Ah, those golden memories of childhood - how they linger! Warm summer evenings when I'd ride my bike well past dusk; busy family dinners, everyone chiming in about the day's schoolwork or news or what have you; crisp winter days punctuated with snowball fights - and, prominent among all these Hallmark moments, Nightmare Theater (channel 4 on Friday night, at the astonishingly late hour of 10:30).
It was a fairly typical horror-movie showcase. The introductory music had a cardiac-rhythm pulse to it that made viewers' hearts begin to race in anticipation; the host was a disembodied Karloffian voice, who simply introduced each film with an evil laugh and then disappeared. We (usually my brother and myself - our parents tended not to appreciate the Nightmare Theater film fare, and would go to bed, reappearing only if we got too rowdy later in the evening) would prepare for the show with a batch of fresh popcorn and a beverage (often Kool-Ade, mixed with food coloring to turn it some yucky color or other). Then we'd settle down for an evening of chills and thrills, from such classics as I Was a Teen-Age Frankenstein, or Daughter of Frankenstein, or I Was a Teen-Age Werewolf, or...
...Caltiki, the Immortal Monster!
This little flick was released in 1959, but I'd estimate that I first saw it as a Nightmare Theater presentation circa 1965 or so, when I was 12 or 13. I may have seen it once more within a year or two, but after that I never encountered it again - until its appearance on Showtime this week. ("I have always depended on the kindness of E-netters.")
OK, OK, enough of Our Town already - what's the movie like? I'm glad you asked that question. Basically, it's a "blob" movie, but that doesn't convey any of its considerable charm. Its opening sequence presents us with Mayan ruins overgrown by jungle, with a fuming volcano in the background. (Some of this is courtesy of matte painting; the rest appears to be on-site footage of actual ruins. These scenes are edited together with, um, varying degrees of finesse.) The voice-over tells us about the Mayan people's mysterious abandonment of many of their vast settlements, and hints that the reason for this was the fear of the wrath of the immortal goddess Caltiki, whom we presume (from the title) that we are going to meet. Then the camera zooms in on a terrified man fleeing from something or other; he crawls over some real rocks, runs across a matte painting, dashes around a corner to a sound stage, and encounters the major characters: a strong-jawed scientist, his beautiful blonde (and begirdled - easily armor class 2) wife, a wiry and sardonic Scientist's Best Friend (this is a stock role in horror movies), and the beautiful dark-haired native woman who is in love with the best friend (who is in love with the wife who is in love with her husband - but never mind that now).
Where was I? Oh, yes. The fleeing fellow collapses, gasping the usual unhelpful but tantalizing phrases, and seems unable to tell them what happened to the scientist who was with him. Our heroes, with a supporting cast of native bearers and some cannon fodder, set out to search for the missing man, and find themselves in an underground chamber in one of the ruined temples.
This part is really pretty neat, and - possibly due to the fact that, in Mexico, where the film was made, actual ruins are lying around all over the place, just begging to be filmed. Or maybe they were just really cool sets, I don't know; anyhow, they looked good and creepy and ancient, and what more can one ask? At any rate, they find a rift beneath a wall, crawl through it, and discover an underground pool surrounded by Mayan carvings depicting an annoyed-looking deity of some kind. While somebody copies down the inscriptions so that they can be translated later to tell us what's going on, one of the cannon fodder fellows dons skin-diving gear and enters the pool to explore.
Better and better! It's a sacrificial pool, and the diver comes across a skeleton bedecked with golden bangles! He seizes the gold (dismembering the skeleton in the process), and continues - and, sure enough, we see that the floor of the pool is covered with more and more skeletons, some complete, some in fragments! This is neat stuff!
The diver surfaces to show off his finds, and to get a bag with which to collect some more loot. Down he goes again, but this time Something sneaks up on him (yes, underwater). All we get is his reaction shots, and then we're on the surface with the scientists, hauling the poor sod out of the water. They rip off his diving mask, and -
Oh, paroxysms of delight! The man's face has been eaten away - a moist-looking skull gazes blindly out! (I distinctly remember the thrill I felt the first time I saw that scene. And that was in the days before VCRs, so I couldn't go back and look at it again - those brief seconds stayed with me for decades. And in the re-viewing, the scene was just as fine; whatever other problems the production team had with special effects, they surely could do wondrous things with skeletons.)
