Caltiki: The Immortal Monster Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
A team of archaeologists led by Dr. John Fielding (John Merivale, Circus of Horrors) descends on the ruins of an ancient Mayan city to investigate the mysterious disappearance of its inhabitants. However, the luckless explorers get more than they bargained for when their investigation of a sacrificial pool awakens the monster that dwells beneath its waters – the fearsome and malevolent god, Caltiki. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Given the manner in which duties were shared and credits were ‘earned’ during the early days of the post-WWII Italian film industry, many of Mario Bava’s early directing efforts were ignored for decades. The common knowledge is that Black Sunday (Italian: La maschera del demonio, 1960) was his first chance to be in charge of a production, but this leaves a number of assistant and co-directing efforts unacknowledged (more recently, while researching his book Mario Bava: All the Colors of Dark [Video Watchdog, 2007], biographer Tim Lucas discovered that Bava may have been the sole director of The Day the Sky Exploded [Italian: La morte viene dallo spazio, 1958] – a film otherwise credited to Paolo Heusch). As Bava’s reputation improved and boutique labels began releasing his filmography on DVD, his efforts as co-director on Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (aka: Lust of the Vampire, 1957) were recognized, yet the duo’s other horror collaboration, Caltiki the Immortal Monster (Italian: Caltiki il mostro immortale, 1959), was still absent from home video and, thus, largely ignored (Bava was also the cinematographer on Freda’s The White Warrior [Italian: Agi Murad il diavolo bianco, 1959] and apparently shot a number of action sequences).
The general ignorance in regards to Caltiki can also probably be blamed on its firm classification as a B-movie. Unlike I Vampiri, Black Sunday, and all of the brilliantly photographed Gothic horrors that followed, it can be mistaken for Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder. In the broadest terms, it’s basically a tropical-adventure-flavored rip-off of Irvin Yeaworth & Russell S. Doughton Jr.’s The Blob (1958) and Val Guest’s The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), in which an amorphous creature made of animal offal stands in for the more romantic giant ape of Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933). Those willing to look beneath the dopier qualities of Filippo Sanjust’s quick ‘n dirty screenplay – which still deserves credit for blending such disparate elements and introducing some of the wackiest pseudo-science imaginable – Bava’s technical expertise and the care he puts into his photography and special effects puts it miles ahead of the dimestore exploitation that uninitiated viewers may be compelled to compare it to. Beyond the craft and impressionistic cinematography (all designed by Bava), Caltiki actively avoids the downtime and filler that plagues similar movies. Not into the tomb-raiding scenes? Enjoy a saucy island dance. Bored by the awkward, super-melodramatic romance? How about some genuinely shocking pre-’60s gore? Does scene after scene of the main character describing the ‘science’ of Caltiki make you giggle? Here’s arguably the first found-footage sequence in horror movie history.
Freda reportedly chose to hand the film over to Bava and refers to it as "Bava’s first true film as director" (according to Lucas’ book). However, in the rush to credit Bava, it’s important that we don’t neglect Freda’s impact as a filmmaker, himself. Aside from his plethora of sword & sandal and historical fiction films, he can deserves credit alongside Bava for bringing horror to popular Italian cinema. His post-Caltiki work includes some stinkers, including a botched attempt at combining the peplum and Gothic horror genres called Maciste in Hell (Italian: Maciste all'inferno, 1962) that pales in comparison to Bava’s far superior Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), but he did manage to make some minor classics along the way, including three underrated gialli – Double Face (Italian: A doppia faccia, 1969, plotted by Lucio Fulci), The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (Italian: L'iguana dalla lingua di fuoco, 1971), and Murder Obsession (Italian: Follia omicida, 1981, his last film). His best horror film made without Bava’s influence was probably The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock (which was sold on a double-bill with Jess Franco’s The Awful Dr. Orloff in 1962).
