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Posts Tagged ‘The Abominable Snowman’

As 2013 draws to a close I find myself inadvertantly tying up a couple of loose ends from earlier in the year: or at least making a late addition to both the series of pieces celebrating the centenary of Peter Cushing’s birth (from June this year) and that looking at the work of Nigel Kneale (from September). That it’s also a Hammer movie is a bonus too; though it predates – just! – the studio’s reinvention of itself as the world’s greatest producer of genre and horror movies.

The film in question is Val Guest’s The Abominable Snowman from 1957, a rather lurid and hokey title which the film itself either fails to live up to or doesn’t deserve, depending on what your expectations are. Like the Quatermass movies, this started life as a TV play and was then reconstituted as a feature release. It’s not terribly similar to Quatermass in terms of its subject matter, but there are some familiar Kneale themes visible if you look closely for them.

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Proceedings get underway with some appropriately ominous and slightly exotic music, as the credits appear over stock footage of mountain ranges. Being well versed in the ways of Hammer and their, er, limited budgets, I was expecting this to be the precursor to a film shot entirely on sound-stages, but this turned out to be not entirely the case.

Anyway, regardless of where it was filmed, the movie is set in Tibet – or possibly Nepal – where top boffin John Rollason (Peter Cushing) is engaged in a study of the local plantlife, aided by his wife and a junior boffin who’s vaguely comic-reliefy. We learn very quickly that Rollason has promised his wife he’s packed in his hobby of going on dangerous expeditions up mountains, and this lets us know that the movie is obviously going to be about him going on a dangerous expedition up a mountain. So it proves: the head lama of the monastery where Rollason is based makes various ominous comments about his motives and the place of Man in the world, and then some Americans turn up.

Chief American is Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker). Although Cushing is inarguably the star of the film and plays the lead role, the imported American star Tucker gets top billing in both the credits and on the poster: the demands of trying to sell your film in the States, I suppose. Anyway, as has been blatantly obvious since the title of the film came up, Rollason and Friend are both determined to track down – and, possibly, capture – a Yeti, and Friend has kitted out an expedition with that very end in mind.

However, the locals are not keen on this idea, and Cushing starts to have second thoughts too when he learns more of the kind of man he’s teamed up with – a chancer, an adventurer, a con man, and a mercenary, quite willing to take terrible risks or commit questionable acts if it means improving his chances of turning a profit. Things get even worse when they get up in the high valleys, where it becomes apparent the Yeti are more than simple ape-like hominids, and bring their peculiar powers to bear against the expedition…

There’s no denying that even if you discount the black-and-white photography and plummy accents of all the British characters, The Abominable Snowman is still a very mid-50s sort of movie. Looking for the Yeti was topical, back then, for one thing, with British newspapers funding expeditions to track down the beast (following Hillary’s conquest of Everest in 1952 there was almost a sense that the entire region was now British territory). And for all that it has a remote setting and looks on paper like a pulp B-movie creature feature, it has much wider themes. There’s a vein of A-bomb concern and general pessimism about the state of civilisation not very deeply buried and central to the main idea of the film.

General pessimism is more or less what you expect from an original Nigel Kneale screenplay, of course. This film was based on his play The Creature (the title is less pulpy, more ambiguous, and thus much more appropriate), and he rewrote the script himself – and then, apparently, found himself rewritten again by Val Guest, who wasn’t keen on Kneale’s tendency towards speechification. As it is, the film gets its points across fairly concisely, but a sense of a clash of sensibilities persists. For much of the movie it looks like the Yeti themselves are going to remain an elusive, off-camera presence, which would probably help the film’s credentials as a serious piece of work: there’s nothing like a man on lifts in a gorilla suit to make your serious statement look risible, after all. Slightly surprisingly, this decision was apparently Guest’s rather than Kneale’s – Kneale wanted to communicate the true nature of the Yeti through their appearance on-camera during the climax. Well, perhaps this was a nice idea, but for all that the appearance of ‘live’ Yeti is fleeting, it’s still a very qualified success at best.

This is a bit of a shame as in most other departments the film stands up well, given its age and budget. The movie has pretty decent production values, and includes a fair bit of second unit footage actually shot on location up a mountain (though in the Pyrenees rather than the Himalayas). There are occasional issues where second unit stuff filmed during the day is inserted into sequences set at night, but on the whole this is well-integrated and gives the film more of a sense of scale. Any film starring Peter Cushing is never going to have very serious problems in the acting department (though Tucker, to be honest, isn’t very good), and the script holds up quite well too.

The atom-age nihilism and existential angst feel a little dated now, but the structure of the piece is textbook stuff – this may even be another case of Kneale writing the textbook, I’m not sure. Certainly many creature feature tropes are present and correct here – the hostile locals, the capture of a creature-that-isn’t-a-creature, the minor party member who falls under the spell of the quarry, and so on. The integration of more mundane perils into the storyline is neatly done too. It’s just a shame that the actual conclusion of the film feels a little rushed and ambiguous: Rollason returns to the monastery and announces he is now certain that the Yeti do not exist – but is this because he now understands the desperate importance of letting them survive in peace, and is lying to protect them? Or does he genuinely believe it, having been mentally interfered with by the Yeti themselves? As I say, it’s ambiguous, and the script doesn’t flag this up in a way that indicates it’s intentional.

But this is just about the only significant stone I can throw at an otherwise very solid little film. Like I say, it is very dated by modern standards, and the general pessimism and thoughtfulness of the script aren’t things you’re likely to find in a genre movie nowadays. If nothing else it shows that, even before they discovered luridness and Kensington Gore, Hammer were still highly accomplished when it came to making genre movies. The Abominable Snowman is well worth a look if you like brainy 50s B-movies.

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