Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

So, here is a film I haven't watched for a while. It is a Fifties, black and white monster movie (sort of), starring Peter Cushing, scripted by Nigel Kneale, and directed by Val Guest. And, yes, it's an early Hammer Horror (sort of). I'm pleased to report that it stands up rather well, despite being obviously studio-based and short on budget. 

The original version of this drama was screened by the BBC. Kneale wrote 'The Creature' as a TV play in 1955, and adapted it for the big screen. As one might expect, it is not the B-movie horror story the trailer above suggests. Indeed, though Kneale never explicitly states it, the real monster here is obviously Man. Anyway, here is a spoiler-infested synopsis.

The story begins in Bray Studios Tibet, a place of many oriental extras and several small horses. Dr John Rollason (Cushing) is having fun with high-altitude botany while staying at a Tibetan lamasery. Unusually, Rollason's wife Helen (Maureen Connell) is also part of the team. The third member is played by Richard Wattis, who went on to be come one of early British TV's instantly recognisable supporting actors. 

Cushing is always a delight, and here he gives a spot-on performance as a decent, idealistic scientist - a character type common in Kneale's work. Some ominous foreshadowing occurs as it emerges that an American team is on the way to hunt the fabled Yeti. This new expedition is led by Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker), a an overbearing loudmouth who is keen to recruit Rollason to give his monster-hunting some scientific legitimacy. Friend has a plan, and it involves steel mesh cages and study traps. He is determined not to come back with more than photographs of large footprints...

The Friend expedition sets off, but soon runs into problems. Rollason comes to realise that the Yetis are an evolutionary offshoot, driven to the edge of extinction by more aggressive homo sapiens, but ready to colonise the world if (or when) we destroy ourselves. This is portentous stuff for a Hammer film, and it's debatable whether it works. But what is effective is the way the Yetis turn the hunters' own hopes and fears against them. 

Instead of being picked off by the monster (in the usual creature feature way) the tough guys wipe themselves out. It's significant that the Tibetan guide does a runner and lives while the two Americans arrogantly assume they can handle anything, and as a result both cop it big time. Between these extremes is the tragic end of a photographer who has become obsessed by the Yeti since encountering on very briefly years before. 

Dr Rollason survives, having encountered the Yetis face to face. In the final scene he tells the Lama that the Abominable Snowman does not exist. Has he been brainwashed into forgetting what happened? Or has he become resigned to human extinction, and accepts that the beings of the high valleys would make better custodians of the earth? We can't know. But we're pretty sure the Lama does.

This wasn't an especially successful Hammer film, and it's easy to see why. It's rather slow and talky, and the sequences involving the actual Yeti hunt are not especially thrilling. It also straddles the ground between horror, adventure, and sci-fi, making it hard to classify. It's certainly not typical Hammer fare. But there are some eerie moments, and it's well worth a look. I have it on DVD, but it can at present be found on YouTube in its entirety. 


Darryl Duet said...

An anomaly of sorts for Hammer. I have seen this film several times,and have always come away with a feeling of inexplicable unease. Cheaply made,but for me, memorable.

valdemar said...

Indeed, it doesn't quite work as Hammer Horror, but the eeriness of strange creatures calling in a blizzard stays with you. In many ways it's a good example of an old-school weird tale on screen.