Greetings, readers. Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot of kerfluffle about 2012 — the alleged “end of the world,” according to the ill-informed, historically-illiterate, or those making tinfoil helmets for their sixty-two cats. I’d like to take a moment to debunk some of these “beliefs,” AND connect the whole shebang to Italian Horror Week here at The Blood Sprayer. How am I going to do that? Read on…
December 21st (or maybe 23rd), 2012 is the alleged “end date” of the current b’ak’tun of the Mayan Long Count Calendar. The Long Count Calendar measures about 5,125 years worth of time — divided up into units of twenty or thereabouts. Twenty days makes a uinal, 18 uinals makes a tun, 20 tuns makes a ka’tun, and 20 ka’tuns (144,000 days, for those keeping track so far) make a b’ak’tun. The Long Count consists of 13 b’ak’tuns…ish. The current b’ak’tun is the thirteenth, after which a “transformative” or “apocalyptic” event, it has been speculated by scholars in the 1950s and 1960s, would have been anticipated. And since the “beginning date” of the Long Count Calendar was the cataclysmic destruction of a previous world and the creation of the current…well, what else would you expect?
On the other hand, as Dr. James Aimers, my ANTH-235: Ancient Civilizations of the Americas professor from Fall Semester 2008 at SUNY Geneseo, put it, “does the world end when our calendar runs out on December 31st?” As an aside, Dr. Aimers was incapable of referencing the 2012 phenomenon without waving his hands and making “oogie boogie” sound effects. The man knows his Mayans.
Notably, the modern Maya associate no special significance with December 21st, 2012, even those who maintain at least a tenuous link to Classical Mayan beliefs. And there is evidence to suggest that the Classical Mayans did not consider the end of the 13th b’ak’tun to be anything particularly noteworthy. Stela 1 at Coba, a Mayan city, list future dates so far-flung that they can only be easily represented via scientific notation, while a monument commemorating King Pakal the Great at Palenque (the king whose sarcophagus-lid was interpreted by Erich Von Danniken as a “Mayan Astronaut” flying a rocket ship, reproduced above-right) list dates 4,000 years in the future, or around 4,615 AD. Which is kind of a far cry from 2012 AD.
Indeed, it would seem that most of the current 2012 phenomenon stems from a statement made by Dr. Michael D. Coe, a noted Mayanist, in his 1966 book The Maya. Coe wrote, “there is a suggestion … that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the thirteenth [b’ak’tun]. Thus … our present universe [would] be annihilated [in December 2012] when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion.” A suggestion. Coe’s statement, while rather ambitious and strongly worded, seems to have been taken out of context and expanded upon, encompassing several other pieces of oogie-boogie pseudoscience, such as the 10th Planet Nibiru, and the Crystal Skulls.
So what does oogie-boogie Mesoamerican pseudoscience have to do with Italian Horror Cinema? I’m getting there, readers, bear with me. When Wes announced Italian Horror Week, I knew I had to do something with one film in particular. A film that was nominally directed by Riccardo Freda, an Italian best known for his horror and giallo flicks but who had no great love for the genre. Two 1950s horror flicks he helmed, I VAMPIRI and CALTIKI – IL MONSTRO IMMORTALE he casually abandoned, giving to his cinematographer to finish directing. That cinematographer was a young Mario Bava, who would later become famous for directing such films as BLACK SABBATH, TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE and DANGER: DIABOLIK. It is CALTIKI – IL MONSTRO IMMORTALE (CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER) that we are concerned with tonight.
Anyways, I have babbled enough. On to CALTIKI – IL MONSTRO IMMORTALE. Spoilers ensue.
Welcome to Tikal, a Mayan city some distance south of what is now Mexico City. The Narrator tells us about the peaceful, scientific Mayans (showing the outdated scholarship of the film) and wonders what could have driven these people from their great cities in 607 AD. A vague reference is made to a vengeful, bloodthirsty goddess…CALTIKI.
