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From Coatlicue to Cthulhu: Caltiki – The Immortal Monster (1959)

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Italian poster art: Caltiki – Il monstro immortale

Caltiki – il mostro immortale/Caltiki – The Immortal Monster (1959) is often overshadowed by Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava’s previous joint venture, I Vampiri/The Vampires (or Lust of the Vampire) from 1957. Though Bava’s directorial debut would be recorded officially as Black Sunday (or Mask of the Demon/La Maschera el Daimo) in 1960, he surpassed his role as cinematographer on I Vampiri by taking creative control and completing the film when director Freda left the project. Though formally invited to direct Caltiki, it is generally accepted that Freda shared this role with Bava in order to propel him in his career – in acknowledgement of the latter’s substantial work on I Vampiri and the way Bava was treated by the production companies involved, notably Titanus.

I Vampiri, often described as the first Italian horror film, was not a domestic success, grossing 125 million lire on its initial theatrical run. Galatea Productions therefore wanted to ensure that Caltiki was able to duplicate popular trends, specifically British and American output, in order to generate commercial success both locally and abroad. The structure of the post-WW2 Italian studio system, free from the cinematic censorship and constraints of Mussolini’s fascist government, involved the reproduction of international popular trends by making similar films quickly and efficiently on a mass scale. This ensured that production grew substantially between 1945 and 1954; 204 films were completed in 1954, whereas only 25 films were released back in 1945.

Galatea thus intended to tackle both the national and international market with Caltiki by producing a horror/science-fiction hybrid that narratively and formally replicated British successes, such as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and X The Unknown (1956), as well as the American hit, The Blob (1958). All of these films explored Cold War anxieties via their extra-terrestrial or primordial monsters, and were very popular with Italian audiences starved of genre content during the war. Simultaneously, as I Vamipiri performed poorly in other countries, Galatea anglicised the names of the Italian production team in order to secure international distribution for Caltiki: writer Filippo Sanjust becomes Phillip Just, while Freda and Bava’s directorial influence is amalgamated into the fictional, singular identity of Robert Hampton. The English-language version of the film was five minutes shorter than the 81 minutes delivered in the Italian version – several scenes in the camp at the beginning of the film were removed – with the dubbed audio track provided by Titras Studios in New York. However, though the film was designed to emulate the above films and is often grouped with them in discussions of 1950s horror/science-fiction – even the Japanese film, The H-Man (1958) can arguably be said to have been an influence on Caltiki with its radioactive ‘liquid’ creatures – there are several strikingly innovative touches that set the film aside from its predecessors.

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Mario Bava’s striking opening visuals hint at the fate of the ancient Mayan population.

The film begins by describing the fate of the ancient Mayan population; an audio commentary complements Bava’s striking visuals of the once powerful kingdom of Tikal in Guatemala, suddenly abandoned by its inhabitants in 607AD, using the rocky landscape of Spain to great effect in creating this “dead city”. The introduction highlights the advanced and cultured status of the indigenous people, stressing the mystery of their migration, still unsuccessfully explained by scientific expeditions to the area. The ancestors of the ancient Mayans still talk of the legend that supposedly caused their relatives to flee: the arrival of the terrible Caltiki, a Mayan diety.

The opening sequence culminates in a dramatic musical crescendo – Roman Vlad and Roberto Nicolosi’s score rises and ebbs between eerie and ardent as necessary – complete with the eruption of a volcano. A delirious man runs through the rainforest before bursting into the camp of his anthropological team, part of yet another expedition to find answers to the ancient mystery. The man, Nieto (Arturo Dominici) babbles about his missing companion, Professor Ulmer (uncredited), and the goddess Caltiki. The group, led by Professor John Fielding (John Merivale), immediately begin searching for their missing member.

The recent volcanic eruptions have revealed an entrance to a cave system; the great stone steps lead to an enormous chamber, complete with a bas-relief of the fearsome goddess Caltiki and a large ceremonial lake, which the archaeologists deduce must have been used to offer human sacrifices to the deity. This is proven to be correct when the group find Ulmer’s camera on the floor, before returning to camp to collect equipment to dive into the lake. Bava’s camera then pans slowly over the empty chamber to disclose the fate of Ulmer.

Nieto and Ulmer’s video footage reveals that an unseen entity attacked the pair in the cave system. Coupled with the unveiling of Caltiki’s cave, unease spreads throughout the camp, with local villagers who have been aiding the scientists performing a sacred dance to appease evil spirits. One of the scientists, Bob (Daniele Vargas) has been warned that bad fortune will befall the group should an outsider look upon the ceremony but he of course laughs at the superstition and sates his curiosity. The villagers fall silent when they realise Bob is watching them, boding further ill omens.

