A Terrible Goddess: Vegetal and Radioactive Agency in Mario Bava’s Caltiki

Text by Marco Malvestio

Caltiki, il mostro immortale occupies a peculiar position in the canon of Italian science fiction. The second Italian science-fiction film ever made, after Pino Heusch’s La morte viene dallo spazio (1958), Caltiki, il mostro immortale was produced at a time when Galatea Film was trying to discover new genres to sell to the foreign market, after the success of the sword-and-sandal Le fatiche di Ercole (1958). In keeping with the categorial hybridism that characterizes the whole movie (part horror and part science fiction) and the monster itself, it is unclear who the director of the movie actually is: while Galatea commissioned Riccardo Freda to direct it, he left the movie during shooting and appointed Mario Bava, his director of photography, to finish it. The movie is usually credited as the first of Mario Bava’s films, but this is controversial.

Set in Mexico, the movie follows a group of archaeologists investigating a mysterious Mayan city that was suddenly abandoned in 607 CE. While the reasons behind this abandonment are unknown, the Mayans left several cryptic references to a terrible goddess, Caltiki.

In their exploration of the ruins, the archaeologists find a subterranean lake decorated with statues of the goddess, for whom human sacrifices were performed. One of the archaeologists, attracted by the golden jewels scattered on the floor of the lake, enters the water only to be attacked by something: when he re-emerges, his flesh is in a state of decay. Then, predictably, Caltiki comes out of the water: an amorphous monster that tries to eat all of those present. One of the archaeologists, Max, mistakenly touches her and his arm is partly digested by the creature. Caltiki is then destroyed by means of an explosion. When the archaeologists return to Mexico City, they remove the fragments of the creature from Max’s arm, which has been consumed to the bones. The scientists investigate the surviving tissues of the creature and discover that is incredibly ancient (20 million years old) and that it is monocellular being: attempts to target the creature with radioactivity cause it to grow bigger. Scientists and archaeologists then discover that in 607, the year Mayans left their city, a comet passed near Earth – the same comet that is going to pass again in a few days. The comet, the scientists realise, must have emitted radioactive energy. The surviving pieces of Caltiki, then, start to grow, until they attain a gigantic size. Luckily, a brave scientist alerts the army and Caltiki is destroyed once and for all.

Caltiki, il mostro immortale, Italian theatrical release poster (1959)

The first thing to say about Caltiki, il mostro immortale is that it is not a movie about plant horror. Caltiki is not, properly speaking, a plant; and yet, it is not exactly clear what it is. It is precisely this categorial indecision that is interesting in the light of plant horror theory.

Caltiki is also described, throughout the movie, as female: a terrible goddess, it is addressed with female pronouns. This points to the long-standing equation of the vegetal and the feminine, but, at the same time, Caltiki lacks the most elemental feature of this parallelism: fertility. At one point in the film, Caltiki is defined as an animal, yet it does not look or behave like one: it has no recognizable features, no arms, no face. Its movement is not based on appendages, but rather a slow crawling. One of the scientists compares Caltiki to an amoeba because of its monocellular nature; on the other hand, Caltiki’s need for radioactivity makes it similar to radiotrophic fungi. Caltiki, in short, is none of these things, but it has some of their features – thus, it is a true manifestation of the categorial indecipherability of the vegetal world.

Nevertheless, Caltiki, despite the various labels used by scientists, exhibits several features of a vegetal being: it is unicellular, as some plants and algae are (e.g. Velonia ventricosa); at the same time, its body is characterized by a fibrousness that is typical of vegetal life or fungi (notably, the monster was created using cloth and tripe); it absorbs nutrients from living matter; its body is modular – and in fact, a new organism can form even from a single piece of it and every part of its surface has the same function; its growth is immoderate and uncontrollable; and it lives on a timeline (measured in millions of years) that is simply unconceivable for human beings. Even the fact that Caltiki can rest for millions of years without moving or feeding, only to reactivate when nutrients are available, points to the way in which we perceive plant life – as something that is simultaneously dead and alive, that is ‘immortal’, as the title suggests, in the sense that the way in which it is alive escapes us.

At the same time, Caltiki’s need for radioactivity (together with its bizarre appearance and the way it corrodes its victims) makes it similar to certain kinds of fungi (radiotrophic fungi were discovered inside and around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant). Fungi, like and even more so than the vegetal, have long been regarded with suspicion by the human species. Their world is, if possible, even more obscure than the vegetal one, and fungi have consistently been seen as agents of decay, dissolution, and death. Fungi, like Caltiki, are seen as a low, unevolved life form and their proximity causes anxieties relating to degeneration and devolution, the threat of ‘a degrading return to a less organized primordial state of being’, as Antony Camara writes1.

The setting of the movie is marked by a colonial alterity that enhances the marginality of vegetal life. Not only is such life at the bottom of the hierarchies of being, it is also at what Western culture considers to be the bottom of civilization.

It is no coincidence that the scientist and archaeologist protagonists of the movie are all English; this seems to underline the savagery and uncontrollability of the creature they discover. The monstrous is set in an untamed geographical otherness and paired with the archaeologic uncanniness of Mayan ruins. Of course, evoking the decay of an ancient civilization, caused by a radioactive monster, means addressing the anxieties of nuclear destruction in Western societies in the 1950s.

In the 1960s, Italy became the third-biggest world producer of atomic energy, causing concern and debates among intellectuals and the general public. While Caltiki, il mostro immortale predates the development of the nuclear industry in Italy, it intercepts the persisting anxiety of atomic annihilation following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the beginning of the cold war. Caltiki is awaken and fed by radioactivity: in a sense, it could be said that radioactivity acts through Caltiki; that Caltiki is but a means of showing the invisible menace posed by radiations. These anxieties are complicated by Caltiki’s categorical hybridism. The role of radioactivity in enhancing the monster’s power, on the other hand, highlights the dread evoked by the agency of the non-human. The mineral world and the vegetal world, in the forms of an extraterrestrial influence and a monster respectively, conspire against the human race. The chthonian nature of plants, which gather their nutrients from the mineral depths of the Earth, is here displaced to the outer space.

Caltiki’s body is a body without boundaries: it is a body that is capable of constant expansion, of absorbing other creatures, and whose surface is unvarying. The body of the monster is quite literally a cancellation of the taxonomical boundaries regulating our experience of the world. Similarly, Caltiki is seemingly purposeless: if food is available, it eats it, but if it is not, it can stay dormant for millions of years. Caltiki is intelligent because it interacts creatively with its environment and because it responds to external stimuli, but we struggle to recognize its intelligence as such. As Ben Woodard writes, ‘the mindless functioning of life, of organisms moving towards goals without any form of intelligence, of creatures that function in a completely bottom-up fashion reasserts not only the accidence of thought but also thought’s unimportance for survival. In other words, the very idea that simplistic forms of life can accomplish what seems to us complex behaviors raises the question: to what degree is higher intelligence a significant advantage?’.2 While Bava’s movie is, in many ways, a stereotypical example of the monster movie formula, the choice to represent a creature that is at the intersection of so many different forms of life is singular. The monstrosity of Caltiki is, first and foremost, the monstrosity of a being that is impossible to decipher, with scopes and aims that are, ultimately, inscrutable.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 890656.

Image credits
- Header: film still
- Caltiki, il mostro immortale movie poster (1959). The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, the publisher of the film or the graphic artist.

1  Anthony Camara, ‘Abominable Transformations: Becoming-Fungus in Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams’, Gothic Studies, 16/1 (2014), pp. 9-23.
2 Ben Woodard, Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation and the Creep of Life (London: Zero Books, 2012), EPUB.


Essential references 


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