Movies Till Dawn: Caltiki, Tabonga, Bela and the Bat

Caltiki The Immortal Monster” (1959, Arrow Video) Archaeologists working in the ruins of a Mayan city uncover a vast array of gold in the depths of a sunken temple, as well as the creature that watches over the riches – the amoebic, man-eating monster-goddess Caltiki! Economically paced (and budgeted) Italian horror-science fiction hybrid benefits from a barrage of surprisingly gruesome special effects – both the gelatinous Caltiki herself (constructed largely from a mound of tripe) and the carnage she wreaks on her victims (gooey, dissolved faces and limbs) – but more notably, from the presence of two bona fide legends of Italian horror behind the camera, director Riccardo Freda (“I, Vampiri”) and cinematographer/special effects creator Mario Bava (“Black Sabbath”), who also made his uncredited directorial debut when Freda left the picture. Their presence brings a considerable amount of Gothic atmosphere – as Bava scholar Tim Lucas notes in his excellent and informative commentary, the sequence in which a fear-crazed scientist runs frantically through the fog-shrouded Mayan city foreshadows similar sequences in Bava’s “Black Sunday” and “Planet of the Vampires. Moments like these also elevate the pulpy plot, which owes a debt to “The Quatermass Xperiment,” most notably in a secondary storyline involving a bastardly member of the expedition who gets mauled by Caltiki and turns increasingly inhuman. All of these elements help to boost “Caltiki” past its shortcomings, budgetary and otherwise (melodramatic performances, especially by Gerhard Haerter as the expedition member maimed by Caltiki), and result in a breezy and entirely watchable effort for creature feature fans and Bava/Italian horror completists alike.

Both will most likely be familiar with the film from overly dark, poorly dubbed dupes, but Arrow’s Blu-ray/DVD combo presents the picture in a 2K restoration taken from a 35mm negative with optional Italian and English-language audio; while still somewhat overcast (most likely to hide the seams in Bava’s visual effects), it’s a vast improvement over previous releases. A third version of the film, titled the “Full Aperture Version,” presents “Caltiki” without an in-camera matte, which grants greater detail to Bava’s effects. The set also offers two commentaries – one by Lucas, who details Bava’s technical prowess, his relationship with the tempermental Freda and the film’s history, and another equally enthusiastic track by Italian cult film historian Troy Howarth, who discusses the Lovecraftian aspects of Caltiki, among other topics. There are also enthusiastic interviews with author/historian Kim Newman (excellent, as always), director Luigi Cozzi and historian Stefano Della Casa, who knew Freda at the end of his life; the hyperbolic trailer (“Voodoo witchcraft mated to wild atomic energy!”) and opening credits for Allied Artists’ American release round out this extremely enjoyable set.

From Hell It Came” (1957, Warner Archives Collection) Falsely accused of killing his own father, the vaguely Polynesian Kimo (future TV vet Gregg Palmer) is put to death by a double-dealing chief (Baynes Barron) and witch doctor (Robert Swan), but returns from the grave in the form of Tabonga – a supernatural monster and agent of revenge… that happens to take the form of a tree. Film editor Dan Milner, and his brother Jack, a sound editor, who made their debut as director and producer, respectively, two years prior with “The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues,” repeat their duties here, and as with the previous film, bungle just about every aspect of this science fiction-thriller, which labors under perfunctory direction and (surprisingly) editing, a vague script – American scientists Tod Andrews and Tina Carver are, at various times, dealing with an outbreak of plague and radiation poisoning from atomic tests – endlessly gabby dialogue and leaden performances (Andrews, in particular, looks visibly morose, though he would enjoy a long career as a character player), all of which should translate into an endurance test for viewers. Yet “From Hell It Came” remains deliriously watchable thanks to Tabonga, a monster so patently absurd – which is saying something, given the competition from other ’50s science fiction monsters – that you have to admire the degree of faith (or naivete) in the nearly immobile and perpetually scowling monster suit’s ability to generate scares among moviegoers. Special effects designer Paul Blaisdell, who also made memorably wonky monsters for “Invasion of the Saucermen” and “It Conquered the World,” is responsible for Tabonga’s unforgettable design (makeup artist Harry Thomas, who worked for both Ed Wood and Sam Fuller, is mostly responsible for its creation), and as such, deserves the enduring respect of monster kids everywhere for bringing what looks their most feverish notebook doodles into vivid, rubbery life. WAC’s Blu-ray is spotless, and highlights (for better or worse) the details on the monster’s costume; the disc also includes the original Allied Artists trailer, which risks the wrath of Tabonga by referring to the creature as “Baranga”!

