Review: Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959)

Written by Filippo Sanjust
Directed by Riccardo Freda
Starring John Merivale, Didi Sullivan, Gerard Herter, Daniela Rocca
US Release Sept. 20, 1960
RT 76 min.
Home Video Arrow Video
Classic Horrors rating = 8 (out of 10)

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Unaware of any historical significance of, or widespread critical opinion about, Caltiki, The Immortal Monster, I must say I really enjoyed it.  Subsequent to watching it, I of course learned that it was an early entry into the rare Italian science-fiction genre and that, although he doesn’t get official credit, Mario Bava (Black Sunday, A Bay of Blood) probably directed a large percentage of it.  These facts are easily discovered during the most cursory attempt at research, if not during one of the bonus features on Arrow’s new Blu-ray edition of the 1959 film.

In glorious black and white with English subtitles displayed over Italian spoken word, Caltiki, The Immortal Monster opens with a compelling mystery.  In 607 A.D., the Mayans evacuated the city of Tikal, 300 miles south of Mexico City, with no satisfactory explanation.  Although through the years there have been theories about the mass exodus, the movie chooses to focus on the one that says they were escaping the wrath of a bloodthirsty goddess named Caltiki.  Indeed, a statue of the deity resides within the ruins that a modern day expedition explores.

The parts of the film for which Bava is almost certainly responsible (sets, lighting and special effects) are excellent for a low budget monster movie that takes place in Mexico, yet was filmed entirely in Rome.  He employs a variety of methods to provide reality and depth to a landscape filled with stone towers and sculptures.  My favorite shot is early in the story as Nieto (Arturo Dominici) stumbles away from the ruins.  As he moves toward the camera, his body is a glowing silhouette against an ominous dark background; each step he takes kicks dust into the light.

When the physically sick (and mentally unstable) Nieto arrives at camp, Professor John Fielding (John Merivale) leads a group of men to search for his missing partner, Ulmer.  Inside the ruins, they don’t see his mummified body lying on the opposite side of a pool, but when Max Gunther (Gerard Herter) dives into the water, he finds many other skeletons… and treasure.  That’s when the monster finds him.  It’s a large Blob-like creature that engulfs Max’s arm, causing John to chop off a piece (of the monster, not the arm) with an axe.

Up to this point, Caltiki, the Immortal Monster does a commendable job of introducing the characters and expeditiously telling us everything we need to know about them.  For example, by now we’ve also met Ellen Fielding, whining about how she had hoped the expedition would be a second honeymoon for her and John.  We’ve determined that Max is a scoundrel, making a move on Ellen after he hears her fighting with John.  We also meet Linda (Daniela Rocca) who, aware of Max’s lack of devotion to her, still desires to be with him.

Not only is Max a scoundrel, he’s more despicable than the monster.  He’s attacked by it only after greedily returning to grab the bag of treasure that he accidentally dropped.  Back in Mexico City, the piece of the monster is removed, leaving only a withered bone where his full arm and hand used to be.  He also has a scar on one side of his face, similar to a third degree burn, but more like parchment.  Doctors fear that, sooner or later, poison will reach his brain.  Their medical treatments are insufficient and Linda grows concerned about his attitude.

While John examines the “fragment” of the monster by bombarding it with electrons, Max’s condition deteriorates and he escapes, killing a nurse and making a beeline for the object of his affection, Ellen.  He’s one menace, but so is the fragment, which grows and divides when exposed to radioactivity.  John destroys the part of the monster located in the lab; however, there’s another piece he took home… Ellen can’t call him for help because Max pulled the phone wires.  It’s a suspenseful set-up for a thrilling final act.

I didn’t even mention that John and Ellen have a young daughter, Jenny.  A child in danger always escalates the threat.  Racing home, John is stopped and detained by the authorities, just as Ellen and Jenny climb onto a ledge to escape the monster that has oozed upstairs and knocked down the bedroom door.  The levels of suspense are truly exciting.  Even when John arrives and raises a ladder (that’s conveniently lying on the ground) to rescue his family, another monster engulfs the bottom of the ladder.  How will they ever escape to safety?

Caltiki, the Immortal Monster borrows from movies that came before it other than just The Blob (1958).  It’s also reminiscent of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955).  Both films feature a man exposed to an “alien” presence via his arm, who wanders the countryside posing a threat to everyone he meets (but narrowly avoiding causing harm to a specific little girl).  Less obviously, it reminds me of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), not only because of its underwater scenes, but because of the implied dynamics among some of the characters.

The physical surface of the monster(s) is less transparent and gelatinous than that of the Blob, and is another credit to Bava’s contribution to the film.  He supposedly used tripe (the muscle wall of a cow’s stomach, if you didn’t know) for the leathery, textured “skin.”  These monsters move, separate and grow more realistically than the Blob, even when moving through miniature sets.  (It’s interesting when a creature is more realistic than the tiny furniture it smashes.)  They are hardly immortal, though; they’re destroyed by fire, as opposed to The Blob‘s ice.

Caltiki, the Immortal Monster is neither a complex nor original movie, but it combines familiar elements into an entertaining package.  The ultimate connection between the original Mayan exodus and modern day events is clever and makes as much sense as anything else in the story.  There’s also a commitment to the science of the phenomenon that extends beyond the obligatory two-minute explanation included in most 1950s sci-fi monster movies.  I look forward to watching it again with each of the two commentaries included on the Blu-ray.

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