Two years after working together on 1957’s I Vampiri, the first Italian horror film since the 1910s, director Riccardo Freda and cinematographer Mario Bava teamed up for Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, a curious (and sometimes unwieldy) fusion of science fiction and gothic horror elements that lifts not only its basic premise from Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment, but also entire sequences. Freda reportedly walked off the set some time before production concluded, leaving Bava to direct the rest of the film as well—something that Freda maintained he’d intended to do so from the start to pave the way for Bava’s career as a filmmaker. Whatever the truth of these claims, there’s no denying that Caltiki remains an impressive showcase for Bava’s inimitable skills behind the camera, in particular his uncanny ability to craft moody atmosphere and some extremely grisly imagery (for 1959, anyhow) out of the simplest and most frugal of cinematic means.
Caltiki opens with a stentorian voiceover that regales us with an account of the bloodthirsty cult practices and mysterious disappearance of the Mayan civilization, while we get our first glimpse of Bava’s handcrafted matte compositions: dense collage-like designs incorporating cutouts from magazines and original painted elements artistically arranged on glass plates. After opening credits that amusingly (and spuriously) attribute the storyline to an ancient Mexican legend, the film kicks off with an indelibly macabre image Bava will recycle in his directorial debut Black Sunday: a close-up on a disembodied hand clawing at the bare earth, followed by the head and body thrusting itself up out of the ground. Interestingly, the same actor (Arturo Dominici) plays both scenes, though his role as Barbara Steele’s vampire lover Javuto in the later film is easily the more memorable one.
Turns out he’s the sole survivor of an archeological foray into some nearby caverns. Of the other spelunker, allusively named Ulmer (likely an homage to Edgar G. Ulmer), only the man’s movie camera can be found. What ensues is an early instance of found-footage horror as the members of the expedition watch the cavers’ fatal encounter with some unseen menace. Bava shoots the sometimes out-of-focus footage with jittery handheld primitivism, soon to be a hallmark of the genre from Cannibal Holocaust to Paranormal Activity. It’s an unexpected formal conceit that only further points up Bava’s visual sophistication and eagerness to experiment with new techniques.
This sequence subtly introduces the element of voyeurism as a more sophisticated source of horror than the mere shambling of some alien monstrosity, a theme that was developed with far more rigor in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, both from the following year. But the notion of visual trespass is hardly a fluke in Caltiki, as it’s taken up and reinforced in the next scene where another expedition member, Bob (Daniele Vargas), photographs an unexpectedly sultry ritual dance, in spite of express advice to the contrary. His careless act of profanation is thereby directly linked to the unleashing of the monstrous Caltiki, an amorphous blob-like entity that consumes anything and anyone in its path.
Early scenes set in the expedition camp introduce audiences to an “erotic rectangle,” a four-sided field of shifting attractions and alliances among team members. When Dr. John Fielding (John Merivale) spars with his wife, Ellen (Didi Perego), over his spousal inattention, Max Gunther (Gérard Herter) cynically takes the opportunity to move in on Ellen, despite the protestations of his “half-breed” lover, Linda (Daniela Rocca). While these character motivations may seem like nothing more than melodramatic window-dressing, they will eventually underline the idea that the ultimate source of evil resides as much in the human heart as it does in the rampages of some undying chthonic being. For the most effective—and effectively staged—scenes in the film’s overheated finale have nothing to do with Caltiki’s clash with miniature model tanks and Zippo-sized flamethrowers, but with Max’s stalking and near-rape of Ellen while “under the influence” of Caltiki.
Bava swathes these scenes in tenebrous darkness, employing high-contrast lighting schemes straight out of film noirs influenced by German Expressionism. When Helen awakes, startled by some clamor in the next room, the shot compositions strongly echo those that will be used in “The Telephone” segment of Bava’s 1964 omnibus film Black Sabbath, another lurid tale of a spurned lover come to extract seemingly supernatural revenge. In the end, Max’s evil intentions are no match for the all-consuming Caltiki. The shapeless mass of “writhing tripe,” as Bava once described it, has its day (and, as we’ve seen, its place in tales of cosmic terror), but it’s the all-too-human horrors that leave the more lingering impressions.
Mario Bava's shadowy cinematography and expressive matte-painting effects account for the lion's share of Caltiki's effectiveness. Arrow's 2K-restored transfer presents the film's strong points with consummate panache: blacks are suitably thick and deep; grains levels are kept authentically cinematic; and fine details register strongly, especially in brightly lit exterior scenes and evocative close-ups (though, admittedly, Bava often uses those shadows to hide the nuts and bolts of his effects work).
There are LPCM mono mixes in Italian and English (both were looped in post, per Italian industry standards). An on-screen disclaimer actually recommends selecting the Italian track, because the English track was pieced together from different sources of variable quality, but both have their merits: The Italian track sounds cleaner and clearer, with a more authoritative and occasionally poetic quality, while the florid English dub more often matches the lines that the actors were actually delivering on the set.
The commentary tracks offer complementary listening experiences, although there's some inevitable overlap in presenting basic information. Tim Lucas's smooth, scripted delivery is unsurprisingly strong when it comes to talking about the film's production history and Bava's effects work, while Troy Howarth takes a more extemporaneous approach to get across his own unique take on the material—not to mention pointing out Bava's blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo at about the 65-minute mark. There's a piece from Kim Newman on the development of 1950s sci-fi "creature features" from The Thing from Another World to The Quatermass Xperiment and beyond.
You can also view Caltiki in an open-matte, full-frame version meant to display every trace of Bava's movie magic, albeit in a rougher transfer that exposes the frame's rounded corners and soundtrack strip on the right edge. Archival features include an interview with filmmaker and author Luigi Cozzi (shot on location at Dario Argento's Profondo Rosso store in Rome) that covers the brief history of Italian science-fiction films, as well as the lesser known contributions of screenwriter and set designer Filippo Sanjust to the making of Caltiki; recollections of director Riccardo Freda from critic Stefano Della Casa; and an extremely brief introduction to the film from Della Casa.
Italian maestros of the macabre Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava team up for a curious (and sometimes unwieldy) fusion of sci-fi and gothic horror elements.