Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959) review


John Merivale (Professor John Fielding), Didi Sullivan (Ellen Fielding), Gerard Haerter (Max Gunther), Daniela Rocca (Linda), Giacomo Rossi-Stuart/as G.R. Stuart (doctors assistant), Daniele Vargas/as Daniel Vargas (Bob), Arturo Dominici/as Arthur Dominick (Nieto)

Directed by Riccardo Freda (as Robert Hampton) and Mario Bava (uncredited)

"...Caltiki is One. The only immortal god. When her mate appears in the sky, the power of Caltiki will destroy the world."

The Short Version: This underrated, seldom talked about Italian SciFi-Horror movie has a look and feel of a typical US made B/W creature feature of the time period till those familiar dubbed voices remind you it's indeed a foreign affair. The numerous scenes consumed in a chiaroscuro color scheme are another clue of the pictures European origins. In the end, this rare example of an Italian giant monster movie seems hugely influenced by Britain's THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT from 1955. Filippo Sanjust's beyond ambitious script explodes in a shower of ideas that could easily fill a couple other movies. This tale of Mayan legends, Earth-shaking comets, psycho killers and flesh-eating blobs features some nasty gore and violence punctuating its 73 minute running time. If you're a fan of vintage science fiction and monster movies, CALTIKI is a skin-crawling surprise worth gobbling up.

An archeological expedition into finding out what led to the extinction of the Mayan civilization uncovers an ancient prophecy, an underwater treasure in gold and a millions year old creature that melts the flesh off of those it comes into contact with. The monster is destroyed by a gas explosion after an attack leaves one of the researchers deformed. A chunk of the blobular beast is taken back to a lab for study where it's learned radiation exposure not only makes the thing grow, but it can split itself into multiple monstrosities. While studying the Mayan prophecy, the scientists learn of a comet that passes the Earth every 1,352 years is coming again, threatening to enlarge the creature from exposure to its radioactive rays.

Movies about, or featuring blobular monstrosities were indigenous to the 1950s. Pictures like the American cult classic THE BLOB (1958) and THE ANGRY RED PLANET (1959) being two examples of films featuring menacing, man-eating ooze. There were stray examples in later years, but the 50s was the home to gooey, gelatinous threats from outer, and inner Earth. A 1955 science fiction favorite from Hammer Films was largely responsible for this blob-tastic onslaught with the release of THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (the 'X' being a reference to Britain's ratings board; it was released here as THE CREEPING UNKNOWN). That pictures origins began as a popular television serial that first appeared in 1953. 

CALTIKI bears some passing resemblance to the earlier British feature, and no doubt was influenced by it. Still, there are enough unique elements to allow this peculiar Italian giant monster movie to stand on its own. The energetic direction and the idea heavy script by Filippo Sanjust (MORGAN, THE PIRATE [1960]) rarely let things drag. The performances are standard fare save for one actor who nearly steals the movie away from the creeping Caltiki. 

The title creature essentially looks like a bunch of towels clumped together and dipped in oil. Caltiki also makes a mess of things when it latches onto a victim. This pulsating mass devours its prey by dissolving the flesh right off the bones. CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER stands out from other 50s creature features by showcasing some astonishingly gruesome flashes of gore that, while not unheard of in foreign territories of the time, was a rare occasion for movies of this vintage on North American shores. 

It's also no surprise that with Mario Bava in charge of the photographic effects that the shots of the monster(s) are as effective as they are. The miniatures are plentiful (especially during the finale) and obvious, yet this is a minor issue in light of how well everything else turns out. The poor, if modest miniature work (relegated primarily to shots involving fire) is complemented by the ingenuity in which Bava photographs the scenes involving the irradiated creature.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the name 'Mario Bava' meant 'Creative Genius' in some other language. In all the films he worked on, whether solely, or collaboratively, his imagination allowed him to design elaborate set ups not seen before. The film itself is credited to Riccardo Freda (under the pseudonym Robert Hampton), although Bava directed any number of sequences. Furthermore, the amount of footage he helmed varies from one source to the next. Ever how much of CALTIKI the esteemed filmmaker guided, there are undeniable moments punctuated with Bava's signature touch.

Some matte shots seen at the beginning definitely bear his mark, and recall similar landscape expanses seen in his first full-fledged directorial effort, BLACK SUNDAY (1960). The special effects heavy finale wherein Caltiki splits into multiple monsters showcases a lot of ingenious camera set ups during the siege of the Fielding mansion. In lesser hands, this bit would most likely not have the sheer breadth of suspense it does. 

