Monday, April 10, 2006


The Abominable Snowman

(UK, 1957, 91 min.)

Starring Peter Cushing, Forrest Tucker, Richard Wattis, Maureen Connell, Robert Brown, Michael Brill, Wolfe Morris, Arnold Marlé, Anthony Chin.

Written by Nigel Kneale from his own teleplay.

Directed by Val Guest.

I’ve been fascinated by the paranormal since childhood. My personal favorite has always been ghosts. I used to be really into UFOs, but my interest has waned somewhat, possibly due to brainstrain left over from trying to figure out the labyrinthine conspiracy of The X-Files. Bigfoot was never a particular favorite; he was basically just a big ape-man and I tend to prefer my monsters a bit more exotic, like the Mothman or the Dover Demon. (Speaking of the former, one of these days I’m going to have to get around to reading The Mothman Prophecies. I saw the movie a while back, though it didn’t make much of an impression on me, and I know that fans of the book didn’t like it at all. Though even they would have to admit that it was nice to see that Mothman had finally gotten himself a good agent.) But over time further study of cryptozoology has brought me a finer appreciation of our possible cousin the Sasquatch and his Eastern relative the Yeti. I also recall seeing a film about Bigfoot many years ago that featured supposed recordings of the creature crying out in the darkness of the wilderness it inhabits. Pretty creepy stuff, and the thought of the Yeti skulking around up there in the moonlit heights is certainly an evocative image of the goosebump variety.

When you think about it, Bigfoot and the Yeti both hang out in places that are superlative backdrops for horror: Bigfoot in the deep, dark woods of the Pacific Northwest and Yeti on the stark, snow-covered expanses of the Himalayas where the eerie echo of a man’s shout could almost be enough to make one wonder if that’s not really your echo, but maybe the voice of your doppelganger, lurking just over the next plateau.

A little dramatic, perhaps, but you get the point. These are great settings for horror films and yet not that many films have been made about Bigfoot or our subject for today, the Yeti, and those that have- well, let’s say that Val Guest’s The Abominable Snowman is most likely the best, though given that the competition includes W. Lee Wilder’s The Snow Creature, which I haven’t seen but have heard less than flattering things about, and Michael Findlay’s Shriek of the Mutilated, one of my favorite bad movies and beyond that let’s just leave it at ‘it’s not nice to speak ill of the dead’*, that’s not exactly the glowing compliment it might be construed as. As such I should qualify that Abominable Snowman is in fact quite a good little adventure/horror film that not only does well by its subject but also puts a nice little twist on it quite appropriate to the region from which the legend sprang.

Cushing plays Dr. John Rollason, a botanist visiting a monastery in Tibet to study the local flora, along with his wife Helen (Connell) and assistant Foxy (Wattis). He’s also something of an authority on the legendary Yeti and as such would very much like to see one. To this end he agrees to accompany an expedition composed of Tibetan guide Kusang (Morris), crass American trapper Ed Shelley (Brown), reserved French photographer Andrew “Jacques” McNee (Brill), and the team leader Tom Friend (Tucker), also crass though with clearly more brains than Ed. Helen is dead set against John going on the climb, owing to an accident he had on an earlier one. Aside from her anxiety, which eventually leads her to follow behind with a small party of her own, this story angle is pretty much left alone. The film doesn’t feel compelled to indulge in cheap dramatics by having Cushing overcome some great odds and emerge in fabricated personal triumph as so many films might have done.

Despite his wife’s fears and hints from the Lhama (Marlé, who, for a Tibetan, sounds awfully Teutonic) that the mission may be a foolish one, Rollason is determined to get a look at the creature and so the expedition sets off. It’s not too long until Rollason discovers that Friend is less Ernest Shackleton than he is P. T. Barnum. So much so that when Shelley shoots one of the creatures, Friend decides that a dead one ain’t good enough and uses the corpse and his own compatriot to try to lure a live one into a net, theorizing that they know Shelley killed their kin and will come after his ass. Not surprisingly this plan doesn’t work out so well, especially for not-so-bright Ed. Things start to get weird after that, leading to a denouement that has Rollason seriously rethinking the creature that he thought he knew well.

I can’t exactly call The Abominable Snowman a great film, but it is a good one. I could complain about the fact that, as is typical in many British films, the two Americans are portrayed as brash, ill-mannered and insensitive, but then again Foxy’s character, with his fussiness and the casual racism in his veiled contempt for the Tibetan culture around him, is just as much of a stereotype, so at least the film is an equal opportunity offender in this respect. What’s more Tom Friend is given some unexpected depth as a character. He has ideas beyond mere hucksterism, as misguided as they may be, and Tucker puts forth a good performance that swiftly banished any thoughts of him yelling “Agarn!” from my mind.

But the thing that really made the film for me was Kneale’s script, adapted from his own televised play. By giving the creatures a mystical quality, entirely fitting given the intensely spiritual nature of Tibet, he elevates the story to a level beyond the big-unseen-monster-systematically-picks-off-the-humans format that it would have been so easy to fall back on.

To close, let me say, Yeti baby, if you’re listening, fire the agent who shoehorned you into The Snow Creature and Shriek of the Mutilated and get back in touch with the one who got you this gig. And if he’s not available, well, give Mothman a call. Maybe he’ll set you up with his guy.



* Nah, I gotta get it off my chest. Why the hell did they feel compelled to use the Abominable Snowman in a film set in upstate New York? Were they unable to secure Bigfoot’s written consent to use his name? I mean that wouldn’t have been 100% accurate either, but it would have at least been more so. All right, that’s enough. RIP, Michael.


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