Schlock Value: Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959)
Hey, Schlockers! By the time this goes up, I will be in Phoenixville, PA, celebrating my 30th birthday at Blobfest 2017. For those of you unfamiliar with the festival, Blobfest is a weekend of events in and around the famous Colonial Theater celebrating the iconic 1958 film, The Blob. So, for this week’s Schlock Value, I wanted to pick a similar, but lesser known film, that might make for a solid double feature with the Steve McQueen classic.
Throughout the ‘50s and early ‘60s, there were a number of cheap sci-fi flicks about alien oozes and jelly monsters hell bent on the destruction of mankind (X the Unknown, Island of Terror), but the one I picked for this week is an Italian film from 1959 that was shot and co-directed by giallo godfather, Mario Bava. I am referring, of course, to Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, and boy does it fit the bill.
Caltiki begins in the jungles of Mexico as a group of archaeologists study the ruins of an ancient Mayan civilization where long ago, the local population suddenly vanished without a trace. When one of them stumbles back to camp without his partner, who was supposedly killed in a nearby cave, the rest of the group, led by the handsome Prof. John Fielding, head down to see what’s going on. They discover an underground grotto along with a giant statue of the Mayan goddess, Caltiki. Of course, one of the men decides to investigate the pool to look for ancient treasure. When he emerges, he reveals a small fortune in gold artifacts, and despite reservations from the group, he decides to go back down for more.
When the group begins to fear for his safety, they pull him back up only to discover that he has been killed, his face eaten all the way down the bone. Moments later, a shapeless blob monster emerges from the pool and attacks the group. It latches onto the arm of primo douchebag, Max Gunther, but they manage to escape the cave with him alive. Spotting a nearby gas truck, one of the scientists drives it straight into the monster, resulting in an explosion that appears to kill it.
Later, in a Mexico City hospital, Gunther is in stable condition, despite the jelly creature reducing his arm to nothing but bone. The trauma of the incident, however, causes him to gradually descend into a fit of madness. Meanwhile, in his home laboratory, Prof. Fielding immediately begins experimenting on the small piece of the creature they were able to salvage, discovering that it’s a 20 million-year-old unicellular organism that grows larger and multiplies when exposed to radiation. Coincidentally, they also discover that a comet is heading for Earth - a comet that passes by once every 850 years. Not only is this comet emitting large quantities of radiation, but the last time it whizzed by, the Mayans in that ancient city disappeared!
As Fielding gets busy pleading for help from (and subsequently getting locked up by) the Mexican government, the comet draws near, and the blob monster splits into more pieces, each growing larger and larger. Fortunately, one of Fielding’s men manages to convince the authorities to take the threat seriously, but by that point, the blob(s) are gargantuan in size and threatening to engulf the house and it’s up to the Mexican military to roll in with their tanks and flamethrowers to take down the monster before it destroys the city.
Although the film credits Riccardo Freda (as Robert Hampton) as the sole director of Caltiki, Freda abandoned the project. This left the picture in the very capable hands of Mario Bava, the cinematographer and special effects artist, giving him a chance to flex his directorial muscles (fun fact: Freda previously did this in 1956, as well, allowing Bava to direct I Vampiri). As a result, what might otherwise be tossed aside as another in a series of cheaply made schlocky blob monster movies is elevated to a gorgeous work of art. The underwater sequence in the grotto is absolutely breathtaking (and is on par with that of The Creature from the Black Lagoon), and the stunning high-contrast black and white cinematography ramps up the spookiness, and perfectly complements the multitude of miniatures used during the military assault on the monster in the film’s climax. The makeup effects, particularly the dissolved face of the scuba diver and Gunther’s skeletal forearm, are top notch.
The cast does a perfectly fine job with the material, though the women (despite being scientists) are unfortunately given very little to do, basically relegated to being love interests for Fielding and Gunther. And the film does tend to drag a bit toward the middle, as Fielding does some science and Gunther goes mad (and verbally abuses his girlfriend), but once the monster begins to grow and all hell breaks loose, the film kicks into high gear for a spectacular climax involving tanks, flame throwers, and destruction. As much as I love The Blob, fire extinguishers just don't pack the same punch as a good ol’ flame thrower. And hot damn, I love miniatures.
Caltiki, the Immortal Monster is a must watch for Bava fans, or pretty much anyone else who enjoys atomic age stuff. If you can find the Blu-ray from Arrow Video, I highly suggest picking it up as the transfer is absolutely flawless. And hey, if you’re in or around Phoenixville this weekend, come join in the festivities! I'd love to meet you!