A delirious archaeologist, Nieto, stumbles back to his team’s base-camp after having explored a cave with partner Elmer, who is not with him. Raving about the cave and Caltiki, Nieto inadvertently pique the rest of the team’s interest. Leading this expedition are John, the leader of the team, and his weasel-y assistant, Max. Descending into the cave, they find a cenote (a natural well, formed from a sinkhole, often associated with certain Mayan rites) and an enormous statue of the goddess Caltiki.
Exploring the cenote, a diver finds human skeletons and fabulous treasures — sacrifices to Caltiki. Bringing up as much as he can in one load, he insists on diving again for more. On this second dive, however, he is grabbed by something under the water. When his body is dredged from the water, it’s little more than a skeleton and some slushy remnants of flesh. Notably, when his diving mask is removed, it reveals a defleshed skull with a pair of staring eyeballs in the sockets. Did the monster lift up the mask, suck the meat from his head and put his mask back?
The monster quickly reveals itself to be a massive, flesh-dissolving protoplasm, one that, worryingly, grows larger and becomes agitated in the presence of radiation. And wouldn’t you know it, a radioactive comet is due to pass Earth any day now, a comet that last passed overhead around 607 AD, when the Mayans abandoned their cities…the movie poses the question, “Is there a connection between the Monster and the Comet?” Can John find a way to destroy the Monster Caltiki, or will, as the poster asks, “the First Life on Earth be the Last Terror of Man?”
While Mesoamerican monsters were introduced to the cinema-going world two years earlier with 1957’s LA MOMIA AZTECA, CALTIKI represents the first, and as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, only, specifically Mayan monster. And given the apocalyptic vibe of the flick, I feel like I can disregard the fact that this was made seven years before Dr. Coe published his book and tie this flick into Mayan Apocalyptic lore.
The film’s Mayan anthropology is questionable, at best. Modern scholars are aware that the image of “peaceful, scientific” Mayans is…inaccurate? Oh yeah. The elaborate calendars and astronomical readings were mostly so that they could know the right time to drive needles through the king’s foreskin and divine the future from the way his foreskin-blood splatters on cotton sheets. They were honestly kind of bloodthirsty. Not at the same level as those douchebag Aztecs, but up there. And the Mayans did not abandon their cities in 607 AD — heck, King Pakal the Great didn’t ascend to the throne until 615, from which point he reigned for 63 years…and there were quite a few kings that succeeded him in Palenque.
The dialogue in the film is laughable (though that may simply be the English dub), and the special effects bringing Caltiki to life aren’t much better — while a year earlier, the special effects team for THE BLOB had the sponsorship of a silicone company and oodles of the stuff to play with, creating a convincing, flowing unicellular horror, the special effects team for CALTIKI – IL MONSTRO IMMORTALE…did not. Caltiki appears to be mounds of heavy, coarse fabric — possibly burlap — soaked in oil for sliminess. While it is not as unearthly-looking as THE BLOB, it is nevertheless a unique and memorable monster, and with Bava’s brilliant cinematography it almost looks like more than a mound of oily burlap. Bava did his best, but a mound of oily burlap can only look so good. On the other hand, the special effects used for the gore and melted faces was really good, and surprisingly gooey for 1959.
The real significance of CALTIKI – IL MONSTRO IMMORTALE, of course, is that it led to Mario Bava becoming a recognized and acclaimed director. According to Riccardo Freda, he stepped down from directing CALTIKI half from disinterest, and half to encourage Bava into the director’s chair. And it worked! Without CALTIKI – IL MONSTRO IMMORTALE, would Bava have gotten the opportunity to direct BLACK SUNDAY and launch his career into the stratosphere? I propose that he would not. And without Bava and BLACK SUNDAY, how much poorer would not just Italian Horror Cinema be, but the Horror Cinema of the world? Francis Ford Coppola borrowed from BLACK SUNDAY for 1992’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, and Tim Burton lifted elements from it for THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW in 1999. And that’s not even to consider the career of Mario Bava beyond BLACK SUNDAY that might never have existed without it, and his son Lamberto Bava’s career…
In short, CALTIKI – IL MONSTRO IMMORTALE, at first glance a schlocky 1950s “monster on the loose” flick straight down to the ominous opening narration, can in fact be considered a vital lynchpin in Horror Cinema. Ain’t that a trip and a half?