19 May 2011

THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN/1957/PETER CUSHING/HAMMER FILMS

THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN

1957/Director: Val Guest/Writer: Nigel Kneale

Cast: Forrest Tucker, Peter Cushing, Maureen Connell, Richard Wattis, Robert Brown, Michael Brill, Wolfe Morris, Arnold Marl
The Abominable Snowman was one of Hammer's ealry films that came out right before Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula. It was written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Val Guest, the pair who earlier had created the two Quartermass films. It stars a young and intense Peter Cushing before he became legendary as the morally ambivalent Victor Frankenstein and the morally unshakable Abraham Van Helsing. I had earlier reviewed X-The Unknown and like that film I will say the same thing about The Abominable Snowman and that is that it is too bad Hammer did not do more films like this after they took off in the early sixties. This is a fine film, well written, directed and acted and I wonder what else this great studio could have produced along these lines had they set their minds to it. Of course Hammer did not other films during the sixties than just their classic retakes of old Universal horror films like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman and The Mummy. Other than The Hound of the Baskervilles, with Cushing playing Sherlock Holmes, I have not had a chance to get too many of those suspense and crime style films from Hammer but hopefully I will be shortly. But this film, released the same year as but prior to Curse of Frankenstein, was from their very early days when they were just beginning to emerge as a so to be major horror studio and there is a certain quality the film has that their later non-Universal style films, the few I have seen, did not usually have though The Hound of the Baskervilles is a very good film.
The team of Kneal and Guest were noted for scripts that were a little higher in content than average and with The Abominable Snowman, from a TV screenplay by Kneale called The Creature, the tension and suspense is generated by what cannot be seen. The Yeti itself is never actually shown until the final moments of the film and even then only briefly. The only other times we see the creature is when its hand is shown coming up under the flaps of a tent and when one has been killed. The actual conflict is between the human characters and their differing motives. Dr. John Rollason (Cushing) is a noble minded botanist who is staying at a secluded monastery in the Himalayas (actually the French Pyrenees) and is studying some rare local flora. He is there with his wife Helen (Maureen Connell) and two other close friends who all feel the strain of the isolation and culture differences. Rollason has adjusted better than the rest and has earned some respect from the monastery's Lama (Arnold Marle). Soon a small expedition led by the gruff and direct American Tom Friend (Forrest tucker) who soon let it be known that they have reliable reports on the presence of Yetis. This arouses Rollason's curiosity and passion as he has long wanted to see the mythic creature. The reality of her husband joining the expedition and venturing off into the mountains causes Helen near panic worry. Also concerned is the Lama who worries over the motives of the team which, along with Friend, includes a Scottish Photographer, McNee, and an animal tracker (and trapper) Ed Shelly. McNee claims he has seen the creature first hand and now is obsessed with seeing it one more time and photographing it. Friend's and Shelly's intentions we will discover go beyond snapping pictures of the creature. Also with the party is a local Sherpa guide who acts suspicious from the beginning.

Tensions and distrust develop rapidly as it becomes clear Friend has had this all planned out for some time. He has provisions buried along the route in places only he knows and he reveals his motives for actually wanting to capture one of the Snowmen and to bring it back as basically a potential sideshow attraction. McNee gets his leg caught in one of Shelly's traps that was set for the Yeti. Mcnee seems to deteriorate in health and attitude rapidly. The Sherpa heads back screaming to the village when he sees a huge hairy hand groping around in the tent. This leaves the dwindling team without a professional guide. A Himalaya snow monkey, Friend's caged Yeti, is set free and a real Yeti gets killed by Shelly. Surely this cannot bode well. Friend concludes a dead Yeti is better than the trouble of capturing a live one, especially since the creature stands about ten foot tall, and decides to try and get back with the beast's carcass. The me begin to have the feeling that something is invading their thoughts and Rollason's recalls the words of the Lama that the Yeti are in fact a super, intelligent race of being that is biding its time until mankind becomes extinct. McNee wanders off in a trance and falls off a cliff and Shelly dies of fear while guarding the dead Yeti in the supply cave. Friend soon is running around in a snow storm in a blind panic shooting at shadows and triggers an avalanche, leaving a weakening Rollason alone with the elements and potentially vengeful Yetis. Rollason finally has a brief encounter with the Yeti who seems only to want to gather the remains of their fellow Snowman. Rollason peers into the eyes of the Yeti and we must guess at what might be going back and forth between the two intelligent and kindly creatures of separate species. When Rollason is back at the monastery he informs the Lama that the team never encountered any Yetis and perhaps the wise Lama knows the truth but also knows Rollason can be trusted as a good man. The secret of the Yeti is safe for now.

People who love lots of violence and bloodshed will be disappointed. Those who like to see monsters all the time will also find this film a let down. The makers opted to have the tension exist more between the human characters and their motives rather than spend their budget on a man in an ape suit that would probably look silly in the end. The fact that the Yeti is not shown much at all but that we know it is there and influencing the tensions in the camp works well as a suspense mechanism, better than I thought it would. The one scene where we see the Yeti's face is really well done and classic. It is one of the most interesting film moments I have seen in a while. This is early Hammer and you can see the determination and conviction in the filmmaking. Peter Cushing is great in this very early performance as well is Forrest Tucker as the pragmatic and fame seeking Yank. A combination of Bray studio scenes and actual outdoor footage make it a nice looking film as well. Certainly one to see for Hammer fans.

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