To Catch a Yeti (1995) -***
I’m beginning to think that maybe I should watch more children’s movies. True, there’s a tremendous amount of utter shit circulating under the kid-vid banner— utter shit unredeemed by even the tiniest traces of eccentricity, individuality, or imagination, at that. But buried amidst the dreck are at least a few kiddie flicks like To Catch a Yeti. On its face, this Canadian TV movie looks like a ten-years-too-late knock-off of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, and to a certain extent that’s exactly what it is. Beneath that surface, however, is something dark and twisted, for To Catch a Yeti seems also to have been angling for the same audience as the early-90’s Addams Family movies. Pulling the main villain’s strings are a pair of rich reprobates who rather resemble an unendearingly evil version of Gomez and Morticia, and whose pubescent son left spoiled brat territory about three counties back to become a full-fledged juvenile serial killer. Both the family and the richly deserved cruelties that get heaped on the boy throughout the film are played for laughs, giving To Catch a Yeti the distinction of trying harder to wring comedy out of child abuse than almost any other film I’ve seen. Meanwhile, in stark contratst, the aforementioned villain is played completely straight, except insofar as he looks absurd, has a comic sidekick, and is portrayed by the last performer on Earth whom you’d expect to see in the role of the world’s deadliest big-game hunter. By any normal standard, it’s a staggeringly misconceived production, but also one that I found unexpectedly charming.
That “world’s deadliest big-game hunter” is Big Jake Grizzly (Meat Loaf, whose other forays into acting include Bloodrayne and The Rocky Horror Picture Show), while the comic sidekick is Arnie Blubberschwarzenkopf (Richard Howland)— but most folks don’t bother with all those syllables, and just call him “Blubber” instead. Grizzly and Blubber make for an unforgettable duo, the former broad and bulky with a wild mane of red-brown hair and the fashion sense of a post-apocalyptic barbarian from Greenland, the latter so diminutive that he might actually be a very tall midget and bearing a disturbing resemblance to Kevin Smith’s alter-ego, Silent Bob. We first encounter the pair skulking around a part of the Nepalese Himalayas that looks suspiciously like Quebec; inevitably, this means they’re hunting yetis. Blubber has little faith in the undertaking, arguing plausibly that the capture of animals that don’t exist is beyond even the powers of Big Jake Grizzly. Jake, however, contends that yetis do exist, and that he’s seen one with his own eyes. The reason nobody else ever has is because they’ve all been looking for the wrong thing. The abominable snowman, or so Grizzly says, is no giant hominid, but rather a small, lemur-like creature. The only big thing about yetis is their disproportionately enormous feet, adapted to function as both snowshoes and skis!
That’s not really what’s important now, though. What matters right now is that Grizzly never forgets a scent, and his nose tells him that a yeti is close at hand this very minute. In fact, it ought to be right… over… there. In that tent. Oh. Well, no matter. Any hunter worth his buck knife is a master of stealth, so it should be simple enough to sneak into the campsite, capture the animal, and abscond with it before the tent’s owners return, leaving no trace of the intrusion behind. Unless, of course, those owners are just over the crest of the next hill and on their way back even now— which is just where they are, and just what they’re doing. The campers are Dave Bristow (Jim Gordon) and a friend of his whose name I never caught over the din of the B-Fest crowd, although it might be Mike Kelly (in which case he’d be played by Terry Logan). They’re a couple of upstate New Yorkers, apparently just on vacation in fucking Nepal— which suggests that perhaps the makers of this movie genuinely didn’t realize how unlike Quebec the Himalayas really are. At first, Big Jake hopes to keep Bristow and his friend distracted long enough for the yeti to leave the shelter of the tent, so that they can resume the hunt, but no such luck. In fact, every moment Jake and Blubber hang around makes the campers a little more suspicious, and the yeti-hunters are eventually forced to withdraw empty-handed.
So if the yeti never left Bristow’s tent… Yes, you’re quite right. That does mean that Dave and his buddy accidentally pack up the creature while dismantling their campsite, and bring it back to the States with them. Specifically, Bristow zips it up inside his knapsack. Upon returning home, Dave tells his daughter, Amy (Chantellese Kent), that he brought back for her a souvenir of the trip, which she can get out of his backpack while he busies himself catching up with her mother, Kate (Leigh Lewis, virtually all of whose subsequent credits are for entries in the Apocalypse series of direct-to-video Christsploitation movies). Naturally that means that Amy is the first among the Bristows to encounter the yeti, leading to the most E.T.-like phase of the film. Instead of Reese’s Pieces, Amy befriends the yeti— whom she dubs “Hank”— with pie and ice cream. Instead of the bedroom closet, Hank bivouacs in the refrigerator. That sort of thing. The main difference is that Amy’s parents realize from the outset that there’s a strange little monster in the house, and although Kate is somewhat wary of the risks posed by living with an animal of unknown species (and doesn’t like to think of the electric bills that will arise from keeping the fridge door ajar all night, every night), they’re both basically okay with the idea— which I suppose makes To Catch a Yeti a bit of a riff on Gremlins as well.
