The Abominable Snowman (1957)
“See It With Someone Brave! — A Timeless Terror to Freeze You to Your Seats!”
Director: Val Guest
Cast: Forrest Tucker, Peter Cushing, Maureen Connell
Synopsis: A kindly English botanist and a gruff American scientist lead an expedition to the Himalayas in search of the legendary Yeti.
WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
In the same year that Hammer embarked on their concerted assault on the horror genre with The Curse of Frankenstein, the studio also produced an altogether more cerebral horror movie in The Abominable Snowman. It was written by Nigel Kneale, the man behind the popular Quatermass TV series and films and, like The Quatermass Xperiment, The Abominable Snowman was adapted from his TV play. Other than the presence of Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing (The Black Knight, Star Wars), there’s nothing much to indicate that this is a Hammer movie, and it’s certainly a far more thought-provoking film than most would generally associate with Hammer’s subsequent output.
As you’d expect, the story takes place in the Himalayas, where Dr. Rollason (Cushing) and his wife, Helen (Maureen Connell — I Was Monty’s Double) have been studying the local plant life under the hospitality of a wise and beneficent Lhama (Arnold Marle). This Lhama is a mysterious sort, and not a little unsettling in the habit he has of knowing what’s going to happen before it’s happened. Certainly, Helen Rollason is wary of him, and Rollason himself seems a little uncertain, as does his assistant Peter ‘Foxy’ Fox (Richard Wattis — the last man you’d expect to find halfway up the Himalayas). Their studies are nearly complete, but Rollason has been hiding something from the others — he’s expecting the arrival of another party, led by the brash American Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker — Pony Express), any day. Friend is on a mission to locate and bring back the legendary Yeti, much to Mrs. Rollason’s dismay and the evident disapproval of the Lhama and his subjects.
Despite all this negativity, Rollason chooses to accompany Friend and his associates, another American named Shelley (Robert Brown — The 300 Spartans, One Million Years BC) and a Scotsman called McNee (Michael Brill) who claims to have seen the Yeti’s footprint on an earlier expedition. They’re not far into their trek up the mountains when Rollason realises that Friend is little more than a huckster who intends to capture a Yeti in order to exhibit it for financial gain when they return to civilisation. However, his scientific curiosity compels Rollason to continue, and it’s not long before they have a deadly confrontation with one of the beasts.
What’s unusual about The Abominable Snowman is the way in which it turns the monster movie formula on its head by slowly revealing that it’s not the Yetis but the humans who are the monsters. The Yetis just want to be left alone because they’re far older and wiser than we humans and they know it’s only a matter of time before scientific progress leads to our destruction, whereupon they can descend from the mountains and presumably claim the earth for themselves. It’s a unique perspective, put across with typical British mid-1950s reserve (one can’t help feeling that the presence of not one, but two Americans bringing about their own doom is something of a sly dig at the States’ increased activity in world affairs following a long spell of isolationism — as well, of course, as a marketing technique to generate more interest in the USA) and more than a small measure of intelligence.
The movie’s ending is one of sly ambiguity. Although he has survived a face to face encounter with the Abominable Snowman, Rollason confirms under the Lhama’s questioning that there is no such creature. Most of us would automatically assume that the botanist has decided that it would be wrong to alert the world to their existence, and yet that vague, faintly puzzled look on his face suggests that perhaps he really does believe there is no such thing as the Yeti simply because the creatures have brainwashed him into thinking so. After all, we’ve already seen by then that they have the ability to mess with people’s minds, and the behaviour of Friend and Shelley has given them no cause to believe Rollason would be no less harmful to their chances of a peaceful existence once he returned to civilisation.
The Abominable Snowman lacks even the mild scares one would expect from a horror movie from the 1950s, but it has something more worthwhile — an intriguing idea around which a fascinating story has been constructed.
(Reviewed 10th March 2014)