Similarly, Fielding’s wife, Ellen (Didi Perego), has accompanied her work obsessed husband on his trip but is exhausted, tired of being ignored, and unnerved by the recent loss of one of their group members. She begs Fielding to return to their accommodation in Mexico but he refuses, feverish in his fixation on the new discovery. The couple fight and Ellen storms outside, only for Fielding’s friend and colleague Max (Gérard Herter) to slink out of the shadows and bluntly try to seduce her, taking advantage of Ellen’s emotional state. Ellen promptly dismisses his advances and leaves the imperious Max to lick his wounds. The effect of her slight is palpable as Max’s lover, Linda (Daniela Rocca), confronts Max after hearing the hurtful conversation. She conveys her love for him but Max responds by rejecting her in a similarly dispassionate manner to his treatment from Ellen.

Returning to the site with diving equipment, Bob investigates the lake and discovers the bottom is littered with the skeletons of Mayan people sacrificed to the fearsome goddess, along with gifts of gold. Concerned about the level of radioactivity within the system, Fielding wants to return to camp but Bob greedily heads back into the dark depths of the water. This time, he is not alone.

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Bob’s (Daniele Vargas) fatal encounter with Caltiki.

Bob’s skeleton, covered in the remnants of his melted flesh, emerges from the surface of the water and is closely followed by a singular mass of organic material. As the group flees, Max is also overcome by greed and runs back towards the lake to grab as much gold as he can. When he stumbles, the amoebic creature attaches itself to his arm. Fielding manages to save his friend by hacking off a piece of the monster, which is still attached to Max’s arm in a definite nod to Victor Carroon in The Quatermass Xperiment, before destroying the creature by driving a jeep into it, the fire from the explosion consuming the biological beast. In a wonderfully gruesome scene in the hospital, doctors peel back the organic matter to reveal that Max’s arm has been stripped of its flesh. Despite the mysterious material being removed, and Max’s arm having to be unfortunately amputated, it appears that a biological residue is still attacking Max, perhaps a radioactive toxin. His skin is partially covered in lesions, as though he suffered severe burns, and the doctors are also concerned as to his deteriorating mental state. The hospital hypothesises that the toxins may have affected Max’s brain; he is aggressive, argumentative and extremely irritable, voicing his vengeful plans to attack Ellen to Linda. Linda, of course, ignores these ramblings and gratefully accepts Ellen’s kind offer to stay with her during Max’s hospitalisation.

As Fielding attempts to classify and carbon date the organism, discovering that it is a unicellular bacterium over 20 million years old, he keeps a sample of the matter in his laboratory at home. Scientists discover that radiation causes the organism to grow rapidly and theorise that radiation from the path of a comet described by the Mayans before their disappearance had this effect upon the creature, causing the mass immigration of Tikal. One of the scientists unknowingly activates the generator in the laboratory and exposes the organism to radiation. The mass begins to grow, devouring everything in its path before the laboratory, and the creature, is destroyed by fire.

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Max (Gérard Herter) makes his escape from hospital.

Max escapes after bludgeoning a nurse to death and makes his way to Fielding’s house. He is hidden in the basement by Linda as Fielding is called away to the ruined laboratory. Scientists deduce that the same comet from the Mayan records, which circulates past Earth every 1352 years, is en route. The radiation from the comet thus causes the piece of the creature in Fielding’s home to drastically reproduce on a cellular level. Max confronts Ellen with a pistol but Linda stands between them and is shot by Max. He receives his comeuppance when the creature bursts through the laboratory walls and engulfs him, stripping him of the rest of his flesh. Ellen runs upstairs, followed by the pulsating monster, and climbs out of the second story window with her young daughter in her arms. She scales the house to safety as Mexican authorities arrive and burn the house to the ground, with the creature in it. It must be noted that Bava’s artistic influence on the film – from the tripe-covered creature to the models of buildings used in the final, explosive sequences – was substantial, and the practical application of such effects lends the film a simultaneously nostalgic pleasure and appreciation for contemporary audiences.

Caltiki thus presents several interesting elements in regards to how it differentiates from its predecessors. Firstly, the film is one of the first instances in which found-footage is integrated into the diegetic world of the story. Found footage is literally defined, in terms of film, as: ‘Misplaced, forgotten, archived, or privately-owned motion picture recordings which document past events and which are subsequently rediscovered and made available for public viewing’ or ‘A motion picture, or a segment of one, photographed in the style of an amateurish or unedited documentary.’

