Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The remarkable film The Abominable Snowman (sometimes with of the Himalayas tacked on) doesn't enjoy the reputation it deserves. Most reviewers haven't had much to say about it. Monster fans aren't charmed by its reluctance to show its title characters. Hammer aficionados would rather discuss the company's Technicolored horrors. But this Nigel Kneale adaptation of his own story and teleplay, like his earlier Hammer Quatermass series, is a superior science fiction film
of sophistication and rare power.
Botanists John Rollason (Peter Cushing) and Peter Fox (Richard Wattis) are the hosts of the kindly
but mysterious Lhama (Arnold Marle). Besides appearing to have extra-sensory perception the Lhama chides the scientiests about their Western ways and even meddles in John's relationship with his wife Helen (Maureen Connell) when she objects to an unplanned detour in John's research. Blustering American explorer / promoter Tom Friend shows up to propose a daring winter climb to a mountaintop valley where it might be possible to observe a
real Yeti, the purported Abominable Snowman.
Over Helen's objections and the subtle warnings of the Lhama, John joins the Friend expedition. Once out in the deep snow, he discovers that much of what Friend has advanced is false: The expedition has brought traps and nets to capture a Yeti, and if that doesn't work, guns to kill one. Friend has already huckstered a phony wolf-child in India and this time is sure he's on to something real. He's just decided to pass off a snow monkey as an exhibit debunking the Yeti myth when real snowmen abruptly appear. A trap set by the reckless Ed Shelley (Robert Brown) breaks the ankle of team member McNee (Michael Brill), who goes quietly insane watching a gigantic Yeti hand reach into his tent. Shelley succeeds in shooting one of the ten-foot beasts, but, thanks to Tom Friend's willingness to expose his comrades to danger, the situation quickly deteriorates. John becomes conviced that the Yeti are actually ultra-intelligent, and too late realizes that they are using telepathic powers to manipulate the minds of the surviving expedition members.
Lost in the frost - Forrest Tucker's best performance.
The Abominable Snowman immediately reminds one of the other neglected B&W Hammerscope productions that haven't attracted the fan adulation given their flat Technicolor shockers. The Stranglers of Bombay, Snowman, and These Are the Damned stand out from their color counterparts by virtue of their superior production values. The time and cost associated with lighting for color must have had a crippling budgetary effect at Hammer; their average 1959-1962 color film is limited to largely the same redressed sets and exteriors whereas Snowman integrates footage shot in the Pyrenees to good effect, and Damned looks to have been a lavish location shoot.
Did Hammer ever shoot a real anamorphic film in color? Savant is informed that Dracula: Prince of Darkness
and Rasputin, The Mad Monk actually used the cutprice half-frame Techniscope hybrid. Stranglers,
Snowman and The Damned each display a refreshingly un-claustrophobic openness. Snowman
makes effective use of a few well-designed sets in the monastery and its studio snowscapes are for the most part excellent.
In The Abominable Snowman Kneale does a neat turn on the setup of Frank Capra's Lost Horizon, adding a human-alien relationship that was later further developed in his conceptual masterwork Quatermass and the Pit. Cushing plays an (even for Cushing) warm and likeable scientist who the Lhama carefully manipulates, much like Ronald Colman in the Capra film. Instead of divulging secrets, this Lhama keeps Cushing's Rollason almost completely in the dark. Both Lhamas sense that the end will soon come for humanity. In this science fiction update, the wise old man of the Himalayas knows a 'better mankind'
will emerge, but one that isn't strictly human. An evolutionary fork apart from men and apes (sorry, candidate Bush), the Yeti have lived in secret, waiting for the apocalypse to allow them to inherit the earth from undeserving, violent Man.
