Arrow Video: Caltiki - The Immortal Monster (1959) - Reviewed

The killer parasitic blob from outer space creature feature arguably began with the BBC television film The Quatermass Experiment in 1953 before being remade in 1955 by Val Guest as The Quatermass Xperiment, emphasizing the film’s X rating at the time.  Not long after, films such as X the Unknown, Quatermass 2 and most famously The Blob defined the killer slime genre for decades to come.  Typically concerning an amoeboid of sorts that slithers along quietly consuming everything in it’s path with no clear way to destroy it, this particular kind of creature feature was of course a byproduct of postwar nuclear fears including but not limited to genetic mutation and feeding off of radioactive energies. 

One which somehow slipped under this killer slime geek’s radar is now coming to blu-ray thanks to the good folks at Arrow Video, the uncredited (until recently) directorial debut of soon-to-be Italian gothic-horror maestro Mario Bava: Caltiki – The Immortal Monster.  Originally with Riccardo Freda in the director’s chair before turning the task over to his regular cinematographer Bava, Caltiki starts out with a team of stock character archaeologists investigating Mayan ruins who discover a pool being guarded by a statue of vengeful Mayan goddess Caltiki who was often fed human sacrifices.  Inside the pool the archaeologists make a startling discovery: a prehistoric, shapeless blob which appears to devour human flesh and grow in size in the presence of radioactivity. 

As you can probably predict, it doesn’t take long for the creature to crawl out of the Mayan burial site to wreak havoc on the world over.  It’s the stuff these late 1950s creature features are made of.  The acting and characterizations are what they are, dull and not serving up much more than most drive-ins of it’s ilk though an out of nowhere highly sexualized Mexican dance sequence is far bawdier than what those folks running the Hays Code would ever allow.  What separates this one from the pack, however, is Bava’s involvement which not only posits the picture itself away from the usual fare with leanings closer to what would become the gothic horror style defining his work but for sporting technically brilliant visual effects with realistic violence and gore you’d never see even in the sleaziest drive-in flicks of the time. 

While blatantly ripping off of both The Blob and Quatermass, particularly involving one human who becomes physically and psychologically affected by the creature, the physicality of Bava’s in-camera effects work is still groundbreaking even now.  The gore itself, with grisly images of humans trying to escape the clutches of the monster as their skin and flesh have been instantly eaten away as well as a truly gruesome shot of a man’s flesh being peeled clean from his arm and hand, is unbelievably graphic for 1959.   The sound of the shapeless creature itself, with an eerie mixture of insect chirping and what sounds like a soapy tub being drained, at first seems silly until the visual effects of the creature increasing in size and splitting into separate entities stop us dead in our tracks.  Reportedly the creatures were created using tripe and considering this was a low budget knockoff, it’s kind of shocking just how much the remarkable work here betters the films that inspired it.

For Arrow Video’s new blu-ray special edition, they’ve done something unique.  Originally the film was exhibited in 1.66:1 during the initial theatrical run, as presented here.  But in the special features selection, a full aperture version of the open camera negative replete with sprockets on the side of the screen reveal much of the film was shot in 1.66:1 but most if not all of the visual effects shots done by Bava were filmed in 1.33:1.  This means that you’ll see more picture information of the soon-to-be horror maestro’s in-camera visual effects than you did in theaters.  While not what was intended to be seen by the filmmakers, it provides an interesting historical reference for Bava fans wanting to see his visual effects work in their entirety.

For fans of the creature features of the 1950s as well as those keen on where Mario Bava got his start in the industry, Caltiki – The Immortal Monster is an inspired little gem and a rare breed of monster movie that takes the most recognizable elements of established horror movies and builds upon them in ways we never expected.  If you can get past the acting and lulls in the story, you’re in for a real treat which proves once again the Italians beat America to the finish line in terms of graphic and gory gothic horror unafraid to push the envelope and show audiences something they’ve never seen before.  Arrow Video as always has done a fantastic job bringing this underseen cult classic to the high definition format with plentiful extras that should keep die-hard horror fans happy for years to come!  Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, Caltiki is kind of a splendid highlight in the killer slime subgenre!

- Andrew Kotwicki