THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN
1957/UK/Directed by Val Guest
Based on a BBC television play written by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, The Abominable Snowman has always lived the shadow of the two Hammer produced Quatermass films which proceeded it – The Quatermass Experiment (1953) and Quatermass 2 (1955) – which were also directed by Val Guest and based on Kneale-penned scripts. While it is not in the same league as either of those two earlier science-fiction films (or indeed Hammer’s 1967 Quatermass classic Quatermass and the Pit aka Five Million Years to Earth), The Abominable Snowman is still an intriguing and worthy little film in its own right, which radiates an eerie, pervading atmosphere of impending doom which makes up for its rather measured pace and dialogue heavy screenplay.
Also known as The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, the plot essentially centres on a battle of ideals between kindly British anthropologist Dr John Rollason (Peter Cushing) and aggressive American scientist Dr Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker) as they take off on an expedition to find evidence of the existence of the legendary Yeti. While Rollason’s prime objective is to study the creature and see what mankind can learn from it, Friend just wants to capture one to bring back home, dead or alive. The higher into the snow-capped Himalayan mountains the small group travels, the more tensions between them are strained, before cabin fever, the icy cold, and the omnipresent feeling that they are being watched push the group to breaking point.
Shot at both the Bray and Pinewood studios, as well as on location in the French Pyrenees, one of the most impressive aspects of The Abominable Snowman is how claustrophobic the film feels, despite the wide-open expanses of its setting. Lacking the lurid color and settings of Hammer’s gothic horror classics, the film relies heavily on sound to create frisson, with even the moments of dead silence bringing tension to the proceedings. The black & white cinematography of Arthur Grant (an underrated Hammer vet) gives the film a very stark and baroque look, with the aerial location shots lending it an epic sense that belies the production’s budget.
As usual, Peter Cushing contributes yet another reliable performance. While many people argue that, in his genre roles at least, Cushing merely played basic variations on the same two or three characters, the actor never failed to attack each role with enthusiasm and dignity, along with a great physical presence and an ability to inject subtle traits into even the blandest and loosely written of characters. Even the gruff, overly dramatic turn put in by Forrest Tucker (hired apparently at the insistence of the film’s US distributors) fails to overshadow the strength of Cushing’s mild-mannered Dr Rollason.
Those who come into this film expecting another Hammer monster fest may come away disappointed, as for most of its running time the titular creature is kept hidden from the audience, presented only as close-ups of large hairy paws reaching under tent flaps and sounds which echo through cavernous mountains (sounds which are strangely almost as sad as they are savage, which highlights part of the film’s clear theme about human interference on ecology). Even when Dr Rollason does come across a duo of Yetis in a cave, the creatures are glimpsed mostly in half shadow, making their features hard to discern (while this may have been partly due to budget constraints, it actually succeeds in keeping the film’s sombre atmosphere intact, as it leaves the bulk of the humanoid looking Yetis to our imagination, rather than having the tension possibly destroyed by showing them in full light).
The Australian DVD release of The Abominable Snowman - on the Umbrella label - utilizes a very clean and sharp widescreen print which really captures the harshness of the film’s locations. The release also features a nice, fairly recent interview with director Val Guest (who died in 2006) about the making of the film, as well as the original theatrical trailer and a selection of mostly cool Peter Cushing trailers.
Review Copyright John Harrison 2015
(Note: this review originally appeared on the now-defunct DVD Holocaust website)