Invisible Ghost” (1941, Kino Lorber) There are no ghosts, invisible or otherwise, in this thriller, but there is one-time silent film star Betty Compson as the deranged spouse of kindly doctor Bela Lugosi, who believes her to be dead. Kept in a dark basement by Lugosi’s gardener (Ernie Adams) so as to not upset her husband (that’s the idea, at least), Compson occasionally wanders out of her underground lair to glare at Bela, who lapses into a trance and commits a series of murders. Polly Ann (sister of Loretta) Young and John McGuire play Bela’s baffled daughter and her ill-fated boyfriend (and his identical twin brother), respectively, while Clarence Muse appears to be having a great time as Bela’s savvy, bemused butler. A brief (63 minutes) but amusing trifle for black-and-white horror fans and Bela devotees, “Invisible Ghost” was the first of nine movies Bela made for producer Sam Katzman and low-budget studio Monogram Pictures. It’s also the best, due largely to the presence of Joseph H. Lewis in the director’s chair; Lewis, who would later make some of the better and more psychologically complex noirs, including “The Big Heat” and “Gun Crazy,” keeps the action here brisk and manages to introduce a touch of style when possible (after Maguire takes the rap for Bela’s murder of maid Terry Walker, Lewis’s camera tracks with his feet as he slogs, agonized, to the gas chamber). Kino’s Blu-ray includes a colorful commentary track by top-notch horror historian Tom Weaver, who lays out the film’s foibles and occasional high points, as well as the unfortunate arc of Bela’s career; Weaver is joined at various points by director Larry Blamire (“Lost Skeleton of Cadavra”), writer Gary Rhodes and Dr. Robert J. Kiss. Trailers for other Bela titles in Kino’s library, including “White Zombie” (with Clarence Muse) and the mind-bending “Black Sleep,” round out the disc.

The Vampire Bat” (1933, Film Detective) Vampire bats over Kleinschloss! Villagers in a Middle European hamlet are dying in droves from blood loss, and the burgomaster (Lionel Belmore, who played a similar role in “Frankenstein”) suspects that vampires are the culprits. Smart-aleck police detective Melvyn Douglas isn’t convinced, but when more bodies turn up with puncture wounds on their necks, the locals turn their attention to the child-like Herman (Dwight Frye, playing a more simple-minded version of his Renfield from “Dracula”). Meanwhile, sage and scientifically minded town doctor Lionel Atwill seems all too willing to embrace the locals’ superstitions as the motivation for the killings – is he hiding something from Douglas and savvy lab assistant Fay Wray (“King Kong”). Of course he is – he’s Lionel Atwill! But exactly who – or what – is killing the people of Kleinschloss veers far from the Universal horror template on which this entertaining and frequently eccentric film is based, and closer to grislier Pre-Code material like “Doctor X” or “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (both of which co-starred Atwill and Wray). The combined efforts of director Frank R. Strayer, who worked extensively in budget productions, and writer Edward T. Lowe, who penned both high-end (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) and more modest efforts, do a fine job of balancing the science fiction, Gothic horror and comic elements (the latter provided by Maude Eburne’s garrulous Aunt Gussie), and Strayer makes excellent use of Universal’s loaned European village set and exteriors from “The Old Dark House,” all of which help to boost the project above the usual budgetary limits of producing studio Majestic Pictures. Film Detective’s new Blu-ray presentation also shows some gloss thanks to a restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which results in a vastly improved image over previous public domain and TV versions. The disc even includes digital tinting to reproduce hand-tinted elements in a scene where Frye flees a torch-bearing mob; LA Plays Itself devotees will note that the chase takes place in Bronson Caverns and ends in the East Portal. Extras also include commentary by independent producer Sam Sherman, who backed cult director Al Adamson on such well-loved oddities as “Dracula vs. Frankenstein”; once Sherman gets warmed up, he provides a wealth of info on producer Phil Goldstone, who also oversaw “White Zombie.” There’s also a very personal interview with Douglas’ son, artist Gregory Hesselberg (whose daughter is Ileana Douglas), who discusses the long path to emotional connection with his father in thoughtful terms.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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