By 1957, Hammer Films had already dipped their toes into the horror/sci-fi/fantasy market with The Quatermass Xperiment and X the Unknown (lot of X’s there), but while they were poised to change the face of horror itself with its sexed-up, full colour version of Curse Of Frankenstein, there was another, gentler, more thoughtful frightened released the same year that seems to have been lost to the mists of time.
Arriving into theatres a few months after Curse, The Abominable Snowman (or, in the US, The Abominable Snowman Of The Himalayas – because location is so important when pinpointing a yeti) tonally seems to be the complete opposite of Baron Frankenstein’s jazzy 50’s reboot that favoured black and white cinematography, a more, subdued, subtle nature and a far less showy approach, the movie ironically felt more like the Universal classics of old rather than the bold new direction Hammer was poised to spearhead.
While on an botanical expedition in the Himalayas, boffins John Rollason, his wife Helen and stuffy, vaguely racist third wheel Peter Fox are guests of the Llama of the monastery of Rong-buk and are quietly enjoying their time cataloguing new plants and soaking up the ambience. However, tension arises when another party shows up led by forthright American Tom Friend who is flanked by nervous photographer McNee and ballsy trapper Shelley who intends to attack the freezing wastes in order to finally gain proof of of the existence of the Abominable Snowman – also known as the Yeti.
Much to Helen’s horror, her husband agrees to join Friend’s expedition in order to continue discovering new things in order for the betterment of mankind, but not only is his wife worried because he had fallen foul of a climbing accident once before, but she doesn’t believe the Snowman exists and thereby labels the whole idea a suicide mission.
Being a stiff upper lipped Brit and all that, Rollason ignores his missus and heads out anyway, but soon finds out that Friend’s mission isn’t to document, but to capture (what did you think the trapper was for, John?), something he’s ethically opposed to. However, ethics or not, there’s not much John can do after the party is literally hobbled when McNee steps into one of Shelley’s modified bear traps, but as a result, John discovers that the seemingly unhinged photographer seems to be psychically sensitive to the mythical mountain beasts that the botanist believes make the yeti telepathic. However, after one of the Snowmen is actually shot and killed, this triggers a string of events that starts claiming the members of the party one by one. Can Rollenson persuade Friend that his mission will spell the doom of them all and convince him that the Abominable Snowman may be far older and wiser than anyone could have ever guessed?
I mentioned before that The Abominable Snowman has kind of been forgotten when compare to the game-changing, technicolor glare of the more famous entries in the Hammer cannon and a good reason, for this is probably that instead of holding forging new ground, the film is content to take from the playbook of other sci-fi/horror flicks of the time. This means it has far more in common with movies like The Thing From Another World and Creature From The Black Lagoon than it does of the studio’s more notorious output. That, and whenever you hear “Abominable Snowman” nowadays, you tend to think of John Ratzenberger from Monsters Inc. handing out snow cones…
Setting ideologies against each other while trapped in a hostile location with shadowy beauties howling in the night like rutting foxes, it takes the usual pattern of 50’s American sci-fi, but adds a calm, level head to the usual anti-communist hysteria and instead portrays its elusive title stars as a more gentle, misunderstood being rather than an out and out alien threat or a missing link trying to protect its habitat from slack jawed gawkers. In fact, when we do get a reveal, the Yeti are revealed to be wizened beings with a Doc Emmett Brown frizz who are simply waiting out the time until humans finally kill ourselves for good and then move in like Earth is a rent controlled apartment.
However, before we get to this benevolent twist, director Val Guest gets good mileage out of the Mickey surroundings as the men cower in their refuge, Blair Witch style, from the inhuman noises that raise the tension nicely. In fact, you can tell that this was originally based on a TV play as the bunch-of-guys-in-a-tent motif plays well to the single setting.
Of course, helping all this along nicely is Hammer’s primary go-to actor, Peter Cushing (sorry Christopher Lee) who, when he wasn’t intimidating either lab partners or vampires with his oh-so threatening cheek-bone and mutton chop combo, he could be the best voice of reason you could ever hire and his rational scientist stuck in an irrational situation comes so naturally to the man you could easily picture him emerging from the womb clutching a PHD and wearing a tweed jacket.
If The Abominable Snowman has a noticable flaw – and it’s only a mild one, mind – it’s that maybe it’s too passive to be as out and out eerie as it could be, with lots of metaphysical patter from a surprisingly smug Llama setting the scene and laying out the moral of the story way before Forrest Tucker’s, anything-to-get-rich Tom Friend appears on the scene. However, this doesn’t stop the movie scoring some memorable, atmospheric moments such as a Mummy-esque shot of a clawed hand reaching into frame much to McNee’s horror or Shelley literally dying of fright went he discovers that he’s been deliberately been slipped a dodgy rifle.
So, is it in the top tier of Bigfoot movies? Well, that’s something of a loaded question considering A) most Yeti movie are trash and B) the only Abominable Snowman movie most people can actually name is Harry And The Hendersons; if we had to rank it, then yes, it’s one of the all time classic Abominable Snowman movies that’s ever been made mostly due to the fact that the movie interestingly and intriguingly chooses peace over the usual sort of kill-by-numbers plot these kind of movies usually have – even though most of the cast do, in fact, die.
Far from abominable…