Meanwhile, Grizzly and Blubber are also back in America— in New York City, specifically, calling at the home of Arnold and Angelica Sturgeon (Michael Panton and Mona Matteo). These are those ersatz Addamses I mentioned, and it was at their behest that Grizzly was hunting yetis in the first place. You see, their son, Wesley (Jeff Moser), has decided he wants an abominable snowman for a pet, and what Wesley wants, Wesley gets. Even when what he wants is to electrocute the maid to death. (That was apparently the fifth maid to meet some horrid fate at Wesley’s hands, by the way. Angelica finds this hobby exasperating, but only in the sense that killing the help tends to make it progressively more difficult to find willing replacements.) Needless to say, the Devil Brat is most displeased to see that Grizzly has brought no yeti with him, but the hunter assures his employers that losing the monster in Nepal was but a temporary setback. His conversation with the campers who accidentally ran off with it told him enough about them to serve as a starting point for a search, and it isn’t long before Grizzly has the identities, occupations, and general whereabouts of both men. Armed with that information, he pays a visit to the boutique owned by Bristow (Dave’s friend turns out to have been the local chief of police, and Jake sensibly figures that going after a shopkeeper is safer than trying to hoodwink and/or intimidate a high-ranking cop), and quickly charms the boss’s home address out of the clerk on duty. It’s early enough in the day when Grizzly makes his move that both adult Bristows are away at work, and Amy alone is there to answer his knock. The cover story he tells is kind of brilliant, really: “I’m from Immigration, and I’m here to get the yeti.” Evidently it never occurred to Grizzly that a little girl would be willing to fight him over the creature, and Jake has to lock Amy in the basement before he gets a free hand to abduct Hank.
Unsurprisingly, Dave and Kate are more than a little pissed off when they get home, and learn what went on during the afternoon. Amy, proving not for the last time that she’s easily the most resourceful person in the cast, made a point of taking down the license plate of the limousine that Grizzly borrowed from the Sturgeons, and although Dave’s cop friend claims to be able to do no more than this on jurisdictional grounds, he traces the plate to the car’s registered owner. Mom and Dad may be unsure at first how to proceed from there, but Amy knows just what she means to do. She’s going to Manhattan to get her Charles Bronson on!
I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much of a movie’s running time staring at a monster puppet’s huge, buniony feet. Seriously, To Catch a Yeti uses those feet the way a latter-day Russ Meyer movie uses Kitten Natividad’s tits, frequently making the big, hideous things the compositional centerpiece of entire scenes, and the main thing I’ll remember about this movie a few years from now is the sight of them dangling two thirds of the way to the floor as Amy carries Hank through a Manhattan subway station or filling the whole middle of the screen as the creature contentedly sits eating ice cream at the Bristows’ kitchen table. In general, the yeti is really a fascinating piece of ugly-cute character design, because it’s almost possible to claim for it a legitimate scientific justification. After all, the strongest reason for disbelieving in the abominable snowman is the seeming impossibility of the Himalayan ecosystem supporting a breeding population of hominids even bigger than mountain gorillas, and disproportionately large, weight-diffusing feet are a common characteristic of animals adapted to persistently snowy environments. I’d be a little surprised if the makers of To Catch a Yeti actually put that much thought into it (the sight gag of a 30-inch monster with 18-inch feet is probably sufficient explanation all by itself), but the idea tickles me in the same way as the surely inadvertent echoes of the genus Harpagoxenus in Empire of the Ants.
Now, because I didn’t delve much into the exhausting pattern of reversals and re-reversals of fortune that comprises the second half of the film, it probably isn’t apparent from the above synopsis just how fucked up To Catch a Yeti becomes. I didn’t get a chance to mention the scene in which Wesley, having gotten his hands on the disappointingly little and unfrightening yeti, tortures Hank with rock music and a Nerf dart gun. I haven’t said anything about the raid on the Bristows’ vacation house in the country, which eventually takes a turn disturbingly reminiscent of an Italian Last House on the Left knock-off, and which begins with Wesley pulling a twelve-gauge riot gun out of the trunk of his parents’ limo, telling Grizzly and Blubber, “Remember— the little girl is mine!” All of the ensuing violence is scrupulously non-lethal, of course, but in much the same way as one sees in an old Warner Brothers or Walter Lantz cartoon, that’s frequently just because the filmmakers have arbitrarily decided to treat it as such. I mean, Amy digs a fucking panji pit for the bad guys as part of her counterattack at the cabin! But the most twisted thing of all is Wesley’s final comeuppance— or, more to the point, his parents’ reaction to his final comeuppance. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that Roald Dahl would have approved heartily.