Val GuestNigel KnealeRobert BrownYeti
The Abominable Snowman
Medium: film
Year: 1957
Director: Val Guest
Writer: Nigel Kneale
Keywords: horror, Hammer, Yeti, rubbish
Country: UK
Actor: Forrest Tucker, Peter Cushing, Maureen Connell, Richard Wattis, Robert Brown, Michael Brill, Wolfe Morris, Arnold Marle, Anthony Chinn, Fred Johnson, John Rae
Format: 91 minutes
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 23 June 2009
I don't seem to like Nigel Kneale, or at least not his movies. It appears to be a personal reaction, but I've now seen two of his films and I hated them both. Neither of them is worthless, but I'm starting to think that as a writer he doesn't really know what he's doing.
Like the Quatermass Experiment, this film is based on Kneale's TV work, in this case a teleplay called The Creature. What's more, even before I knew that, I was telling myself that this would have worked better on TV in the 1950s. The first hour in particular is so talky that it eventually becomes indigestible, in the manner of a writer with plenty to say but no understanding of how to make it dramatic. I was almost in pain. I was reaching for the fast-forward button. It's almost worse on the rare occasions when something theoretically exciting happens, since these scenes are so isolated and perfunctory that they almost irritated me rather than anything else.
It improved towards the end, mind you. As usual, Kneale is throwing in wacky scientific ideas and this time he's come up with a doozy. These aren't just Abominable Snowmen. Oh no, they're psychic Abominable Snowmen. We thus have the characters having hallucinations, going mad and doing irrational self-destructive things, while of course Peter Cushing has found himself in open opposition with the Evil American played by Forrest Tucker. We'd known for quite a while that he was dodgy, but not that he was this ruthless. It's already cold-blooded to use one of your friends as bait in a trap for the Yeti, but quite another matter to replace the bullets in his gun with blanks.
If I hadn't been clawing at my chair at the 60-minute mark, I'd have really enjoyed the last half-hour. As it was, I had to bludgeon my brain into acknowledging that things were getting more interesting. If I ever find myself rewatching this thing, I'll probably just skip the first two-thirds of the movie and go straight to the bit where the story, y'know, starts.
Okay, I'm being harsh. Looking at some online reviews suggests that people seem to have quite enjoyed it. I disliked Halloween III: Season of the Witch more than most, too. Nevertheless the most interesting bit in that first hour was the scene of Peter Cushing talking about his evolutionary theories. The film's first twenty minutes involve Cushing doing work for a Botanical Foundation at a Tibetan monastery and wondering whether or not to join Forrest Tucker's Yeti-hunting expedition as he promised. Gee, what a cliffhanger! However will that get resolved? Maybe I misread the film's title and it's really called Putting Small Leaves In Jam Jars For Ninety Minutes While An Elderly Buddhist Lhama Wibbles On About Nothing.
Cushing's wife is working alongside him and annoyed about this, by the way. He's still young enough in 1957 to be playing characters with pretty wives who kiss him and get upset about him going into danger. Incidentally she has the same name as his wife in real life, Helen.
Nevertheless I'm sure the TV version was good. It even had a lot of the same cast, the most important being Cushing. The difference is that TV in the 1950s couldn't do spectacle, or even much in the way of action. It was theatre with cameras. One thus had no choice but to get right in the actors' faces and let them suck you into every word they said. The dialogue would have had more weight and the characters would have seemed richer, which is exactly what this script needed. It's rich in ideas and ethical issues. That's Kneale's forte. As a thought piece, it's slightly mad but definitely interesting. However the movie version puts too much distance between us and the characters. It's a production tour de force, with such stunning footage of the Himalayas that I can't believe they didn't take the actors there. It looks beautiful. At times it looks like an epic... but "epic" is what it absolutely is 100% not.
It's a Hammer movie, by the way. At the time it was advertised as a horror film, but this was just before the studio blew the roof off the British film industry with Dracula and Frankenstein. It's not horror as we'd recognise it today, but I can see that it manages to build up something not unlike claustrophobia and perhaps even dread. If anyone ever adapts Lovecraft's Mountains of Madness, this might make an interesting double-bill with it.
Doctor Who fans might notice parallels with The Abominable Snowmen ten years later. Both are stories in which scientists and monster-hunters return a relic that was stolen many years earlier from a Tibetan monastery, then go off into the mountains in search of Yeti. The monks try to prevent this but fail, while the monster-hunter is untrustworthy and dangerous. Unusually for Hammer, this is even a black-and-white film, but the biggest similarity is the presence of Wolfe Morris. He plays Kusang in The Abominable Snowman (singular) and Padmasambhava in The Abominable Snowmen (plural).
The acting is good, even if the film tends to let itself get distracted by the scenery. Peter Cushing is the selling point, obviously. Meanwhile his assistant Foxy is played by Richard Wattis, whom I know better as a comic actor from Carry On Spying and a regular role in the St Trinians films. There's also a role for Robert Brown (the stand-in M in the last four pre-Brosnan James Bond films).
This is one of those slightly pompous films that might work well as a drinking game. "I see... I see what man must not see!" The Yeti are also startling, although the film avoids showing them for as long as possible. You've heard of Bigfoot? Meet Bighand.
Overall, I hated this. I haven't endured a movie-watching experience like this in a long, long time. However it's also undeniably interesting and I seem to have an allergic reaction to Kneale in movie form, so you shouldn't necessarily take this as a death-knell. It was also commercially successful, so at least they liked it in 1957. I genuinely appreciate what Kneale's up to during the final half-hour, even if I was still in shock at the time, and in an odd way I can even imagine myself rewatching it. It'll probably be while I'm doing some ironing, though.