By Tony Williams.
With one exception, this new release does live up to the second part of the above caption. Long revered by devotees of horror, science fiction, and its post-war Italian exponents this notable film of a disputed canonical tradition has not been generally available in a good copy so far. Now, thanks to Arrow Video, Caltiki The Immortal Monster is not only accessible to the general viewer but also accompanied by a virtual treasure trove of extras comprising not just two audio-commentaries with subtitled and dubbed versions of the film but also informative features containing interviews with knowledgeable experts such as critic Stefano Della Casa and director Luigi Cozzi as well as an alternative full-frame presentation revealing Mario Bava’s special effects photography in all its unmated glory.
This Arrow DVD presentation contains a wealth of information about the film that operates in the best traditions of contemporary DVDs in not just providing remastered copies of the original film but reference library material for all interested viewers, especially those who cannot access library resources nor purchase back issues of relevant magazines that may have risen in price over the decades. Certainly, interested scholars and general viewers are now fortunate to be living during such an historical era where technological developments have placed them in a more privileged position than their predecessors who often had to rely on 16mm copies (often cut and in fair condition) as well as VHS tapes that could only reproduce visually obscure shadow images of the original version.
Caltiki has been the subject of so many key books and articles that there is no reason for me to dwell on its generic importance nor reveal plot details so that the company will have to issue spoiler alerts, as one did in a recent review. Although overlooked on initial release outside Italy (except for discerning fans and non-institutional experts immediately alert to its significance), Caltiki is far more than a low budget, badly lip-synchronized imitation of outside generic models such as Nigel Kneale’s first two Quatermass entries and the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft but also a significant development of that canon produced by two key talents of Italian commercial genre cinema – Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava. Here, as one commentator recognizes on one feature, the film represents one of those dissonant but pleasurably challenging instances where rigid definitions concerning authorship are correctly called into question. Authorship can also include acting, and the brief early appearance of Arturo Dominici, who would soon distinguish himself by another striking introductory appearance in Black Sunday (1960) (which Bava photographed, along with Caltiki), as well as Gerard Herter’s scene-stealing role as the infected human victim of the monster developing the model of his predecessor Richard Wordsworth in The Quatermass Experiment (1955), are among the most outstanding pleasures of this particular visual text. Although my memories of Herter in The White Warrior (1959) have now vanished into the mists of time, his role as the Chopin-playing Baron von Schulenberg in Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (1966) will remain fixed in my mind.
As many critics have shown, the film exhibits two major influences that it develops in its own manner: Nigel Kneale and H.P. Lovecraft, the former involving alien contamination and the latter indirectly comparing Caltiki to the author’s Old Ones who dominated Earth billions of years ago and are always waiting for an opportunity to return and reduce humans to “gibbering” idiots before oblivion. Two critical works are also useful as background to this particular DVD, one by Tim Lucas and the other by Christopher Sharrett (1).
Containing a well-illustrated and informative booklet with essays by Kat Ellinger, Roberto Curti, and Lucas, the DVD has several notable features that naturally would result in viewers eventually becoming informed spectators – something today’s corporate-dominated media structures certainly oppose. Today, DVD releases regularly contain more than the actual film but in many cases the extra features are superfluous and sometimes audio commentaries contain glaring inaccuracies, as is the case of the Rio Bravo DVD with contributions by the late Richard Schickel and John Carpenter that could easily have been avoided. Fortunately this is not the case with the Arrow Video Company. They enlisted the contributions of two experts on the work of Mario Bava for separate commentaries: Tim Lucas, author of All the Colors of the Dark (Video Watchdog, 2007) and Troy Howarth, author of The Haunted World of Mario Bava (FAB, 2002; revised Midnight Marquee, 2014) and So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films (Midnight Marquee, 2015). Both authorities ideally complement each other in their commentaries with Howarth’s enthusiasm providing an ideal counterpoint to the very detailed and meticulous approach of Lucas. Those of us familiar with Video Watchdog and awaiting its return know this author’s emphasis on accuracy, whether factual or technical, and it is refreshing to note his corrections to information that has appeared on the internet in sources such as IMDB.
