28 August 2008

Movie Review: The Abominable Snowman

The Abominable Snowman (1957)
Directed by Val Guest. Starring Peter Cushing, Forrest Tucker, Maureen Connell, Robert Brown

While I’m on the Hammer topic, let’s talk about another recent DVD view of mine.

In the period before Hammer discovered the lucrative field of Technicolor Gothic horror through the smash hits of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (U.S. title: Horror of Dracula), they had success with black and white science-fiction films with horror overtones. The most notable were the “Quatermass” movies written by Nigel Kneale, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2. Neither of these films are currently available on DVD in the U.S., although X the Unknown, which is basically a Quatermass film in all but name, is on disc and worth catching.

In 1957, the year of the release of The Curse of Frankenstein, writer Nigel Kneale and director Val Guest teamed up again to produce another black-and-white science-fiction themed thriller. The Abominable Snowman was released in theaters after The Curse of Frankenstein, but was shot before it, making it the last Hammer film before the bloody gothic explosion. It’s a restrained and cerebral film much different from the work that would soon define the studio output, and it also defies the expectations of contemporary audiences who think they know what they’ll get when they see “Abominable Snowman” in the title. Hammer at the time sold the horror category with the advertisements; take a look at the hyperbole of fear on the poster below. (Netflix doesn’t help matters with their description of the movie as a “classic fright-fest flick.” Many Netflix descriptions are laughable, if not flat-out incorrect.)

Sorry, but The Abominable Snowman isn’t a “monster on the loose” flick, nor do I dare you to see it alone. If AIP had made this moive in the 1970s, it would’ve been a Jaws copy-cat with loads of blood. But here in the ‘50s, we instead have a wilderness adventure with science-fiction overtones. Essentially, The Abominable Snowman is a Lost Race story. The title creature is rarely seen; only a hand here and there—but what a hand!—and a short glimpse of the face at the conclusion. The real danger comes from the humans searching for the beast in the Himalayas, who are much more a threat to themselves than the Yeti is to them. Peter Cushing plays the rational botanist, a template for many of the Hammer characters he would play, who tromps off with an American-funded expedition into the great mountains of Nepal. But the expedition head, American Forrest Tucker, turns out to be, as Cushing puts it, “nothing more than a cheap fairground trickster,” and the Yeti is his next prize—even if he has to invent the damn thing. (He almost does—using a snow monkey. Kid you not.)

The production team does an excellent job mixing the studio sets of the mountains with actual climbing footage shot in Switzerland, but the actors also deserve a lot of credit for selling the sheer cold and exhaustion of the high mountains. Cushing nails his part, as usual. Honestly, the only time I haven’t loved a performance of his was his weird forgetful-old-coot act in At the Earth’s Core. Kneale’s script pays particular attention to the Nepalese culture and their mysticism, adding a great aura of adventure and spirituality to what might have been just another monster-hunt flick. Humphrey Searle’s music also contributes to the ethnic atmosphere and the visions of the mountains (many which look inspired by Nicholas Roerich’s famous Tibetan paintings).

The Yetis themselves are the film’s biggest surprise. Cushing again: “This creature may have an affinity for man, something in common with ourselves. Let’s remember that before we start shooting.” They turn out to have something a lot more than an affinity. Closer to a superiority. The powers that the Yetis manifest makes me wonder how much this film had an effect on the trashy 1990s bestseller, Neanderthal.

Nigel Kneale would later script one of Ray Harryhausen’s movies, The First Men in the Moon.

James Bond spotting bonus: Robert Brown, who would play M in the 1980s Bond films, shows up as the dynamite-loving member of the expedition. And he sports a perfect American accent!