Kneale makes most of the Lhama's actions, and the ending of the movie is intriguingly ambivalent. Does the Lhama manipulate Rollason to join the Friend expedition, or is he trying to dissuade him? Does he protect the Yeti through sympathetic wisdom or do they control him, as he seems to control others? Are the Yeti really the indigenous inheritors of the Earth, as in The Planet of the Apes, or an ultra-sophisticated invasion from outer space, using the Lhama as an It Conquered the World puppet? There's no doubting the telepathy between the Lhama and the Yeti, between the Yeti and the expedition, and between the Lhama and Helen when she launches her 'intuitive' rescue mission. But does the Lhama want to save John Rollason because he recognizes a Ronald Colman-like kindred spirit, or is he callously using Rollason to quash curiosity about the Yeti?
The tease ending of The Abominable Snowman is priceless. A rescued John Rollason meekly endorses the Lhama's assertion that, "There is no Yeti". In one angle the impression is given that John is voluntarily lying, morally converted to the Lhama's position, as was Lost Horizon's Ronald Colman. But in his final closeup, Cushing's
pale, staring face conveys an impression of involuntary brainwashing. When Savant saw The Abominable Snowman as
a child, this ending seemed merely abrupt: "What, no more monsters?" Now it plays as a mature ecological fable, more powerful than a Discovery Channel-ful of cautionary documentaries. It belongs on a spiritual double bill with John Huston's majesterial The Roots of Heaven, one of the few other commercial films to take as its subject human species arrogance.
Cushing coping, carefully caressing.
The Abominable Snowman is a bit talky ... there's a bit too much of the radio-show overwriting from which a
lot of early TV drama suffered. You're all adults, so adjust. Instead of creating the cardboard villains seen in most ecologically- themed films (right up through the sad remake of Mighty Joe Young, Kneale makes all
of his characters basically decent, even the opportunistic Tom Friend. Ed Shelly is a thoughtless adventurer-pirate, but he's also not without some good qualities. Their values are just unenlightened and Kneale doesn't suggest that an appreciation of a 'correct' point of view is going to redeem either of them.
For Kneale, being idealistic is no free ticket to virtue: The fact that the pathetic McNee is sensitive and well-meaning, doesn't make him any the less useless. On the other hand, Rollason's bookwormish partner Peter
Fox is granted atypical respect. Richard Wattis normally plays a silly-ass twit (his general in Casino Royale, for one). Here, even this stock supporting role is given careful depth.
Viewers can easily assign the Tom Friend character's attitude to 'Ugly American' stereotyping, and maybe they have a point. By now everyone knows of Nigel Kneale's distaste for Brian Donlevy's interpretation of his beloved Bernard Quatermass character. Friend probably represented everything about the Donlevy Quatermass that Kneale hated, purposely contrasted with the rational Dr. Rollason. Had Cushing been the actor to played Quatermass for Hammer, perhaps history would have seen a series of Technicolor Hammer Science Fiction films!
Minor notes: At first Savant was sure that a scene was missing, when no shot of the slain Yeti lying full-length on
the snow materialized. But I've since been corrected by others saying that that view exists only in an oft-published
still photo. Also, has it ever occurred to anyone that The Trollenberg Terror is terribly similar to Snowman? It has mountains, climbers, telepathy, and even Forrest Tucker. English genre filmmaking must have wanted to repeat success as desperately as our teenage monster market here in the States.
From out of the dark ... the new Man.
Anchor Bay's DVD of The Abominable Snowman is for most of us the first opportunity to really see this movie --
the frequent AMC airings of a pan 'n scanned American print cropped characters and scenery offscreen and made the film look cramped and insubstantial. This disc has attractive menus and the unexpected bonus of 16:9 enhancement on the HammerScope image.
It's not perfect; even with the widescreen formatting some shots look a bit soft, especially at the beginning. Also included is a trailer for the American release that adds the extra words to the title ... and tries desperately to make a stock menace of the Lhama, by showing him in negative and implying that the fainted Helen is being delivered to him for illicit purposes! The less said about the feeble World of Hammer 'docu' the better. These things must have been mandated by Lustig's original deal with Roy Skeggs. Redeeming the extras is an engrossing full-length commentary by director Guest and author Kneale, similar to the one on Quatermass 2.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Abominable Snowman rates:
Supplements: Trailer, World of Hammer Peter Cushing clip show, commentary track with Nigel Kneale and Val Guest.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 7, 2000
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson