The Abominable Snowman/The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas/ The Snow Creature (1957) ***˝
This particular detail of its history is not well known in America, but The Abominable Snowman/The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas/The Snow Creature is another one of those British horror/sci-fi films from the 1950’s that started life as a BBC TV movie or miniseries. In 1955, the BBC produced a movie called The Creature, in which a British scientist and a group of American mountaineers went looking for the legendary Yeti in the mountains of Tibet. It starred Peter Cushing (whose big breakthrough with The Curse of Frankenstein was still a couple of years in the future) as the scientist, but that’s about all I can tell you about the film. It must have been pretty well received, though, because in 1957, Hammer Film Productions remade it for theatrical release as this movie here. And contrary to the usual practice in these circumstances, the star of the small-screen version was brought back to reprise his role for the remake— an understandable departure from the norm, considering what a bankable property Cushing had just become that year.
Cushing’s character, Dr. John Rollason, is in Tibet with his wife Helen (Maureen Connell) and their friend and colleague Dr. Peter Fox (Richard Wattis, from Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire). Officially, they are there to study the rare medicinal herbs used by the monks at a remote Buddhist monastery, but it quickly becomes apparent that Rollason has another motive for the trip. He has plans to meet with a mountaineering expedition from America, led by a man named Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker, of The Crawling Eye and The Strange World of Planet X). Like Rollason, Friend has come to the Himalayas looking for something very rare, and that rare something is one in which Rollason has a profound interest as well— the Yeti. Rollason, in addition to his botanical specialty, seems to regard himself as something of a cryptozoologist, and has written a number of speculative papers on the Abominable Snowman. It was those papers that brought him to Friend’s attention, in fact. The American has need of someone with Rollason’s scientific background, and the fact that the doctor is an expert climber makes him that much more valuable. Friend would like very much for John to join his team.
Helen isn’t very keen on the idea, though. It seems some years ago, Rollason had a very bad accident while climbing, and his wife has been strongly opposed to the notion of him scaling anything more challenging than a ski slope ever since. Not only that, the lama of the monastery (The Snake Woman’s Arnold Marle, who, like Cushing, is revisiting his role from The Creature) would seem to prefer Rollason to stay put. He is quite certain that there is no such thing as the Yeti, and with the hard winter snows coming, he’d hate to see Rollason, Friend, or anyone else risk their lives for nothing. Neither wife nor lama can sway John, however, and he joins up with Friend’s party the very next day.
It’s a small group. Friend has brought along just two men from back home— Ed Shelley (Robert Brown, from One Million Years B.C. and Demons of the Mind) and Andrew “Jock” McNee (Michael Brill) are their names— and a single native guide named Kusang (Wolfe Morris, another graduate of The Creature, who was also in The House that Dripped Blood). Friend’s thinking is that previous expeditions in search of the Yeti have come home empty-handed because the great number of men they brought with them frightened the creatures off. With only five men making the climb up to the animals’ suspected home turf, the American figures he can avoid any Yeti-spooking commotion. Friend has also planned ahead very thoroughly. The year before, he sent a much larger team of climbers into the mountains to prepare in advance the base camps that his current team would need, but would lack the manpower to build. These pre-arranged camps have been stocked with such supplies as non-perishable food, tools, rifles, first-aid gear, and a radio— the sort of things Friend’s climbers will need, but can’t afford to carry with them given the small size of the party. There’s even a large sledge in one of the huts— they’re going to need something with which to lug home any Yetis they catch!
Which brings us to the first step toward Rollason’s disillusionment with Friend and his mission. Rollason thought the idea was merely to observe the creatures in their natural habitat. He figured he’d be taking notes and photographs, measuring the animals’ tracks, perhaps tape-recording any vocalizations they made; he certainly didn’t expect to shoot or trap a Yeti! And yet shooting and trapping is exactly what Friend, Shelley, and McNee have in mind. Ideally, they want to bring a live Abominable Snowman back to the West, but failing that, they’ll settle for shooting one and hauling its body home for study and exhibition. It’s that latter part— the exhibition— that really galls Rollason. And the more he learns about Friend’s less-than-scrupulous background (P. T. Barnum would have loved this guy), the more galling it becomes. Were it not for the fact that it happens while the five of them are thousands of feet up the side of a mountain, the accident in which McNee breaks his ankle in one of Shelley’s thoughtlessly laid Yeti traps would surely have been the last straw for the scientist.
Of course, after that night, he and all his comrades will have more important things to worry about than how much they don’t like each other’s attitudes, for that very night, the climbers meet their first Yeti. It comes into their camp well after dark and starts poking around in McNee’s tent, seemingly interested in the rifles piled up inside. The creature flees when the humans notice it (while Kusang flees as well for equal and opposite reasons), but not fast enough to avoid taking a few rounds from Shelley’s gun. You might think Friend and company would be satisfied with this— I mean, they’ve got their honest-to-God Yeti to show off on the sideshow circuit or “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” or however the hell they plan to do it— but the Americans stubbornly, stupidly hold out for a living specimen. Somehow, you just know this is going to be trouble.
Meanwhile, back at the monastery, Helen is climbing the fucking walls. She’s dead certain that something terrible is going to happen to Rollason up on the mountains, and she’s getting itchy to slap on a rucksack and go looking for him. Fox thinks she’s being silly, but when Kusang arrives at the monastery in the wee hours of the morning after he runs away from Friend’s camp, she makes up her mind, and even the lama’s decidedly sinister efforts to convince her that she merely dreamed Kusang’s return can’t dissuade her from setting off on a rescue mission.
And it’s a good thing, too, because a rescue mission is exactly what Rollason, Friend, and the others need. Not only do the dead Yeti’s buddies take a pronounced interest in recovering his carcass, but a combination of cabin fever, the effects of the thin mountain air on brains used to operating with much more oxygen, and (just maybe) the telepathic powers of the Abominable Snowmen soon has the men doing all kinds of crazy, self-destructive things. We’re talking fights breaking out for no real reason, auditory hallucinations, McNee simply getting up one morning and running off up a peak until his bum ankle gives out and pitches him clear off the mountainside— bad business all around. And on top of that, Friend’s obsession with bagging a live Yeti seems to mount every time a new setback comes along to make it less likely that he will do so. At the rate these guys are going, they don’t need any angry Yetis to kill them; their own mounting foolishness will do the job perfectly well.
The Abominable Snowman is easily the best of the rash of Yeti movies that came out in the mid-1950’s. It starts to drag a bit after the first hour, but the beginning two thirds of the movie are engaging, exciting, and even genuinely suspenseful. The monster makeup is a bit weak, but the filmmakers wisely keep the Yetis off-screen until it is absolutely necessary to reveal them, limiting the impact that this shortcoming can have on the film as a whole. The script has a number of well-crafted, unexpected twists, and displays considerable respect for the intelligence of the audience. The cast is uniformly excellent— rarely if ever has Peter Cushing been so completely surrounded by actors who are a match for him— and Forrest Tucker in particular does a marvelous job knocking heads with his soft-spoken costar. Finally, a subtle point in this movie’s favor, but a significant one considering when it was made: notice how well the soundstage footage of the main characters is integrated with the longer-range airborne shots of real climbers slogging their way up real mountains. The black and white cinematography probably helps here— it’s that much harder to make location footage match up with soundstage footage if you have to worry about the colors matching, too. It may not have the prestige of Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein movies, but The Abominable Snowman is equal to all but the very best of them, and is definitely worth a look.