The Abominable Snowman
UK (1957) Dir. Val Guest
The Hammer studio would become a household name in the late 50’s when, much like Universal in the 1930’s, they adapted two horror classics, Dracula and Frankenstein, for the big screen thus setting themselves up for an impressive run of hits and cult classics which had such an impact, the term “Hammer Horror” is now a legit byword for their unique low budget, gothic style.
Prior to this however the studio was plodding along on the periphery of British cinema delivering low budget dramas and B-movies, occasionally dipping their toes into the horror and sci-fi pool. Made at the start of the big boom but slipping under the radar is this entry comes from journeyman director Val Guest, who, like the studio, had dabbled in different genres, notably adapting The Quatermass Experiment for the cinema, bringing us another Nigel Kneale tale in The Abominable Snowman.
While on a botanical expedition to the Himalayas, Dr. John Rollason (Peter Cushing) sets up base at the Rong-buk monastery along with his wife, Helen (Maureen Connell) and assistant, Peter Fox (Richard Wattis). A second group, led by American Dr. Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker) arrives at the monastery, their expedition being to seek out the fabled Yeti or Abominable Snowman. His curiosity getting the better of him, Rollason decides to join Friend and his group, against the wishes of his wife and the advice of Llama (Arnold Marlé).
Presumably due to budget restraints this film was made during a period where the thrill was in the chase and creating a palpable sense of dread and danger was more important than delivering actual shocks. In other words – slight spoiler alert – the actual Yeti barely feature here but Guest and Kneale build the anticipation of their appearances sufficiently that it the mere suggestion of their presence works.
They? Isn’t there usually just one Yeti? Well, that is one of the points of this story which shifts it laterally into sci-fi territory. Rollason’s interest in the Yeti is purely scientific while Friend is in it for the fame and fortune, hoping he will make his name on the world by bringing a live Yeti back to the west. When they see footprints in the snow which aren’t simian as their first believed, Rollason theorises that maybe the line of evolution splintered into three ways – ape, humans and whatever the Yeti are.
Further discovery suggests they are more intelligent than first suspected, and Rollason begins to wonder if the timelines of their evolution aren’t parallel with humans after all, and maybe humans are the one encroaching on their territory. Whatever the truth is, someone or something isn’t happy about these human trespassers and this becomes apparent as the demise of the expedition members occurs one by one.
In true Star Trek fashion the lesser known actors are the earliest victims – in this case photographer Andrew McNee (Michael Brill) and trapper Ed Shelley (Robert Brown) (Sherpa guide Kusang (Wolfe Morris) gets a bye after fleeing as soon as the going gets tough) – yet their deaths are not directly at the hands of the Yeti although their presence and influence over the circumstances is not to be underestimated.
Kneale’s script, at the behest of Guest, deliberately leaves things ambiguous enough for keen eyes to notice these while the less observant will be caught up in the sheer drama of it all. This also applies to the teased appearances of the Yeti, limited to sound effects, shadows and the occasional hairy hand reaching through the tent opening. When one is killed just an arm is shown but we get a description from Rollason which paints a frightening enough picture.
Despite being mostly shot on soundstage at Pinewood and Bray studios, the wintry landscapes of the Himalayas are well replicated despite the budget while external shots filmed on location at La Mongie in the French Pyrenees are seamlessly interspersed to complete a convincing impression of the snowy perils our explorers endure. Similarly impressive is the set of the monastery which has been carefully researched and reconstructed, detailing the ancient designs and structures along with the modest amenities the culture is beholden too.
The choice of casting is interesting – Peter Cushing would become a horror icon shortly after this film and one of Hammer’s most recognisable totems alongside Christopher Lee. In fact, Curse Of Frankenstein, which starred both men, was made around the same time but was the one to launch the Hammer Horror train while this film sunk without a trace. Yet Cushing receives second billing here however to American touch guy actor Forrest Tucker, playing somewhat to type in the role of Friend. Tucker’s casting was one of the concessions for the US backing for this film, a trait that continues to this day.
Possibly the most curious casting is that of Richard Wattis, the noted comedy actor whose bespectacled effeteness made him an archetype of the waspish British gentleman in many a classic comedy – hardly a requirement for a role in a tense sci-fi/horror flick! It wouldn’t happen today but the Llama was played by made-up German actor Arnold Marlé while Sherpa Kusang was Brit Wolfe Morris, a Shakespearean actor who ironically would also appear in the Doctor Who adventure The Abominable Snowmen on TV a decade a later!
It is fair to say that The Abominable Snowman won’t hold up so well for modern audiences today while it was clearly to subtle for audiences in the 1950’s. Had it arrived before Curse Of Frankenstein it may have made a deeper impact but the visceral – and colour – horror of the latter film left an almighty shade over subsequent Hammer releases to be lost under until Dracula a year later
This is a well-scripted and smartly directed adventure which delivers an exponentially tense and foreboding sense of drama but has sadly dated in the wake of its more successful contemporaries. Strictly for the die-hard classic horror aficionado.