Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959)

Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959)‘The ancients thought it was evil due to the amount of radioactive damage it precipitated at that time.’

Two archaeologists stumble across an underground cavern while exploring the ruins of a Mexican pyramid. It contains a shrine to the Mayan goddess Caltiki and seems to be a significant find, but only one of the scientists makes it back to camp and he is in shock. Their colleagues investigate and find that not everything in the caves is dead…

Low-budget Italian science-fiction horror film from director Riccardo Freda (billed here as Robert Hamton), but completed by cinematographer Mario Bava, who was shortly to gain international recognition as a director himself with ‘The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday’ (1960). Apparently, that was a project given to him because of his efforts at bringing this picture in, although I have heard the same thing said about the rescue act he performed on ‘The Giant of Marathon’ (1959) after director Jacques Tourneur left that production.

Things are not going well for archaeologist John Merivale. His latest expedition to the Mexican pyramids has had no luck in explaining the sudden migration of the Mayans from their homes in the southern lowlands in the postclassic period. What’s more, wife Didi Perego (billed as Didi Sullivan) is getting quite fed up; it’s not exactly her idea of a second honeymoon. Meanwhile supposed best friend, and serious player, Gérard Herter is bored with partner Daniela Rocca and has his sights on Perego. Then colleague Arturo Dominici staggers back into camp, half out of his mind and babbling something about Caltiki. Merivale mounts a rescue expedition to bring back Dominici’s missing partner but only finds his camera instead. This does provide everyone with the opportunity to watch what is probably horror’s first-ever ‘found footage’ but provides no real clues as to what’s going on.

Returning to the cavern, shit gets real when they wake up vengeful god Caltiki, who rises from the depths of an underground pool. Considering they’d worked out that the water was the reason their Geiger Counter had been doing cartwheels, sending one man down there in a diving suit does seem like an interesting decision. Especially when it turns out that the bottom is strewn with the skeletons of sacrificial victims, and they’re all decked out in priceless jewels! After all, we know no good’s going to come of robbing the dead, don’t we?

Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959)

‘I’ve no idea, I’ll just consult my Mayan textbook.’

In a later twist, we find out that the Mayans knew all about radioactivity too! Now, I know they had a funky calendar and were advanced for their time, but I think that might be going a bit far. Herter gets infected by the beast before Merivale runs it over with a truck and it burns up in the resulting fireball. Unfortunately, back in civilisation, Herter goes all ‘Quatermass Xperiment’ (1955), and a visiting comet turns up at a very inconvenient time…

Freda and Bava were great friends who had worked together previously on Italy’s first post-war horror film ‘I Vampiri’ (1957). When Freda left the project because the producers withheld some of the promised budget, it was Bava who completed it, something he was to do on several other pictures in the next couple of years without receiving any screen credit. Apparently, this lack of recognition annoyed Freda, and he concocted a plan to help Bava on his way to be a director in his own right, something the great man was too shy to do himself. Freda took the directing job on this film fully intending to walk out and leave the suits at the Galatea Studio with no choice but to let Bava direct the rest of the picture. Whether this is true or not, Freda did quit and Bava did finish the film, although it’s not entirely clear how much of it each of them shot. It’s difficult to be sure as Freda was as much a visual stylist as Bava. Still, the general opinion is that most of the scenes involving the actors were Freda’s work and Bava handled the parts of the project that involved the SFX and, considering there are more than a hundred FX shots in the film, that is an awful lot of the finished product.

How are the SFX? Well, considering the vintage of the film and how little money was available, they’re pretty good. For a start, the film was shot just outside Rome, but the Mexican ruins are mighty convincing, especially considering they are images painted on sheets of glass that were placed in front of the camera. Similarly, the big telescope seen in the observatory is cut out of a magazine! Bava filmed the actors through a small hole in one side of the picture so they would appear in the same shot. Yes, that sounds awful, and it’s not incredibly convincing, but I’ve seen an awful lot worse and, as a budget solution, it’s hard to beat.

Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959)

‘God, I need a shower!’

The monsters are heroically portrayed by rags covered in rotting cow innards. Mostly these were manipulated like hand puppets but, in scenes where full-size versions were required, unfortunate members of the crew were inside. You see, the film was shot in the height of summer and decomposing tripe doesn’t react all that well in such circumstances. The smell must have been unbelievable.

Not surprisingly, this also proved to be quite a challenge for the cast, especially Herter who had to get up close and personal with the creatures on more than one occasion. For the most part, though, the monsters move around Bava’s miniature sets, and these models are pretty effective. However, the late encounters with flame throwers and toy tanks are somewhat less impressive.

What does drag the film down is the human side of things. The marital discord between Merivale and Perego is severely underdeveloped, and there are too many talky scenes with little life or vitality. This film was Merivale’s only leading role, and he lacks the dash and charisma to make anything of it, although the script gives few of the cast anything to work with.

Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959)

‘It’s not one of your better culinary efforts, dear.’

The exception is Herter, who chews the scenery to great effect. His performance may not be subtle, but it’s what the story requires to keep the audience engaged. In an interesting side note, it was an open secret that actress Rocca was the mistress of the head of Galatea at the time. When his wife eventually found out, she withdrew her financial backing and the studio folded!

Rather pleasingly, Bava credits Elle Bi as his scientific advisor on the film. This was actually the first credit for the director’s teenage son, Lamberto, who went onto a long career as a director of horror films himself, notably ‘Demons’ (1985) and its sequel. Apparently, the friendship between Bava and Freda cooled as the years passed. Both became eager to credit the other with creative responsibility for this film. Whether this was because of the quality of the project is unrecorded.

A reasonably enjoyable science-fiction b-picture; elevated by some excellent technical work but somewhat hampered by a script and performances which never really come to life.


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