Fans of sci-fi and horror will be very pleased by the lavish, loving attention bestowed upon this 1959 Italian production, pustules and all. Inspired largely by The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) without being as smart, this is a movie that probably nobody will place among its decade’s top 10 sci-fi horrors. Nevertheless, it’s well worth a look and historically important for reasons we’ll mention.
The film opens with oodles of atmosphere conjured out of glass matte paintings, roiling volcano effects (actually, ink in water) and sheer shadowplay. We’re allegedly in Mexico, investigating the ruins of a Mayan civilization, when a member of the Ulmer expedition (named slyly for Edgar Ulmer, a master of cheap but effective atmosphere) staggers back to camp gibbering and fainting. The other members quickly discover the cave of Caltiki, a Mayan goddess, where some kind of radioactive blob emerges from the water to melt the flesh from impertinent explorers, especially those greedy for gold and nookie.
When the dullest and most square-jawed of these boffins (John Merivale) brings a sample home to Mexico City along with his slime-wounded and delirious colleague (skull-faced Gerard Haerter), all hell eventually breaks loose. The uniting of cthonic primordial slime with cosmic terror from space (a comet that reacts with the local radiation) leads to a scenario where the demented bad guy expresses his oozy lust for the hero’s beautiful wife (Didi Perego, billed as Didi Sullivan), leading to the climactic destruction of the latter’s well-appointed home and much business with army flamethrowers, and all in 75 minutes.
If that sounds bad to you, you’re probably not the audience for this picture. I can’t stress enough the difference made by a crystal-clear restored print when evaluating even a nominally trivial movie. It allows us literally to see how well-done the film is from a photographic point of view. Mario Bava, the cinematographer and effects man, works wonders with careful chiaroscuro, miniature models, and handfuls of tripe. His sense of composition and staging renders beautiful and sinister what, to the unsympathetic viewer, may seem merely campy or risible.
Caltiki as him/herself
The credited director is Riccardo Freda (using his “English” pseudonym Robert Hamton), but Freda stated that the film was really Bava’s for all intents and purposes. That makes this an important item in the filmography of two pioneers of Italian horror, both of whom would soon be making beautiful Gothic thrillers with Barbara Steele. Bava devoted his directing career to a variety of horror and sci-fi items with occasional diversions into other genres, and you can detect his style and impulses here.
The level of attention offered on this Blu-ray/DVD combo is jaw-dropping. Not only do we have options for the original Italian track and the English track, there are two critical commentaries by authors who have written books about Bava. Tim Lucas’ track is as worthily informed as is typical for him, discussing how various effects were achieved with simplicity and ingenuity and observing possible influences from H.P. Lovecraft as well as giving background information on most of the participants. Troy Howarth’s track goes over much of the same material and points out Bava’s cameo. A bonus interview with Kim Newman offers insights on historical context and connections with other films, and there are two archival Italian interviews produced by NoShame Films.
Perhaps the most remarkable extra is the presentation of a full-aperture version exposing the whole 35mm image, as opposed to the matted 1.66:1 theatrical image of the regular presentation. Although much of the film is hard-matted at the top and bottom of the image, Bava’s effects shots were made with the full aperture and matted later; this permits us to see the maximum of his effects shots and perhaps to analyze the difference between Freda’s direction and Bava’s.
We stress that even during the most functional expository scenes, Bava’s photography makes the proceedings visually intriguing. That’s why, even at its most creaky in between the hair-raising scenes of queasy ickiness, this movie appeals to style mavens, auteur watchers, and horror historians.