Thursday, 22 November 2018

Caltiki Il Mostro Immortale

Tiki Fingers

Caltiki Il Mostro Immortale
(aka Caltiki,The Immortal Monster)

Italy/USA 1959
Arrow Zone B Blu Ray
Directed by Riccardo Freda & Mario Bava

“Caltiki, you’re so fine.
You’re so fine you blow my mind.
Caltiki! Caltiki!”
Ancient Mayan Ritual Song channeled by Toni Basil

This is one of those films which was co-directed by Mario Bava before he was getting a screen credit (something he’d done before and he was known already to be a great cameraman and matte slide/special effects artist within the industry), working on a fair few films where he was, like this one, left uncredited. To find out more about how much of a hand he had in a whole slew of productions before his first credited solo feature film (the famous Black Sunday), you should really read Tim Lucas’ epic book (and I do mean epic... both in volume, content and price), Mario Bava - All The Colours Of The Dark, which is one of the all time greatest tomes on any aspect of cinematic history, I would say.

I’ve been meaning to catch up to Caltiki - The Immortal Monster for some time... firstly because I love Bava’s work and his input here is quite huge (by some accounts, Freda walked off set with the film half done because he wanted Bava to take the plunge into being a proper director) and secondly because I quite like Roberto Nicolosi’s score for the movie which, although this is a 1959 movie (and didn’t get released until 1962 in some territories like the UK  - where the BBFC asked for cuts) the score sounds like it’s lifted from a late 1930s to early 1950s monster flick. Which is kinda interesting because, in spite of The Blob the year before, the obvious two templates for this movie are the Nigel Kneale serial The Quatermass Experiment (and subsequent big screen adaptation The Quatermass Xperiment, from Hammer, reviewed by me here) and another Hammer movie which was originally intended to be a sequel to that remake, until Nigel Kneale refused, X- The Unknown (reviewed very briefly by me here). I’ll get to some of the similarities here in a little while.

The film starts off with a prelude of a narrative against a montage of creative slide shots which informs us of the mystery of the mass migration of the Ancient Mayan civilisation. After this, the film starts proper, with one of the first party of explorers in a Mayan ‘discovery’ returning back to base camp in obvious distress and put together with a beautiful series of expressive shots created by Bava, including some complex matte shots, one of which works on a couple of different layers of depth as the actor comes down one side, exits and then returns much larger in front of some of the inserts. It looks pretty good and, in addition to a fair number of shots with matte paintings on glass courtesy of Bava to greatly expand the set (something which has been with us since the dawn of cinema, from the films of Willis O’ Brien right through to the epics of George Lucas and beyond), he also tends to like to shoot things looking through other things anyway, like doors and windows and tree trunks etc. The only thing missing from the Bava-ness of the movie is those trademark, almost fluorescent juxtapositions of colour which would fall into place a few more films down the line.

As the man goes mad and slips into delirium, we get to meet the main characters in this intrepid band of scientists and explorers. We have main leading man John Merivale playing Professor John Fielding, Didi Sullivan playing his wife Ellen, Gérard Herter as Max Gunther... who is the film’s main human/Caltiki hybrid villain... his ex-prostitute ‘half-breed’ wife Linda played by Daniela Rocca and another gentleman whose name escapes me (yeah, thanks a lot IMDB for not making yourself clear on which actor is which) but this latter performer doesn’t last too long into the film anyway, before he meets a suitably grizzly death.

Actually, talking about striking imagery for a 1950s film, the most eye-popping moment is upon us when Ellen and Daniela go outside one of the tents for a chinwag. Didi Sullivan is quite obviously, as can be seen on this new Blu Ray print from Arrow, not wearing a bra and the topography of her handsome lady bits are very visible beneath the cool facade of her ‘scientist’s wife’ shirt. Indeed, closer inspection seems to show that someone in the crew has literally wet down the areas around said actresses bosoms for the express purpose of highlighting their stature to levels unnatural for both a standard B-movie romp about a blob monster and, it has to be said, a film being made for a mainstream commercial audience in 1959. Astonishing stuff.

We soon have a scene where the returning mad man’s chums go to look for the rest of the party, only to be thwarted by an underground grotto’s river so they promise to come back the next day with diving equipment. Somewhere in here we also have a scene which is one of the biggest lifts from the groundbreaking stuff in Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment, when they watch footage from the recovered cine-camera from the fateful party of explorers. So we have the principals sitting down and watching silent, found footage of what they explorers encountered. Now, The Quatermass Experiment is probably one of the earliest, if not the earliest, example of found footage in horror cinema but please note that this was footage recorded with timed intervals (to increase dramatic tension) from a fixed camera in a rocket ship... so everything was static. In Caltiki we have Bava pretty much inventing the typical shaky-cam style footage which we see in so many horror films these days but which was almost a taboo of what not to do with a camera back at the time that this came out. If you thought Peter Hunt’s editing where he cuts on motion in the early Bond films was groundbreaking... and it kinda was... then consider that this film is also doing it with a deliberately shaky camera in this sequence three years prior to when it first raised eyebrows in Dr. No. So, as in keeping with Bava’s reputation... he was inventing and being way ahead of his time throughout his career in cinema.

We then have a scene where Gunther establishes his ‘complete bounder’ tendencies as he tries, unsuccessfully, to seduce Fielding’s wife Ellen with his wiry, Germanic charm... foreshadowing his transformation into human villain a little later in the film. This includes some chatter from his own very loyal wife Linda, whom he is completely bored by but who, somehow, wants to stay with him forever, aiding him in his wicked ways above and beyond the call of duty as the film’s running time wears on.

