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Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Abominable Snowman

Here's another diversion back to 1957. This Hammer Film is yet another example from the thin fringes of "sci-fi." The Abominable Snowman (AS) is almost entirely an adventure drama. It has some mystic overtones and, despite the title, not all that much monster for a monster movie. There is a brief bit of dialogue about the theory of evolution, and the main protagonist is a scientist. The movie also has some sci-fi heritage in that the story was written by Nigel Kneale, who wrote the Quatermass stories. AS is directed by Val Guest, who also directed Quatermass. So, AS's claim to being sci-fi is a bit tangential, but perhaps just enough to be included in this survey.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A British scientist, his wife Helen and cohort, Peter Fox, are up in the Himalayas, at a buddhist monastery. They're on a botanical expedition, though John has ulterior motives. Three other westerners arrive at the monastery, on a different expedition. Tom, the brash American, is out to discover and maybe bring back a Yeti. Ed is his rifle and trap man. Andrew is the camera man. The local Lhama is not keen on this expedition and warns John with a crypic bit of advice about a king losing his realm. The four westerners and a local guide head into the mountains. Eventually, they encounter the mysterious Yeti, mostly as noises in the dark. Ed shoots one. They stash it in a cave, thinking they'll try to capture a live one. Andrew is mesmerized by the howling, walks out of the tent and falls to his death. Tom has Ed set a steel net trap in the cave, using himself as bait. That night, the Yeti, come, but the net doesn't hold them. Tom and John find Ed dead of a heart attack. His rifle never fired, because Tom put in dummy rounds. He wanted the beast alive. Later, both John and Tom hear voices the other can't hear. Tom goes outside, thinking it's Ed calling to him. He fires his pistol a few times as a signal. This triggers an avalanche. Tom is killed. John is confronted by two shadowy Yeti in the cave. He swoons. Meanwhile, Helen had mounted her own expedition to rescue them. She comes across John's almost frozen body. Back in the monastery, John, looking a bit trance-like says they saw nothing. There is no Yeti. The Lhama smiles knowingly. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Forrest Tucker and Peter Cushing are a good on-screen mix. Val Guest does a good job of keeping the story active and moody.

Cold War Angle
This is a semi-mystic monster tale, so there is virtually no Cold War thinking involved.

Gimme a Hand -- The only "special effect" in AS is the Yeti itself. The very low budget allowed for no impressive full costumes. The closest look you get is the hairy hand (under the tent and behind the rock). You do see a couple of hairy suits strongly back-lit, and a bit of close-up spot work on the upper face -- very much a man with extra hair makeup and a quirky nose. The director and producers managed to create a whole monster movie with very little monster. In this, they were quite successful.

Idealized Other -- The "Noble Savage" character was popular in 18th and 19th century literature. Defoe had his "Friday" to help Robinson Crusoe. Cooper created Chingachgook in the Leatherstocking stories, etc. The noble savage, as an archetype, works its way into history, coloring individuals like Squanto and Pocahontas with a romantic light. By the 20th century, the Noble Savage was unfashionable (thought to be backdoor racism). It is intriguing to see the Yeti in AS cast in very much the classic Noble Savage in the 19th century romanticism mold. We're told they just want to live in peace, would hurt no one, are sensitive and look wise. They were the idealized "other" to (flawed) man -- exemplified by Tom, the hustler.

Wisp of Science -- There is a small scene in which John (a botanist) is theorizing very loosely that there might have originally been three branches to the ape family tree. One branch became the Great Apes, (gorillas, chimps, etc.). The second branch became Man. The theorized third branch was not able to compete head-to-head with the other two branches. To survive, they retreated to harsh lands the other two branches didn't want. Hence, the Abominable Snowmen were really a parallel development -- not ape, and not man.

Mystic Mode -- Part of the Noble Savage mantle (see above) is the Yeti being given a sort of telepathy power or mental control powers over man. True to character, the only use their powers "for good." The buddhist monks protect them to preserve their species -- perhaps for emergence when mankind is ready for passive and wise beings.

Bottom line? Abominable Snowman is another of those 50s films which gets lumped in with science fiction, but has very little sci-fi to it. There are no rockets or aliens or even any electronic gadgets. As a monster movie, it's too mild too. The 'beasts' are benevolent. AS, is, however, an entertaining and fairly well done budget film by Hammer Studios. It's still worth seeking out.


Mike Scott said...

It's unfortunate that the original BBC production (also starring Cushing) of Kneale's "The Creature" was not preserved. It would be nice to be able to compare it to the film version, the way we can with the Quatermass series/films.

Nightowl said...

Yes, that is too bad. I've enjoyed the BBC versions of Quatermass. They have quite a different flavor than the Hammer productions. Donlevy was such a different character.

This Hammer film wasn't too bad, actually, so I like to think it followed Kneale's original more closely. Having Cushing as the star probably helped.

Oh well.