Val Guest, 1957
Starring: Forrest Tucker, Peter Cushing, Maureen Connell, Richard Watts
In the Himalayas, a group of scientists use a monastery as the base for their expeditions, including a botanist, Dr. John Rollason. A new team arrives — Dr. Tom Friend, along with a photographer, a trapper, and a guide — in order to find the legendary yeti. Rollason is determined to accompany them, but his wife Helen fears for his safety and hopes the local Lama will intercede on her behalf. It becomes clear that while Rollason has purely scientific interests, Friend wants to capture the beast and profit off of it. When the men become lost in the snow, Rollason’s wife stages an emergency rescue mission.
The Abominable Snowman, also known as The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas in the US, is one of Hammer’s earliest efforts — alongside The Curse of Frankenstein — and for some reason it’s pretty thoroughly neglected, probably because it’s not one of their Technicolor Gothic horror outings. In my opinion, it fits in in two places: first, as part of Hammer’s small series of sci-fi horror films like the Quatermass trilogy, which began with The Quatermass Experiment (1953). Some of these films were helmed by The Abominable Snowman’s director Val Guest. And like many of those, it was based on a television play made for the BBC — called The Creature — written by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, also responsible for the filmic script.
It also fits in with a small number of winter-themed sci-fi horror films made in the ‘50s: namely titles like sub-genre mainstay The Thing from Another World (1951) and lesser known British film The Trollenberg Terror (1958). While I love The Thing from Another World — and of course John Carpenter’s ‘80s remake, The Thing (1982) — but I also really have a soft spot for The Abominable Snowman. Like the much later series The X-Files, it’s a pleasing blend of science, sci-fi, monster movies, and captures the spirit of fear and wonder that went along with the exploratory fervor of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even as late as the early ‘50s, scientists and climbers claimed to find evidence of yeti prints.
The creatures are a minimal presence within the film — thanks to Guest rather than Kneale — but the script uses them in a fascinating way. SPOILERS. The film suggests that when humans destroy each other, the peaceful, telepathic yetis will take humanity’s place as ruling bipeds on earth. The wonderfully ambiguous ending allows Rollason to remain as the only survivor of the disastrous yeti hunt expedition, but he claims to have no knowledge of the creatures, either because he has come to learn what the Lama already knows and is protecting them, or because he’s *cue suspenseful music* been brainwashed. They are terrifying precisely because they are able to telepathically control the members of the expedition, causing the men to hallucinate and having fatal accidents.
There’s also a wonderful sense of atmosphere, with the film shot both in Bray Studios, Pinewood (to allow for more space), and the French Alps. Sometimes it’s clear where Guest and his team struggled to make the different sets work together, but I will take anything with mountains and snow. Hammer’s typically lush use of color is set aside in favor of some very effective black and white film, which occasionally gives The Abominable Snowman a vintage documentary feel. And despite the vast spaces, this has a Quatermass-like use of tension, claustrophobia, paranoia, and suspense — so much so that the film deserves a better reputation.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Like most ‘50s sci-fi, it has its issues. Some scenes are overly talky, while the acting is really nothing to write home about. American actor Forrest Tucker (Break in the Circle, The Trollenberg Terror) costars as the opportunistic Dr. Friend, but is just plain flat and unlikable alongside Peter Cushing in the great actor’s second starring role for Hammer after The Curse of Frankenstein. Though a bit more subdued than normal, Cushing is captivating and delightful, as always. He reprised his original role of Dr. Rollason in Knell’s teleplay along with actors Arnold Marlé (The Man Who Could Cheat Death) and Wolfe Morris (The House That Dripped Blood). One of Kneale’s biggest alterations from the teleplay version is that in the film, Rollason has a wife — apparently named Helen after Cushing’s own beloved wife, Violet Helene — who provides plenty of needed emotional weight.
The film comes recommended, providing you enjoy the sort of blend of sci-fi, horror, monster movie, and adventure film that The Abominable Snowman provides. Pick it up on DVD and revel in the glory that is Peter Cushing at the beginning of his career with Hammer. Give the script a chance to surprise you and revel in the windswept, alienating landscapes.