Things start to happen fast now. A huge blob-like Something rises out of the pool, and the scientists all turn to flee - except for the sardonic best-friend, who dashes back to grab the gold. In the process he stumbles and falls into the onrushing blob, which splotches onto his arm. His buddy Strongjaw spots a handy axe and chops off (no, not the hand!) a chunk of the blob, and drags his now-screaming pal, be-blobbed arm and all, to safety.
Then comes a truly hilarious scene. After everyone has fled the ruins, with the blob in lukewarm but persistent pursuit, Strongjaw looks around for a way to stop it, and sees a "Danger! Gasoline!" sign nailed prominently on a handy tree! He runs past the sign and finds a gasoline tank truck (how convenient), which he starts up and sends rolling into the opening to the ruins. The ensuing explosion and fire causes the blob to sizzle away to nothing, and our heroes head off home with their wounded to try and make something out of it all.
That was maybe the first 20 minutes of the movie, and easily the best. After that there's a long talking-heads stretch, with periodic Warm Family Moments between Strongjaw, his wife, and their cute little daughter (whose lines have apparently been dubbed by a twenty-year-old trying to sound cute; the effect is amazingly perverse). Which reminds me - the dubbing in this film is an entertainment in itself. Dubbing English onto Spanish speakers is always a bit of a trick; matching the Spanish speech patterns tends to make the English sound frenetic and odd, but if one doesn't match them then the characters' mouths would be moving long after the dubbed dialogue was over. The filmmakers here chose the match-the-lip-movements-at-all-costs technique, with truly hilarious results. Here's some sample dialogue (you'll have to imagine the inflections):
From one of the aforementioned tender moments, Strongjaw to his wife: "I miss not being with you and Jenny but I must." Wife: "Yes I see."
Or, from one of the scenes with the Betatron (yes, radiation is a plot element), Strongjaw commenting on the proceedings: "The first thing I think about this is, as soon as that reaches a point, the radioaction will appear, and then it will show life." (The person to whom he was speaking nodded solemnly. I cracked up, and played the scene back three times so I could transcribe it accurately.)
But enough levity. We learn from the translated inscriptions in the
ruins that Caltiki is one, and immortal, and "her mate from the sky will come," whereupon she will destroy the world. When the blob-sample that's been consuming the Sardonic Friend's arm is discovered to consist of a single cell (!), dated via electronic brain at over 20 million years of age (!!!), the scientists all decide there must be something to this Caltiki legend - so they start bombarding the chunk with gamma rays to see what will happen.
It grows, that's what happens. But - clever scientists - they turn off the machine, and the bloblet stops growing. (However, there's another blob chunk in Strongjaw's lab at home, so we just know that disaster will ensue.) Meanwhile the Sardonic Friend (who featured in the only other really good scene in the movie when the bloblet was peeled off of his arm to reveal - any guesses? Yes! Raw, damp-looking bones! All right!) has been going slowly insane due to the influence of having most of one arm dissolved. He breaks out of the hospital and heads for Strongjaw's house, while in another part of the movie somebody says, "Hey, there's this comet due any second, and it's shedding gamma rays up to level 0.6 [whatever that means]; wanna watch?" and somebody else says "Comet? Hey, they're in the sky, right? Mate from the sky - and radiation makes the thing grow - oooooooh, shit!" [Well, that's not what they said in English, but I bet it's what the original lines were.] So Strongjaw orders the lab-blob burned, asks somebody to send the army, with flamethrowers, to his house, and sets off home himself at a high rate of speed, upon which he's picked up for speeding. [I am not making this up.]
Well, the comet shows up, and the backup blob grows, and grows, and starts dividing into things that look like giant beanbag chairs covered with chenille, and the little girl wakes up and calls for mommy, who's having her own problems with the Insane Sardonic Best Friend, and the army flamethrowers show up just as Strongjaw gets away from the police, and there's a grand finale of sorts involving a daring rescue and lots of toy tanks rumbling around miniature sets and...
...but that would be spoiling it.
It's really a wonderful movie.