merivale is arrested by the cops for speeding, on his way to rescue his wife, detained by them and then breaking his way out of gaol.
While clearly in the science fiction genre, the latter half of Filippo Sanjust’s screenplay suddenly veers off into film noir, where a crazed Herter invades Merivale’s home to terrorise and kidnap his wife, ending up shooting his devoted girlfriend to death. The earlier sequences featuring this subplot are very weak, but Bava stages the scenes in the mansion with aplomb, emphasising the double threat faced by Perego, in the form of Caltiki and its offspring, and the human monster that Herter has become.
Film noir is noted for its non-naturalistic, expressionist visual style, with much use made of light and dark, together with the scale of sets. This style of filmmaking is very prevalent throughout Calitiki – Il Mostro Immortale, which sets it apart from the majority of genre fare produced by Hollywood and the UK, which tended to favour a more realist, sometimes semi-documentary approach.
Among the most striking use of expressionist technique are sequences showing the archaeologists exploring the Mayan ceremonial chamber, featuring cavernous, oversized sets easily dwarfing the performers, with Bava using low-angled camerawork to emphasise this. Also important are incongruous architectural features and ornamentation, which seem to serve no other purpose than to disorientate. The low-angled shots, coupled with actors being spot-lit from below (very effective in illustrating the advanced corruption of Gerard Herter’s character), are also very well employed at the climax in Merivale’s mansion.
Mario Bava is considered one of European cinema’s great stylists, and this perception is supported by the creative way he employs lighting, camera angles and off-kilter compositions to create an unsettling atmosphere in key sequences. Other material that shows his master of film craft include Arturo Dominici (La Danza Macabre 1964) emerging from the Mayan city during a volcanic eruption. Here diffused backlighting is used, along with physical smoke effects, to create a truly eerie and otherworldly atmosphere, and Bob the journalist (Daniele Vargas, Histoires Extraordinaires 1968) exploring the bottom of the pool. Outside of the elaborate effects set-pieces seen toward the end of the film, this is probably one of the highpoints of Caltiki – Il Mostro Immortale, with outstanding use of shimmering light, atmospheric photography and a highly evocative score by Robert Nicolodi (I Tre Della Paura 1963), another of the enterprise’s greatest assets, combining to create a truly macabre aura to the proceedings. Some viewers may be reminded of a similar sequence that Bava worked on toward the end of his career, in Dario Argento’s Inferno (1979), where a character explorers a flooded, sunken room located within an apartment complex.
Caltiki – Il Mostro Immortale remains one of the most graphic mainstream movies of its era, in terms of gross out effects. Indications as to the effects of coming into contact with the entity, become apparent early on when the desiccated corpse of the missing Ulmer is glimpsed by the water’s edge, apparently stripped of all its flesh. Later, just how deadly the life-form can be is illustrated when Daniele Vargas is attacked underwater by some unseen force. After he is dragged ashore, his mask is pulled off to reveal that his face has melted, leaving only a few shards of skin and his eyeballs. Horrifically, despite the extent of his injuries, he appears to be still alive and conscious of what is happening to him.
Worse is to follow for Gerard Herter’s character. Firstly while attempting to grab valuable artefacts, he is attacked by Caltiki, and has to be hacked free from the creature, with a large piece of organic matter still attached to his arm. Later, at the hospital, the growth has expanded and has to be cut, and then peeled, from his arm, revealing that only bone and some muscle tissue remains where his limb should be. Finally, at the climax, an insane Herter begins shooting blindly at the group of blobs now taking over the mansion, and is eventually overpowered by some of them, who then consume him in a slow, agonising manner. Again, even though most of his flesh seems to have been completely dissolved by the life-form, he appears to be still alive for some considerable time, adding to the power of the sequence. If this material had the resources to be shot in colour, then the film would have experienced censorship problems in many territories for years after its production.
While the effects work in these sequences is certainly memorable, where Bava really comes into his own, regarding technical execution, is in the use of model work. This is especially true of the spectacular climax in which hordes of blobs systematically destroy Merivale’s mansion, trapping his wife and child in the process. Here a large-scale mock-up was constructed not only of the house (reputedly based on Bava’s own family home), but also the interior, with a great deal of attention to detail paid, with furniture and fixtures and fittings painstakingly constructed with great attention paid to detail. Other impressive use of miniature work includes a truck full of gasoline being used burn the original blob creature at the Mayan temple, which also features some striking pyrotechnical activity. Pyrotechnics and models also feature heavily in the final assault on the mansion when, in true Hollywood style, the army is brought in to destroy the blobs, using tanks armed with flame-throwers, who make short shrift of the monsters. The level of achievement in this and other scenes, involving physical effects is easily on a par with most American genre product of the time, often superior, and certainly employed far more adventurously.
It’s to Bava’s credit that in addition to his abilities as an effects designer, his directorial skills mean that the climax is an exciting and tense piece of work.
Caltiki itself is an impressively gross creation, made almost entirely of a job lot of animal offal that the director managed to acquire. While big and awkward looking, Bava does manage to convince the audience that the entity is a genuine and deadly threat, especially when optical effects are used to show how rapidly it can grow, given the right conditions, and collapsible miniatures to illustrate is full destructive power. Interestingly the image of the final giant amoeba seen against the horizon, and under attack by the army, is reminiscent of images from Inoshiro Honda’s Gojira (1954).
Despite its troubled production history, some of which is reflected in the finished work, Caltiki – Il Mostro Immortale proved successful enough for Bava in the following year to be offered his choice of project on which to make his solo directorial debut. That turned out to be La Maschera del Demonio aka Black Sunday, whose worldwide success became something of a cultural phenomenon, making a star of British actress Barbara Steele, and starting the whole cycle of Italian gothic horror of the 1960s.
Portions of the plot for Bava and Freda’s movie appear to have been recycled for Joe Chapelle’s Phantoms (1998), adapted by Dean R. Koontz from his own novel.
©Iain McLachlan 2004
Chroma-Noize cult sci-fi and horror movie reviews: www.geocities.com/bigfatpav2000