It is the term used for the plot device within pseudo-, or fake- documentaries (often referred to as mockumentaries) in which all or part of a fictional film is presented as if it were discovered film or video recordings. Though Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is often credited with wielding the first mainstream use of this technique, this plot device is used very effectively within Caltiki. Ulmer’s camera, found amongst the cave system next to the sacrificial lake, depicts Ulmer and Nieto entering the recently unearthed entrance to the cave, discovering the bas-relief of Caltiki and a piece of Mayan gold jewellery. Within the found footage style, instead of a traditional, omniscient director, filming is completed by a character that exists within the film’s world and the execution of the device in Caltiki does raise some questions in regards to the placement of characters and thus realism for modern audiences; when Fielding and the rest of the group are watching the footage, they remark that one of the local guides was operating the camera outside the entrance to the cave but did not venture in. Yet, inside the cave, the two men are filmed from within as they descend the stone steps. In addition, though the pair is suddenly attacked, Nieto does not turn the camera upon their attacker, or drop it; he simply films Ulmer shooting at the unseen entity behind him and the camera wobbles slightly. Despite this contemporary analysis, the effect in 1959 must have been extremely chilling, and also quite pioneering in a mainstream movie.

This attempt at realism to thrill audiences is also complemented by the fusion of the supernatural and the scientific. As previously mentioned, the threat of the Cold War was looming over audiences in post-WW2 Italy and beyond, and this socio-cultural fear infused the contemporary landscape of horror with a variety of monsters, themes and narratives inspired by the world of science-fiction. Sanjust perceptively transposed these fears of nuclear annihilation onto the historical disappearance of the Mayan population. The title cards reveal that the film was ‘Based on an Ancient Mexican Legend.’ The ancient Mayans developed and assimilated a complex astronomical understanding into their religious beliefs and practices. Similar to other ancient peoples, they believed that celestial or star beings visited Earth and affected the course of history, a belief that is reflected in ancient art throughout the world.

Though the Mexican legend Sanjust used for inspiration is not referenced, and Caltiki appears to be a fictional Mayan goddess, she could have been influenced by several pre-Hispanic goddesses of destruction and death. Notable deities include the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, known as ‘The Goddess of the Serpent Skirt’ and the ‘Devourer of Wastes’, who was said to represent fertility and the Earth, simultaneously giving birth to and devouring all’. [1] This description closely matches the prophetic inscription in the caves where Caltiki dwells: “Caltiki is One, the only immortal god, and when its mate appears in the sky, Caltiki will destroy the world.” Coatlicue’s temple was similarly known as ‘The House of Darkness’ – in that it references the amoebic biology of the creature and its devouring, destructive nature.

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The expedition, led by Professor John Fielding (John Merivale), discovers the temple of the Mayan deity, Caltiki.

The reference to Caltiki as ‘the only immortal god’ also draws several parallels between the goddess and the titular being within H. P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu (1928). Cthulhu is one of the Great Old Ones, described by Lovecraft as a giant anthropoid, hundreds of metres tall, which resembles a dragon, an octopus and has some human characteristics. Charles P. Mitchell notes the following similarities between both Caltiki and Cthulhu in his book, The Complete H. P. Lovecraft Filmography: the fictitious name of the deity bears the same number of letters as the word Cthulhu, and also uses the letters c, l, and t; Caltiki emerges from water, maintains a gelatinous, or jelly-like, form, and lies dormant in her temple until celestial bodies align or are positioned in a particular place, all of which can be applied to Cthulhu; and both are described as immortal, ageless or undying[2], which feeds into the scientific unicellular structure of Caltiki and her relationship with the comet.

Comets have historically been associated with deities and are often read as negative omens. The 1910 appearance of Halley’s comet, followed closely by the violence and death caused by the Mexican Revolution, was no different, and was understood to be a warning by the local population. In the film, the supernatural and scientific is further compounded by the scientists’ interpretation of the inscription in Caltiki’s cave as referring to the comet and the amoebic creature: “Caltiki is One, the only immortal god, and when its mate appears in the sky, Caltiki will destroy the world.”

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A sample from the original creature is affected by radiation from the passing comet, growing uncontrollably.

Despite the androgynous wording within the inscription, which refers to Caltiki simply as a ‘god’, it is interesting that the deity is coded as female in references throughout the film. From a gendered, reproductive perspective, this coding seems derogatory considering the fact that the amoebic, womblike creature, the female Caltiki, lies dormant and awaits the arrival of the phallic, active, and thus male, comet. However, the film does present two interesting and progressive representations of female characters. In researching this piece, I came across numerous reviews and articles that stated the film possessed the usual elements of 1950s science-fiction, including the archetypal character of the damsel in distress. Unlike such films as The Quatermass Xperiment or X The Unknown, the two central female characters in Caltiki are active, brave, and do not rely on men to save them from peril.