Part of its success should go to the script for cramming a succession of cliffhangers back to back during the last half; such as an important characters sudden exit from the film; Fielding getting arrested at a crucial moment; and the impending passing of the comet are some of these. The shots of the various Caltiki's maneuvering through the miniature mansion trying to slurp up Fielding's wife and child are tense and integrated extremely well into the live-action shots. The last few minutes when the sole remaining, and enormous monster takes on the military and their flamethrowers is an exciting capper to an otherwise stupendous movie.

With the great number of SciFi and monster pictures that flooded American theaters in the 1950s, CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (1959) could easily be mistaken for one; and it often feels like a US production. If it weren't for those familiar dubbed voices heard on many European imports, and a thick chiaroscuro visual palette that recalls numerous Italian Gothics, you'd likely not notice.

Outside of it being a rare instance of an Italian giant monster movie, there's also a sequence that may have inadvertently laid the blueprint for the 'Found Footage' genre that's taken the world by storm since 1999's THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT made low budgets fashionable again. Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) is often given credit for being the progenitor of this now prolific film style. However, there's a sequence seen near the beginning of CALTIKI that may have viewers feeling deja vu. 

The scene has our group of archaeologists find a film camera left behind by Nieto (Arturo Dominici), another scientist who died of fright from something he saw in the Mayan ruins. Setting up a projector, the Fieldings and their party watch the scant few minutes of footage that led to Nieto's death. This scene lasts only a few minutes, but it's interesting to see this now overused filmmaking style being used as a plot device in a production from 1959. 

The aforementioned performances are standard fare for this sort of movie, but one is so over the top, the actor very nearly steals the film away from Caltiki. Max Gunther (Gerard Haerter) is the most interesting character by far, and a devious monster himself. Haerter strikes a nasty persona as Gunther; and in the latter half of the film, he treads onto land occupied by Jack Nicholson's brand of overacting by snarling all his dialog in the most evil way imaginable. 

Max has a woman who loves him, but he has eyes on his colleagues wife instead. His up close confrontation with Caltiki leaves him with a scarred face and a flesh-shredded arm that does nothing for either his complexion, or his sanity. 

Max Gunther's colleague, Professor Fielding, never learns he lusted after his wife, but he does discover that the poisonous residue left over from Caltiki's radioactive goop has spread through Max's body and will eventually incur brain damage or worse. So what's an already unstable, unlikable man to do? Why kill his orderly and escape the hospital, of course. Max eludes police and makes the trek to get Fielding's wife and isn't about to let anything get in his way. This late-blooming sub-plot gets great mileage out of the narrative and is integrated perfectly into the series of cliffhanger moments populating the latter portion of the movie.

Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (in above insert pic at right) has a supporting role as one of the assistants to Fielding. This was an early role for him, and he would have a much bigger part in the US-Italy co-production SODOM & GOMORRAH (1962). In 1964 he starred alongside Vincent Price in the Italian horror feature, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. Stuart excelled as villains in Sword and Sandal movies like THE REVENGE OF SPARTACUS (1964) and its first follow up, SEVEN SLAVES AGAINST THE WORLD (1964). A fine actor, his career is dotted with numerous horror, western, war, giallo and crime pictures.

Since so many of America's SciFi pictures and Mario Bava's directorial efforts have been dutifully represented on DVD here, it's odd that this impressive movie remains unavailable in the US. Whether you think of CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER as a Freda or Bava movie, it's an extremely well made example of Italian science fiction with a thick accent of horror coursing through it. Sorely overlooked, it's essential viewing for fans of Bava, Euro horror and 50s genre fare.

This review is representative of the Italian R2 Cult Media DVD.

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: Night of the Cobra Woman (1972) review


Marlene Clark (Lena Aruza), Joy Bang (Joanna), Roger Garrett (Sam Duff), Vic Diaz (Lope), Rosemarie Gil (Francisca)

Directed by Andrew Meyer

***WARNING! This review contains an image of nudity***

"...They say that once bitten by the Firebrand Cobra, it can possess your very soul -- that the action of the venom in your bloodstream keeps you always young."

The Short Version: This Filipino lensed flick released through Roger Corman's New World Pictures is a curious, if somewhat unsatisfying blend of mythology, horror, science fiction, exploitation and a love story tossed into the proverbial low budget blender. The resulting concoction is a bizarre tale of serpentine love and revenge that confuses as to whether we're supposed to pity Marlene Clark's slithery snake woman, or vilify her. A battle between a cobra and an eagle is symbolic of multi-cultural divinities. Not strange enough for alternative cinema, and not sleazy enough to please trash fans, this will most likely be best appreciated by those familiar with the culture and snake movie completists.

During an unspecified time in WW2, a nurse named Lena investigates a hidden cave while searching for rare roots and herbs. She's bitten by a cobra whose bite has a strange side-effect. Its venom possessing unique properties, Lena eventually forms a symbiotic relationship with the serpent. The powerful poison enables her to maintain her youth only by seducing and killing men. Without fresh victims, a side-effect of the poison will cause her to age rapidly. Some three decades later, a young female UNICEF doctor is in the Philippines working on experiments with snakes and developing anti-venom when her boyfriend Sam arrives. He eventually crosses paths with Lena, her reptilian allure, and a trail of male corpses.