Caltiki the Immortal Monster has been high on Mario Bava enthusiasts’ ‘want’ list for quite some time. North American fans might even consider it the ‘holy grail’ of Bava on home video, because it was only previously available on DVD from NoShame and Cult Media in Italy. Though both releases were English-friendly, they were PAL discs and have long since gone out of print. Arrow’s brand new transfer (which is being released in both the US and the UK) was taken from a 2K scan of the original 35mm interpositive that was conducted at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy. The footage was then restored, color-corrected, and cleaned-up, though not so aggressively as to iron out film grain or other inherent textures. Grain does kick up on occasion, but appears accurate, based on the photography types (for instance, the underwater scenes are much grainier than the scenes shot on controlled sets). Details are quite impressive for a low-budget, black & white production from the late ‘50s. The majority of the ‘problems’ can easily be blamed on the condition of the original material. Occasionally, Bava’s lenses cause blurring around the edges of the frame and the brief dips in clarity almost always coincide with a special effect process shot or between-scene dissolve. The dynamic range is wide, encompassing an array of gray gradations between the deep blacks and soft whites. For good measure, Arrow has included a 1.33:1 ‘full aperture’ version of the complete film. There’s no telling what Bava and Freda’s preferred framing was, but the 1.66:1 transfer, which reproduces the original theatrical framing, looks a bit better to my eyes. Still, it’s always nice to have the option.
The collection’s booklet describes the original Italian mono soundtrack being transferred from a dupe negative, but it does not explain where they obtained the coinciding English mono soundtrack. Given the similar quality to the lossless, 1.0 LPCM tracks, I’m going to assume that it’s merely an oversight by the people that prepared the booklet. Anyway, as I always mention when I review Italian films from this era, the entire movie was shot without synced sound, so both tracks are dub tracks. In this, case it appears that some cast members are speaking English in one scene and Italian in another, except for John Merivale and Didi Sullivan, who perform entirely in English (though Merivale is very clearly not dubbing himself – that job fell to Italian dubbing veteran Anthony La Penna).The musical soundtrack is credited to Roman Vlad & Roberto Nicolosi and has a nice pulpy flair, even if it sort of sounds like it was edited together from a generic library source. The tone and volume of the music sounds basically the same on both tracks, including the same pitch shifts and warble.
Commentary with Tim Lucas – The author/expert is in typical form as he unloads fact after fact about Bava and Freda’s careers, the Italian film industry during the late ‘50s, the making of Caltiki, its influences, and its legacy. The track also acts as a companion piece to his book, though, obviously, there is some overlap.
Commentary with Troy Howarth – Speaking of overlap, the author of The Haunted World of Mario Bava and So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films offers up a second expert info track – one that is only hindered by the fact that most viewers will probably listen to it after Lucas’. Tonally, the two tracks are very different and both commentators put the maximum effort into their work, but the content is pretty similar, though rarely on a scene-by-scene basis. It’s still worth listening to both tracks, because they definitely are not identical (Lucas is more focused on technical elements and Howarth allows himself to act as more of a fan), perhaps just not a good idea to listen to them right in a row.
From Quatermass to Caltiki (18:13, HD) – A brand new interview with critic and author of Nightmare Movies (1988/2011), Kim Newman, who explores the ‘50s monster movie boom and the influence that these movies had on Caltiki.
Alternate US title sequence
NoShame archive DVD extras:
Riccardo Freda, Forgotten Master (19:05, SD) – Critic and screenwriter Stefano Della Casa discusses Caltiki and briefly covers co-director Freda’s career apart from Bava (in giant facial close-up). The actual on-screen title of this featurette is Il Ritorno di Caltiki (The Return of Caltiki), by the way.
The Genesis of Caltiki (21:33, SD) – Filmmaker and Italian sci-fi/fantasy/horror superfan/expert Luigi Cozzi (Starcrash, 1978, and Contamination, 1980) talks about Bava and the making of the film from his post at Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso store.
Introduction to the film by Stefano Della Casa (00:21, SD) – A brief intro by the critic/writer.
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