Not human. Not quite apelike. Sad and, inexplicably, full of wisdom. Such is the description Peter Cushing gives of the face of the creature he encounters during a Himalayan expedition: the Abominable Snowman, or Yeti. Except for one quick glimpse, we must let Cushing’s words inspire our imaginations, for this is one monster that receives virtually no screen time. Perhaps a disappointment for today’s audiences who have grown accustomed to having their creatures explicitly illustrated with CGI, The Abominable Snowman instead relies upon old-fashioned storytelling to generate its thrills.
Made in 1957 by Hammer Films, The Abominable Snowman (aka The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas) doesn’t carry the same reputation as its later monster movies. Perhaps it was simply overlooked, sandwiched between the blockbuster The Curse of Frankenstein four months earlier and Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula) eight months later. Perhaps it was considered more an adventure than a horror film, despite the best marketing efforts of Hammer. Or perhaps it was because in this movie, it’s not really the Yeti who are monsters; instead, the humans hunting them.
That last point is one that The Abominable Snowman is quite effective at making. That is, until near the end when it’s spelled out for us in dialogue as black and white as the movie itself. I was enjoying it until then, proud of myself for finding meaning in it, but then disappointed that I could not be left to draw my own conclusions. It’s a heavy-handed touch that I didn’t expect from writer Nigel Kneale, and not one that I remember from his Hammer Quatermass movies. I’d be curious to see The Creature, the 1955 BBC teleplay from which this was remade.
Cushing plays botanist John Rollason who, with his wife, Helen (Maureen Connell), and associate, Peter Fox (Richard Wattis), are studying rare plants and herbs at a remote monastery in the Himalayas. The movie starts slow and talky, saving any mention of its monster for the pending arrival of American adventurer Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker); but, when Rollason decides to join Friend on his quest for the Yeti, the sense of danger and mystery increases dramatically. This decision is met with disapproval from Helen, the least interesting aspect of the movie for me, which is problematic since its climax depends on them being reunited.
Now comes the time for director Val Guest to deliver some atmosphere. That’s no easy task considering the action takes place against a mostly white and snowy backdrop, and he’s only partially successful. Most of the problem for me is constant switching back and forth between what appears to be stock mountaintop footage and obviously-constructed sets. But he wins with two specific scenes: a genuinely creepy sequence inside a tent with the creature’s arm sliding beneath the edge, and a close-up of Friend as the shadow of an approaching avalanche slowly crawls up his face.
There’s a mystical quality in The Abominable Snowman that isn’t limited to the Lhama at the monastery. It’s a hint that one of the adventurers, Andrew McNee (Michael Brill), has a psychic connection with the Yeti. I would like to have seen more done with that, but as it is, it adds a nice extra layer to a standard story; because the story really comes down to the conflict between Rollason and his noble efforts to study the Yeti versus Friend and his not-so-noble efforts to commercially exploit it.
Monsters are often misunderstood. How many times do they become deadly because they are forced into it by us humans? Perhaps my final issue with The Abominable Snowman is that even when threatened, they cause no death or destruction. Any harm that comes to our heroes is self-inflicted. That would be fine except that there’s not really an opportunity to feel sympathy for the creatures. There’s an emotional element that’s missing. A potentially significant contribution to Hammer’s legacy instead gives us a monster and, consequently, a monster movie, with no heart.