The least interesting feature contribution is Kim Newman’s “From Quatermass to Catilki.” Delivered in the identifiable UK TV reviewer manner by a person more knowledgeable for taxonomy than critical insight, his manner evokes that hearty irritating “It’s only a movie, let’s not take it seriously chaps” associated with BBC film reviewers such as the late Philip Jenkinson, “Bazza” Norman, and “matey” Jonathan Ross. This smirky manner soon begins to grate. Between Jenkinson and “Bazza” the BBC briefly attempted featuring a trio of bland young film critics, the female of their species correctly identified as “typical BFI” by someone alert to the class bias of that institution. (Today’s BBC appears populated by “faux” proletarian types evoking those bad working-class imitations delivered by upper-class 1940s and 50s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts graduates whose American equivalent was the “Hollywood Cockney.”) Far more interesting and sincere is the archival interview “Riccardo Freda: Forgotten Master” by a more knowledgeable Stefano Della Casa who not only knew personally key cinematic players of this era but also critics such as Goffredo Fofi who wrote one of the most informative articles on the French Popular Front in Screen 13.4 (1973) before the journal became totally unreadable.
Luigi Cozzi’s archival interview “The Genesis of Catilki” is far more informative in terms of an expert presentation of historical background and critical enquiry than anything Newman can deliver. One of the most interesting suggestions Cozzi makes involves the concept of a triple authorship involving not just Freda and Bava but also scenarist Filippo Sanjust who later became a well-known set designer and opera director. As anyone who has ventured outside the smug portals of academia to contact those who actually worked on a film well know, the whole issue of production is complex and often incapable of any easy definition despite temptations of procrustean solipsistic theories promising this. As Tim Lucas points out in his book, it is impossible to separate Bava the cinematographer from Freda the director of actors since the former was also responsible for directing some of the film’s most memorable dramatic scenes, especially the initial appearance of Dominici, and assessing actual responsibility is “somewhat “more complicated” (257). Both audio-commentators refer to the striking use of ”found footage” material in the film derived from The Quatermass Experiment, but Lucas not only mentions the precedent of a discovered manuscript forming the basis of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year but also Bava’s work on wartime newsreels. The shaky camera in this sequence, with “its abrupt violation of motion picture etiquette was a stunning visual coup” (263). Also present are a brief archival introduction by Della Casa, the original US theatrical trailer, alternate opening titles for the US version and a vintage 54-page French Caltiki photocomic on BD-Rom.
This DVD offers much material not just on the critical but also the technical level. It supplies the original mono Italian and English soundtracks in addition to newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack. It is very rare for the critical and technical aspects to complement each other on the majority of DVD restorations, but Arrow Video have correctly recognized the importance of these issues that characterize not only Video Watchdog but also the contents of Tim Lucas mammoth book on Mario Bava.
Yet, in addition to these laudable features, the restoration of this film from the original camera negative represents a stimulus to those artists who would continue the traditions of Nigel Kneale and H.P. Lovecraft in far better representations than they have hitherto undergone. Though limited by budget and casting constraints, Freda and Bava (with Sanjust and other accomplished character actors) took over a project initially conceived of as a “copycat” according to Della Casa and developed it further. Despite obstacles, they created a haunting work presenting a fragile human world vulnerable to external alien assault and the return of dark forces buried deep within human consciousness veiled by a manufactured superstition that disavowed what really lay beneath. Both elements would combine in the BBC TV version of Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59).
1) Tim Lucas, Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. Cincinnati, Ohio: Video Watchdog, 2007, especially 253-266; Christopher Sharrett, “The Haunter of the Dark: H.P. Lovecraft and Modern Horror Cinema”, Cineaste 22 (2015): 22-26.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the English Department of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Contributing Editor to Film International, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and co-editor of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh UP, 2016).