And then we have another member of the party decide to go and spy on the obviously-not-so-secret dance ceremony of the local natives. Or to put it another way, once he is warned that bad luck befalls anyone westerner whose eyes behold the sacred and somewhat sexy dance, he decides to go and watch it from behind some jungle vines anyway, filming as he enjoys the spectacle of a young lady wildly twisting her way in what I can only describe as something she could be charging good money for if only someone had decided to install a vertical pole in the jungle clearing where she enthusiastically writhes. And if this sounds gratuitous and completely unnecessary to the plot of the film... well done, it is. There’s one impressive moment where one of the natives whisks off the ladies skirt to reveal a much smaller micro skirt and panties and, remembering the UK winners of the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest from when I were a lad, I can only assume that an impressionable member of Bucks Fizz must have seen this and stolen the idea from here. Also, although I can’t be certain because I was trying to behave in a sedate and sophisticated way while I viewed this movie and not call attention to myself by rushing to the other side of the room to study the screen in close up, I believe another ground breaking first for a 1959 film may be seen on screen here. That is to say, judging by the nice Blu Ray transfer, this could well have been the birth, in commercial cinema at least, of the phenomena we now know today as... the camel-toe.

Anyway, the next morning the party goes back to the grotto and the fellow who filmed the ‘forbidden dance’ volunteers to go into the water with his diving suit and see what’s down there... yeah, I know, this character has obviously never seen a horror movie before. Anyway, he goes down and finds a) a load of skeletons and b) a load of ancient Mayan treasure, a sample of which he brings up to show the others. He then makes the fatal mistake of going back for more treasure only to be attacked by... something. His friends pull him up on the rope just in time to see the juicy skeletal remains of his body inside the diving suit breathe its last. Actually, this must have been one of the most grizzly images of a 1950s horror film, I reckon. After this, all hell breaks loose as the blob monster known as Caltiki chases... well, crawls... after them. They run but villainous Gunther wants to grab the treasure and... “Caltiki, what a pity, you don’t understand. You blob my arm up good when you take me by the hand.” Yeah, that’s right... he pays for it as Caltiki absorbs his arm. Professor Fielding pulls him free, with much blobbage stuck to his arm, and gets Gunther out of there. He then gets into a handily, conveniently parked lorry full of gasoline and points it at Caltiki, jumping free just before it turns itself into a model shot of the same van which explodes, killing Caltiki and making big flames which are a dead giveaway that the scale of the model is too small for credible fire (much like some of the Gerry Anderson productions over the years, it has to be said).

When the professor gets Gunther to the hospital, they remove the blobbage from his arm to show that he has been left with only a skeleton for a limb and to find that he has been infused with the spirit of Caltiki. As he starts going mad and plotting to escape the hospital to abduct the professor’s wife, Fielding takes a piece of Caltiki to his laboratory (and later a piece to a science research unit). The rest of the film involves various bits of Caltiki reanimating and splitting into many Caltiki’s because of a comet which passes by the planet every gazillion years or so and which, of course, just happens to be the night that the professor finds out about this thing. We also have Gunther killing people to get to the professor’s home and these scenes are another shout out to Nigel Kneale because the way he shields his dodgy arm and is a fugitive from captivity as he makes his way there, finding his way and staying out of the clutches of local authorities, very much mirrors the 'cactus'd up' Victor Caroon character in The Quatermass Experiment, it has to be said.

And the film is.. fairly enjoyable and not too sluggish that most monster movie lovers won’t get a kick out of it. It even has one of the scientist guys accidentally driving his car over a cliff and I kind of did a mental double take when I saw the car go over because, it has to be said, it looked like every tracked-in-from-the-same-reused-footage ‘car goes over the cliff and bursts into flames’ shot you ever see, repeatedly, in those old Republic serials like King Of The Rocketmen or Zombies Of The Stratosphere or whichever chapter play you are watching. Which proved to be an absolutely spot on observation as it happens because, when I went to listen to one of the commentary tracks, by Tim Lucas, he points out that this is, indeed, re-used footage, originally from Chapter One of the 1946 Republic Pictures serial The Crimson Ghost. So I felt kind of good about myself for catching that one.

Okay, so there’s lots of mayhem in this one and lots of special effects work including a lot of Mario Bava’s glass slide painted inserts and a heck of a lot of animated tripe wending it’s way through various models (apparently, although it kinda looks more like a canvass sack to me than tripe, it has to be said). There’s also that pretty great score on this by Roberto Nicolosi, which I first discovered when Italian company Digitmovies released it as a limited edition CD ten or more years ago. Although, as I explained earlier, it sounds much less sophisticated than something you might expect from a 1959 movie, it’s got its own thing going on and I really enjoy this score. Actually, although it predates it by 18 years, there are a lot of passages here where the orchestration, at the very least, reminds me of some of the music that John Williams wrote for the original Star Wars and, if you are familiar with that score and listen to Caltiki, The Immortal Monster away from the movie, I think you’ll probably pick up on the similarity here too.

Caltiki, The Immortal Monster is essentially a minor 1950s style monster movie which is elevated greatly by the presence of the late, great Mario Bava directing a lot of it and which is a fun ride I’ll always have time for. The Arrow Blu Ray transfer is absolutely gorgeous and contains two commentary tracks, an interview with Kim Newman about the film and a load of archival stuff too. This is all well worth the price of admission and Arrow are to be congratulated on the quality of this release. Monster maniacs and horror hounds won’t want to miss out on this one.

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