B&W, 1959, 76 mins. 26 secs.
Directed by Riccardo Freda
Starring John Merivale, Didi Sullivan, Gérard Herter, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Vittorio André, Daniele Vargas, Arturo Dominici
Arrow Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (US/UK RA/B HD/NTSC), NoShame (DVD) (Italy R0 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

Caltiki the Immortal MonsterCaltiki the Immortal MonsterBefore Italian horror became a major international player with Mario Bava's Black Sunday in 1960, the wheels were already in motion heading in that direction with a handful of filmmakers taking aspects of American and British monster movies and giving them a whole new style of their own. Commonly regarded as the first real Italian Gothic horror film is 1957's I Vampiri, which was officially credited to Riccardo Freda (The Horrible Dr. Hichcock) with cinematographer Bava handling a large percentage of directorial duties. A similar situation came up again in 1959 when Freda was signed to do the sci-fi/horror hybrid Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, which was handed off to Bava to pave the way for his first bona fide directorial debut. Regardless of how the names actually appear in the credits, it's a moody, stylish, and occasionally shocking blend of The Blob, The Quatermass Xperiment, and The Brainiac, with a dash of Curucu, Beast of the Amazon, but visually it's an Italian horror film to the core.

In an overgrown, unpopulated region that was once a thriving Mayan civilization, explorers are trying to discover what happened to the once-thriving population. A scientist from one group (Dominici, doing a visual dry run for his most famous scene in Black Sunday) crawls his out of a smoky volcanic pit and makes his way to another expedition headed by Dr. Caltiki the Immortal MonsterJohn Fielding (Circus of Horrors' Merivale), where he's only able to frantically say one word: "Caltiki," the name of a bloodthirsty Mayan deity. Accompanied by his wife Ellen (Sullivan) and the scheming Max (Herter), the group uncovers some alarming film footage of the lost mission and goes diving in a hidden cave complete with a deep pool containing lost treasure, skeletal remains... and a giant, Caltiki the Immortal Monsterpulsating blob that proves capable of pulling off human limbs and even stripping a human being down to the bone.

The story from that point takes a couple of oddball turns against the norm for monster films of the time, but generally Caltiki is a fast-paced addition to the string of atomic-age monster films about oversized threats to civilization being warded off by science and the military. What sets this film apart is its uncanny atmosphere, setting up a genuine feel for the fantastic right from the outset with Bava's dreamlike glass paintings and other visual trickery creating a world of volcanoes, jungles, and menacing ancient statuary that characters seem to wander in and out of in several eye-popping shots. The film's very low budget doesn't stop it from establishing a pleasing sense of scale, which continues with some delightful model work showing the gelatinous villain crashing through corridors and attacking buildings. The brief running time means the characters and storyline don't rise much above the level of the purely functional, but for pure monster fun, this one delivers and then some. Caltiki the Immortal Monster

Given a successful run on a string of double and triple bills by Allied Artists in the U.S., Caltiki has been weirdly elusive for much of its life on TV and home video with only a couple of token VHS appearances in Europe. The first official DVD release came from NoShame as a Region 2 Italian release in 2007 featuring the Italian track and English dub; the former option is more poetic and respectable, but the latter also has its modest, AIP-style charms to it. (Neither one is really in sync as the film was shot without sound.) Extras on that release are not English friendly (apart from the U.S. trailer and main titles as an extra, plus an image gallery) but include an intro by Caltiki the Immortal MonsterStefano Della Casa, an audio commentary by Luigi Cozzi and Giona A. Nazzaro, and two featurette, "Riccardo Freda, Forgotten Master" (19 mins.) and "The Genesis of Caltiki" (21 mins.). The transfer was adequate for its time, a big improvement over the dupey versions before it but plagued by some signs of wear and tear as well as uneven contrast.

In its quest to bring virtually every Bava film to HD, Arrow Video tackled Caltiki in 2017 as a dual-format release in both the US and UK. To say that it's a miraculous presentation is an understatement as it brings a much-needed sense of depth and detail to the film that increases its impact considerably; the rich blacks are thankfully kept intact and nicely camouflage the secrets of Bava's special effects wizardry, and the exterior scenes in particular are much easier to make out than before. The LPCM Italian and English mono tracks (with optional English subtitles) sound very solid; a disclaimer advises listeners to watch the Italian version for the best experience since it's off the original mag track (or at least sounds like it) while the English one is from inferior sources, but the English one Caltiki the Immortal Monsteractually sounds quite respectable and better than any version we've had before. In an interesting gesture, an alternate open matte (1.33:1) version showing how lengthy stretches of the film (including most of Bava's effects work was shot) in that aspect ratio, with other scenes hard matted to 1.66:1 (so the aspect ratio shifts several times throughout). It's definitely not the best way to watch the film for the first time (here's a sample frame grab) as it literally exposes every single bit of visual Caltiki the Immortal Monsterinformation including rounded corners and the soundtrack on the right side, but it's a fascinating alternate way to see the film and get a good look at some of Bava's painting and miniature work that would have been cropped off otherwise.

Ported over from the NoShame release are the two features and intro (all with English subtitles for the first time), the American opening, and the theatrical trailer. New here on the video side is the 18-minute "From Quatermass to Caltiki," in which British horror novelist and historian Kim Newman offers a thoughtful look at the various strands of fantastic cinema that led to this film from Destination Moon and The Thing from Another World onward through the early heyday of Hammer. Significantly, this release also includes not one but two audio commentaries, recorded by Tim Lucas and Troy Howarth. They're both packed with info and move quickly through the film's brief running time; obviously there's a bit of factual overlap here and there, but they both have their own takes on the film's merits and quirky charms as well as Bava's considerable input. You'll also learn quite a bit about the preceding Freda-Bava collaborations, which commenced with 1953's Sins of Rome (when Freda was already using his Anglicized "Robert Hampton" name you see on this film as well) and also including another 1959 film, The White Warrior. They're definitely 150 minutes and change well spent. The packaging comes with reversible sleeve options including the original poster art and a new design by Graham Humphreys, plus (in the first pressing only) a liner notes booklet with essays by Kat Ellinger and Roberto Curti.

Reviewed on April 21, 2017.