it’s well known that the Italian horror film as we know it began by riffing on Hammer Horror gothics with Mario Bava’s The Mask of Satan, but interestingly, Italian filmmakers were already imitating Hammer before this, as Caltiki The Immortal Monster shows. This film – officially directed by Riccardo Freda (as Robert Hampton), and completed by an uncredited Bava, both of whom would go on to rather greater things once the Italian gothic got going – is essentially an imitation of The Quatermass Xperiment, the film that itself paved the way for Hammer to move onto the full-blooded gothic horror film. Caltiki has an original enough storyline, avoiding being a mere Quatermass clone, but the central idea and several key moments are clear lifts.
Of course, Cthulhu-like amorphous / tentacled blobs were all the rage in 1950s and early 60’ssci-fi, being cheap and easier to pull off effectively than space creatures with recognisable body parts and faces – as well as this and the the first two Quatermass films, globular, jelly-like creatures could be seen in X – The Unknown, The Trollenberg Terror, Island of Terror, The Creeping Unknown and, of course, The Blob amongst others. Here, the creature is not, for once, an invader from outer space, but an ancient monster living beneath an ancient Mayan city (and probably, the film implies, responsible for the fall of the Mayan civilisation. It’s unleashed by a team of archeologists, led by stone-faced wooden actor John Marivale as Dr John Fielding, a man so devoted to his work that he doesn’t notice slimy Max Gunther (Gerard Herter) making a play for his wife Ellen (Didi Sullivan). Gunther is attacked by the creature, leaving him with a mutated arm, scarred face and a psychotic attitude – much like Caroon in The Quatermass Xperiment, though here a less symapthetic figure. Also in the mix is ‘half-breed’ Linda (Daniela Rocca), who is in love with the fiendish Gunther.
Although the original Caltiki is destroyed early on, a blob of the creature on Guther’s arm is removed for firther examination, where the scientists dicover that it feeds on radiation. Unfortunately for everyone, a radioactive comet is passing by Earth at the time, and soon Caltiki starts to grow and reproduce, resulting in several blobs – and Gunther – terrorising Ellen and her daughter, as Fielding battles the disbelieving authorities to make them believe in the threat.
Those expecting to see early hints of the talents of Freda and Bava might be disappointed here – while the black and white film looks great, there’s little of the style, the sense of the morbid or the gothic atmosphere found in their later works. Rather, the movie plods rather aimlessly for the first half hour, torn between building tension and exploring the immediately forgettable tensions between the leading characters, not of whom – not even the excitable Gunther – are paricularly interesting. When things finally get going, the film improves considerably, with a frenetic pace that almost compensates for the extraordinarily low-rent monsters. Almost. But it’s hard to avoid thinking that the supposed slime monster resembles a wet rug with someone underneath it, desperately flailing away as if trapped. This rather scuppers the sense of threat somewhat. More surprisingly, the film has a couple of unexpectedly gory moments that are quite gruesome and well handled, perhaps pointing the way for Bava’s future.
Still, we shouldn’t be too critical. The monster is far from the worst to grace 1950s science fiction, and Caltiki is far from the worst film of the era. It’s actually quite good fun once it gets moving, and while never exactly gripping – and several notches below the British films that inspired it – it works well within its own imitations. It’s really only for completist fans of either director, but if you have a taste for vintage monster movies, you’ll probably have a lot of fun with it. And there is probably scope for a big budget remake at some point.