In the jungle it has waited for centuries, under the angry volcano, hidden in the darkness of the deep, since the Mayans were driven from their cities in 607AD, a migration which wiped their great culture from the face of the Earth and relegated them to history. They had a name for it which still carries dread: Caltiki – the immortal monster!
Three hundred miles south of Mexico City an archaeological expedition explores the ruins but they have brought their own troubles with them to match those they find among the relics. Doctor John Fielding (John Merivale) has been accompanied by his wife Ellen (Didi Perego), but she is eyed jealously by Max Gunther (Gérard Herter) who callously ignores his own lover Linda (Daniela Rocca); she adores him despite his contempt, while he calls her a half breed to her face.
A returning member of the team stumbles into the camp, delirious, babbling of “the mummy, Caltiki,” but his colleague his missing; John and Max descend into the caves opened by the volcanic activity to try to locate the lost man and discover an underground chamber bathed in radiation and filled with artefacts including an altar to that ancient vengeful goddess.
Exploring the underwater lake they find skeletons and treasure but one member of the team is killed, his body decaying as soon as it is brought to the surface, and Max is injured, his arm caught by the shapeless creature which rises to the surface, corroded to the bone as if by strong acid. Taken back to Mexico City, his conditions worsens and Linda is distraught, but the sample of the creature thrives…
Originally released in 1959 and now remastered in a new edition on Blu-ray by Arrow Films, Caltiki – The Immortal Monster was credited to prolific Italian director Riccardo Freda but was graced by significant contributions from his cinematographer Mario Bava, who also created the many special effects shots for the film and oversaw editing and post-production, but this is not in any way disparaging to Freda or implying that he was not dedicated to the project.
Rather, it was Freda’s specific intention that Bava, whose talent surpassed the positions he had been offered in his sixteen year career within the Italian film industry, should use this as a stepping stone to launch his own directorial career which continued for the next two decades, including Black Sunday, Blood and Black Lace, Planet of the Vampires and Danger: Diabolik, a master of the giallo genre alongside Dario Argento.
As with much Italian cinema, to say that Caltiki is derivative or could be regarded as an homage does not perhaps convey the range of undeniable influences, principal among them 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment (released as The Creeping Unknown in the United States) with a man hospitalised by an infection spreading from his arm which turns him homicidal, Herter even bearing a resemblance to actor Richard Wordsworth, and its sequel Quatermass 2 of 1957 (released as Enemy From Space in the United States) though here it is the passage of a radioactive comet rather than an asteroid which precipitates the crisis.
Both of these were Hammer productions, as was 1956’s X the Unknown, where an ancient creature which feeds off radiation rises from ground recently shattered by explosives testing, though the amorphous and rapidly expanding creature itself cannot help but remind of the titular star of 1958’s The Blob, while the ancient totems and legends of the lost people who offered human sacrifice to the possibly extra-terrestrial Caltiki echo the Old Ones of H P Lovecraft and the tying of the supernatural to scientific explanations was a hallmark of Nigel Kneale.
These parallels only add to the enjoyment of what is in fact a well-constructed if somewhat underwhelming monster movie, no surprise given the talent behind the camera, and for its time and the resources available Bava’s work is superb, particularly evident in the early matte shots of the expedition approaching and entering the Mayan ruins, blazing volcano alight in the background, though the scale models of exploding trucks are less convincing.
An Italian science fiction horror film set in Mexico offered with both English dialogue and Italian dialogue with English subtitles, there are bizarre discrepancies between the translations, Doctor Mendes becoming Professor Perez, Gunther aging three years between the two versions, the expression of many lines changed almost entirely.
This may go some way to explaining the bizarre narrative leaps, the previous visitation of the comet 1352 years earlier apparently having caused concern in the Byzantine Empire over the danger of radioactive damage years before radioactivity was discovered or understood, to say nothing of the fact with only one previous visit in antiquity the orbit of the comet could never have been plotted to match its identity.
As would be expected of Arrow, there are a plethora of supporting features, among them two audio commentaries provided by Tim Lucas and Troy Howarth, both experts on the work of Mario Bava who possess a fascinating and encyclopaedic knowledge of their subject, and a newly recorded discussion of Caltiki by critic Kim Newman entitled From Quatermass to Caltiki where he examines the influences on the film and its place within Italian cinema.
Archive material includes critic Stefano Della Casa’s recollections of Riccardo Freda, by turns enthusiastic, entertaining and acerbic but always informed, embracing Italian cinema and criticism and speaking of the director from the point of view of both a fan and a friend. Being Italian, both he and filmmaker Luigi Cozza pack a lot of information into very little time, with Cozza’s interview, titled The Genesis of Caltiki, discussing the background of the production, initiated by screenwriter and set designers Filippo Sanjust, and Lux Studios where it was made.
From the vastness of the caves to the depths of the lake the black and white image is crisp and sharp throughout, and of particular interest to enthusiasts is the “unmatted” version of the film also included on the disc, allowing the full exposed frame of the negative to be seen, including details which were concealed in all previous versions of this film. There is life in the Caverns of Caltiki yet…