Linda describes herself by using the derogatory term ‘half-breed’ in relation to her emotionally abusive relationship with Max – a racist term historically applied to people of mixed race. Her blind love, and belief that the problem in their relationship lies with her is clear from her use of the words ‘half breed’; as a mixed race woman of a lower social class, she is not enough for her white lover, who in turn covets the proper, middle-class wife of his successful colleague; as Linda states when confronting him after he tries to seduce Linda: “Do you know what you’re aiming at?”. This dynamic raises some interesting questions in regards to racial and class representation within the film, though this is complicated by the fact that the indigenous population is portrayed by African actors, inviting much criticism.

Similarly, the character of Linda has been described as one-dimensional due to her subjugated status and unwavering support of Max; even though she knows that he has bludgeoned a nurse to death and listened his feverish ramblings about finding Ellen and making her pay, Linda aids Max after his escape from the hospital by hiding him in Ellen’s basement. Though this appears to be a convenient plot point in orchestrating the climax of the film, the actions of Linda, and Ellen, particularly in regards to their relationship with the men in their lives, deserves more analysis.

Linda is steadfast in her infatuation with Max; though she knows he loves, or at the very least lusts after, Ellen, she refuses to leave him. Instead of meekly accepting his roaming eye, she directly and actively confronts him after Ellen has rejected him; she refuses to make a scene by encroaching on the pair’s discussion. Though it can be argued that she showed poor judgement in sheltering him in Ellen’s house, she is aware that Max has been affected psychologically by the organic material that took his arm and may believe his behaviour to be out of his control. In the end, she literally stands between Max and Ellen, and forfeits her life in protecting the other woman.

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Ellen (Didi Perego) and Linda (Daniela Rocca)

Ellen, the middle-class wife of a successful archaeologist, has proven that she isn’t simply a damsel in distress. Though she wants to return home from the campsite at the beginning of the film, and is described as too ‘sensitive’ to be out in the digs with the men by her work-orientated husband, she has been living there for a considerable time when one of the group mysteriously vanishes. In addition to being ignored by her husband on the campsite – several references are made to his absence from the house for days when they return to their accommodation in Mexico due to work – she is obviously wary for the safety of both her and her husband in light of the strange events, especially as we find out that the couple have a daughter waiting for them in Mexico. Added to this, Ellen has no trouble in voicing her objections to her husband, and easily handles the aggressive sexual advance from Max. Not so sensitive, after all, it would seem.

Though Ellen enjoys the comforts of her lifestyle – she has a very hands-on nanny, which plays into the class issues presented in the film – and doesn’t appear to have a career of her own, Ellen is also aware of her privileged status. She opens her home to Linda when the injured Max is taken into hospital, and even speaks socially out of turn to further help her friend, advising Linda that she must leave the cruel Max who does not deserve her love. During the film’s climax, it is Ellen, not her husband, who saves herself and her daughter from the monstrous threat by daringly climbing out of a second story window with her daughter in her arms and scaling the outside of the house to safety.

Thus, despite its reliance on the formal, narrative and stylistic conventions proven to be successful with audiences of similar films, Caltiki injects the tried and tested formula of the 1950s monster movie with a riveting amalgamation of history, science, and the supernatural; in its exploration of Coatlicue, Cthulhu and comets, the film thinly veiled the real-life horror surrounding post-WW2 fears of nuclear war. It did so with arguably progressive representations of female characters, innovative plot devices that wouldn’t fully be revolutionised in mainstream genre film for almost twenty years, and credible, gruesome effects that still hold up for modern audiences. Full deserving of its title, Caltiki is indeed an immortal or undying entry in the history of Italian genre film.

[1] Ferdinand Antón, La mujer en la America antigua (Universe Books, New York: 1973)
[2] Mitchell, Charles P., The Complete H. P. Lovecraft Filmography (Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut and London: 2001) p.44

About Rebecca Booth

Rebecca has a Masters in Film Studies from the University of Southampton. In addition to her role as Managing Editor at Diabolique Magazine, she co-hosts the international horror podcast United Nations of Horror, as well as X-Files X-Philes and The Twin Peaks Log. She has contributed to several popular culture websites such as Wicked Horror, Den of Geek, and Big Comic Page, and has contributed essays to following publications: Unsung Horrors (We Belong Dead, 2016), Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (Spectacular Optical, 2017), and the forthcoming A Filthy Workshop of Creation: Sin & Subversion in Hammer's Gothic Horrors (Electric Dreamhouse Press, 2018).

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