To label Filipino exploitation movies as weird is both an understatement and redundant. But the term is suitably applicable here in Andrew Meyer's uneven, thoroughly bizarre movie. Those expecting a straight up killer snake/revenge picture may be disappointed. There are enough ingredients here for a brisk 77 minutes of Passion Pit heaven, but the film feels fractured at times. Scenes begin and end abruptly while plot points barely mentioned are left unexplained. Not only that, but the picture often feels more experimental in approach as opposed to being just a Drive In movie, and rarely plays out the way you expect it to.

According to Roger Corman, much of this movie was made on the spot and his advice to first time director Meyer that he'd have to flesh out what he'd done went unheeded. So the viewer is left to piece together this intriguing, but failed hodgepodge of ideas without the benefit of a stable, cohesive narrative. 

The picture further confuses things with a peculiar mix of Haitian and Filipino mythologies involving assorted gods and deities. Foreign pictures about snakes and serpent demons were prolific cinematic fodder in Asian film markets of this time period -- particularly in Hong Kong and Indonesian productions.

The movie doesn't go into any great detail regarding its folkloric content, it simply uses the superstitious trappings as scenic decor to dress up the exploitation value. Even so, the Philippines are rich in mythology; and while this film glosses over it, what's here will likely only be of interest to the most sincere of fans that enjoy Filipino cinema.

The main male character, Sam Duff, boasts of his pet eagle on a few occasions, and this bird is significant to a plot point later in the movie. In Filipino legends, Amihan was a revered bird god believed to be a savior of man. Sam's eagle ends up in a death struggle with the seemingly invulnerable snake spirit, Movini in a symbolic clash of cultural divinities.

Snakes likewise have a strong presence in Filipino mythology, but there appears to be some non-Asian myths utilized here, too. The cave where Lena resides with her reptilian consort contains a large statue she worships and refers to as Damballa, a powerful Haitian voodoo snake god. With a black lead actress in the form of the sexy Marlene Clark, it only seems fitting there would be lore emblematic of black culture. Aside from the multi-cultural clash, NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN ends up a bizarre potpourri horror thriller made all the more curious -- even frustrating -- with its dabs of exploitation and romanticism.

The acting is static across the board. Clark is the only one who seems vested in the material, although she seems indifferent to the film at times; possibly because the film is never focused, nor is the script successful in drawing a clear-cut hero or villain. Like some of its plot points, the title cobra woman is a muddled creation confusing the viewer as to whether we're supposed to feel sympathy for her, or not. Lena's vampiric tendencies of killing random men on a daily basis is exacerbated when she uses her human sex toy, Sam, as a vessel for getting her more men to venomize. 

The scenes of Clark molting her skin are arguably the grossest shots in the film; and there are a few. In some instances she's shedding during intercourse, although the skin-stripping occurs post coital. Not only do these sex scenes insinuate bestiality (or whatever the term would be for snake sex), but the camera caresses Clark's sexy frame as she peels her skin off like she's removing garments or hosiery from her body.

Regarding the sex quotient, there's a subtext here associating intercourse with disease. It may not have been intentional, but the correlation is palpable. Lena passes her "sickness" onto Sam Duff. When he begins suffering from the same "disease" after having sex with Lena, he has to receive transfusions of the venom mixture to keep his body from eroding. The same happens to Lena's victims she seduces; once she's had her way with them, their life ends shortly thereafter. 

Perennial Filipino film star Vic Diaz takes on two roles here -- one as a Japanese rapist during the beginning of the movie and the other, a pitiable, deformed hunchback whose sad state is due to having made love to Lena. Why it didn't kill him is never explained, but his character of Lope and his mother Francisca feign servitude to Lena in an effort to get revenge against her.

Joy Bang (probably the greatest porn name never devised) is the pretty scientist whose boyfriend ends up in the slithery arms of Lena. She tries to win him back, but incurs the cobra woman's wrath. She's about as bland as everybody else and fails to convince as either a medical doctor, or an actress. She had a relatively short career, also appearing in the cult favorite MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973).

NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN (1972) fails to live up to its lurid title, and fails at being a satisfying exploitation feature. It does have sex, nudity and enough bizarro qualities to make it an appealing 'B' level quickie, but it never feels assured of what it wants to be from one scene to the next. Just when it's on the cusp of wrapping itself around its inherent trashiness, it slithers into other territory. If only there were more scenes as squirm-inducing as the 'skin stripping' sequence, we'd have something with a bit more fang for the buck.

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