Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Caltiki – The Immortal Monster (1959)

Immortality is an odd concept for something so simply defined. Ask anyone what it means, they'll tell you, "to never die" or "to live forever" (actually, I'm paraphrasing here, but you get the idea). William De Morgan famously said, "I don't want to achieve immortality by being inducted into the Hall of Fame. I want to achieve immortality by not dying." Unfortunately, since no human being (unless we take into account myths and stories like those of the Wandering Jew or Connor MacLeod, and even then there are limitations) has ever physically achieved this goal, we (as human beings so often do) redefine the goal in order to make it achievable. Therefore, immortality becomes what we leave behind, our work, scions, essentially memories of when we were here. Only deities can physically be defined as being immortal, but even godhood is no safeguard against death (though they're usually resurrected after the "final curtain"). What's a poor blob to do, then?

While investigating Mayan ruins in central Mexico, two expedition members go missing. When one of them, Nieto (Arturo Dominici), turns up rambling about a mummy, the other members investigate. On the bottom of a cavern lake, they discover a virtual graveyard of skeletons as well as a shambling mass of a creature whose touch can strip the meat off a human in seconds and mummify living tissue. Destroying (most of) the monster with a gas truck explosion, expedition leader, John (John Merivale) takes a piece of the beast back to Mexico City to study. Turns out Caltiki is just waiting for the right time to make her presence known to the world, and the results are predicted to be cataclysmic.

Caltiki – The Immortal Monster (aka Caltiki -The Undying Monster, aka Caltiki – Il Mostro Immortale) is credited as being directed by veteran Italian director, Riccardo Freda. However, the rumor is that the director abdicated his position to the film's cinematographer and special effects person, Mario Bava. With that in mind, the film certainly has the feel of some of Bava's work. The gothic horror trappings that Bava would help popularize in the 1960s are in evidence. Skulls and skeletons populate the film's early sets like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Snakes slither about in menacing fog banks. Also, organ music warbles ominously on the score, augmenting the creepy, gothic feel. Further, there's an alarming level of gore effects in the film for the time. 

I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but the presentation of graphic violence in films like this has always had more verisimilitude than what would come in the next few years. From the wartime violence of All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) to the more exploitive violence of The Monster Of Piedras Blancas (1959), the shock of seeing the human body dismembered (or the after effects) resonates more in these older films due not so much to their violation of the cultural norms of the times but to their usage of stark back-and-white cinematography. In this film, we see Caltiki's victims stripped of their meat, just the wet, mostly-denuded bones left as warnings to any who get in the creature's path. The effects work here is actually fairly shocking and largely impressive. I'm unsure if any of these shots were trimmed from the American cut, but I would suspect so, and I was surprised what made it through did. Caltiki herself, while appearing to be just a wet pile of linty towels, makes an impressive threat. Her "skin" has an odd texture that is at once attractive and repellant, and she is in constant motion, so you're always watching to see where she will move next.

Another interesting aspect, and an asset to the film, is that it doesn't rely solely on the threat of Caltiki for tension. Instead, there is a heavy melodrama facet that plays out in a sub-plot. Max (Gérard Herter) has the hots for John's wife, Ellen (Didi Sullivan), but Ellen wants nothing to do with Max. Meanwhile, "half-breed", Linda (Daniela Rocca), clings to Max in an abusive relationship, and she betrays those who show her friendship in desperate attempts to gain Max's affections. To the filmmakers' credit, this ties into the main, monster movie plot, helps build tension going into the third act, and keeps the pace from dragging by providing an alternative to the creature story. Granted, it's heavily reminiscent of a soap opera, yet it works for the film, oddly enough. 

Speaking of pacing, there are points of the film's climax which feel contrived and actually inject a bit of anticlimax into the proceedings. I'm thinking specifically of two things (minor spoilers ahead). The first is when John is speeding home, and he gets arrested. It's glaringly inserted only to pad out the finale and made me groan a bit. The other is how John pulls off the rescue at the end. It just sort of happens. The filmmakers took all this time and trouble getting to this point, and then by skipping over any substantial detail, they rob the end of being fully satisfying. It's like getting a cheeseburger that has mustard on it (and you hate mustard, right?) when you were a kid, and instead of sending it back, your mom just wipes off the mustard and makes you eat it. That trace of mustard stays on the food (you know it does, it's not just in your head, dammit) and brings the whole experience down to about, oohhhh, seventy-five-percent.

It's funny to me how few movies there are about blob-like monsters (The Blob, Beware! The Blob, X – The Unknown, The Quatermass Xperiment [technically], and of course Caltiki - this is all off the top of my head, so please allow that this list is more than likely incomplete). Nonetheless, the creature is an enduring icon in the pantheon of horror movies. For such a simple creation (essentially a giant amoeba), it generates a wealth of terror that busloads of whacky serial killers can't. I think the reason is twofold. Number one, the creature has no discernible intelligence. It doesn't plot or discuss its intentions. Like in The Terminator,"It can't be bargained with or reasoned with." And this leads me to number two; a blob is like the shark in Jaws, "an eating machine," and if it lands on you, you're toast. You may be able to brush against a shark and make it out alive, but brushing against a blob dissolves you (or worse). It is the ultimate "Unknown" embodied in a mass of constantly rolling death. In the long run, Caltiki does its part to keep this menace alive, even, dare I say, immortal?

MVT: Bava takes it on this one. By all accounts, he wore multiple hats on the production equally well and managed to craft a small creature feature that deserves more recognition than it gets.

Make Or Break: As Nieto wanders around the ruins at the beginning, there are some great backlit shots that really add flavor to the scene. The fog-encased, shadow-covered figure and play of light set a tone that, while not strictly adhered to throughout, certainly gets things off on the right foot.

Score: 7.25/10

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