Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century / Giant of the 20th Century / Yeti / Ice Man / Yeti: Il Gigante del 20. Secolo (1977) -***
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century, the film that demonstrates exactly how undiscriminating the Great Italian Rip-Off Machine really was. We all know how much effort the Italian movie industry devoted to cheap copies of Hollywood blockbusters back in the day, but Yeti proves that even a towering flop might be deemed suitable for duplication, provided that the flop in question looked like it should have raked in kiloscads of cash at the box office. For although this movie’s title ties it to the era’s worldwide resurgence of bigfoot/abominable snowman mania, Yeti actually pilfers most of its plot from the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong. It is, with everything this implies, the nearest European equivalent to The Mighty Peking Man.
If riding Dino-Kong’s nonexistent coattails is the name of the game, then the first thing we need around here is a clueless capitalist to stand in for Charles Grodin. That would be Morgan Hunnicut (Plot of Fear’s Edoardo Faieta) for our purposes, owner of the massively diversified Canadian corporation, Hunnicut Enterprises— although in practice he reminds me less of Grodin’s Fred Wilson than of Mr. Tako, the boorish and dim-witted tycoon from King Kong vs. Godzilla. Hunnicut drops in uninvited (as in literally, via helicopter airlift) on his old friend, Professor Henry Waterman (John Stacy, from The Headless Ghost and Revenge of the Dead). Waterman and Hunnicut are friends in only the most cursory sense these days, and Henry is not happy to see Morgan intruding upon his comfortable semi-retirement in the countryside. Nevertheless, few B-movie scientists could pass up the opportunity that Hunnicut has come to peddle. A few days ago, Morgan’s grandson, Herbie (Jim Sullivan), was playing in the mountains near the family estate when he unexpectedly discovered some huge animal frozen into a glacier; it looks like some kind of primate, and it’s about twenty feet tall. Hunnicut assembled a crew at once to cut the creature free, and now he wants someone with Waterman’s expertise to see if it can be thawed out without damage.
As it happens, Waterman concludes that he can do a great deal better than that once he gets a good look at Herbie’s find. Such is the state of the frozen animal’s preservation that the professor thinks it might actually be possible to revive it after it’s been thoroughly defrosted. That’s an even more exciting prospect than it sounds, too, because Waterman also believes that he knows what the creature is: an unknown, million-year-old ancestor of modern man, the few surviving specimens of which lie at the root of the sasquatch and yeti legends. Waterman doesn’t explain how he accounts for the fact that this supposed yeti is a good three times the height of any yet reported from the Himalayas, and somehow I don’t think writers Marcello Coscia, Gianfranco Parolini, and Mario di Nardo would be able to answer that question, either. Regardless, Waterman wants invitations sent out to anyone and everyone who might have a professional or scientific interest in his plan to jumpstart the huge ape-man, but Hunnicut puts the kibosh on that. Like the aforementioned Wilson and Tako, his professional interest in the yeti is purely profit-motivated. If Waterman succeeds, Hunnicut plans on making the abominable snowman his company’s new official spokesmonster, and he thus wants all media access to the creature strictly controlled.
Waterman conducts his resuscitation experiment aboard a helicopter hovering at 5000 feet, with the yeti in a steel-and-plexiglass cage suspended below— the theory being that the atmosphere at that altitude is the closest readily obtainable approximation of the creature’s natural habitat. The patient does not approve of the circumstances in which he awakens from his thousand-millennium nap (well, duh!), and he damn near crashes the chopper while making his displeasure felt. A quick application of sedative gas salvages the situation, but the yeti is still in a foul mood when he returns to consciousness a second time at ground level. Panic understandably seizes both Hunnicut’s hand-picked press corps and the presumably carefully vetted crowd of locals who gathered to witness the event as the creature smashes his way out of the cage, and Morgan’s bastard-for-hire, Cliff Chandler (Tony Kendall, from Return of the Blind Dead and The People Who Own the Dark), makes the situation considerably worse by ordering the security team to open fire. The men’s rifles injure the yeti only enough to enrage him further, and Hunnicut would surely have a massacre on his hands were it not for the fur-trimmed coats in which Herbie and his older sister, Jane (Antonella Interlenghi, of New York Ripper and The Gates of Hell), are dressed. The shaggy coats fool the belligerent beast into thinking that the kids wearing them are a couple of baby yetis, and he interrupts his rampage to scoop them up and head for the hills.
Luckily for all concerned, Jane turns out to be closer to the Jessica Lange end of the spectrum than the Fay Wray— although it does take a while for her to get there. (Jane’s initial wariness toward the monster, incidentally, is probably the one credible thing about Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century. Enjoy it while it lasts.) By the time Chandler and Waterman track the yeti to the cave he selected as his hideout, the girl and her brother have the whole situation sufficiently under control that no further violence is needed, on either side. Jane even persuades the yeti to submit to being packed into another cage and airlifted to Toronto! Hunnicut’s venture to wring advertising dollars out of a monster fares significantly better than most (fuck putting a tiger in your tank— what you need in there is a yeti!), and the big slob is on top of the world for a while. What Morgan fails to realize, though, is that his right-hand man at the company, Kowalsky (Giuseppe Mattei, of Red Light Girls and Women in Cell Block 7), is also a member of the board at Hunnicut’s arch-rival, Maple Leaf Enterprises. Furthermore, he’s just recruited Chandler to work both sides of the fence, too, on assignment to do whatever is necessary to get that damned yeti out of the picture. An opportunity to do just that arises at the monster’s very first public appearance, when the usual journalistic flashbulbs provoke the usual ersatz-Kong freak-out, and the yeti breaks loose. Obviously Jane could settle the creature down again if given the chance, and that’s just what she tries to do. The local constabulary have a somewhat different approach to the crisis, however, and since that approach is likely to leave the yeti dead, Chandler is going to exert himself most strenuously behind the scenes to steer matters in that direction. If that means something horrible has to happen to Jane, Herbie, and/or Professor Waterman, hey— business is business, right?
It seems like such a small thing to fixate upon, but since the part of my brain that processes music has decided to spend the past several days fixated upon it without my consent, it’s also the point on which I’m going to start: Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century has one of the truly terrible theme songs of the late 1970’s. There’s nothing notably offensive about it at first; the main cue is basically just “O Fortuna” with the serial number filed off, and while that’s certainly an odd scoring choice (Carl Orff was still alive in 1977, though, so I guess it’s possible that he could have made legal trouble for the producers if they’d used the real thing), it’s easy enough to push this orchestral iteration of the theme to the margins of your consciousness while you watch. (Don’t know “O Fortuna?” Oh, yes you do. John Boorman used it as the battle theme to Excalibur, and ever since then, it’s been something close to the default musical cue for scenes of holy ass-kicking. Think hard— it’s definitely floating around inside your brain somewhere.) But then about halfway through the film, we discover that somebody— or more to the point, a group of somebodies calling themselves “the Yetians”— has gone and written new lyrics to go with the slightly revised tune:
Oh— and the Yetians’ arrangement of the piece is a disco funk rendition, complete with warbling falsetto vocals, quacking slap-bass, synthesizers pretending to be a horn section, and the whole nine yards. You’ll be wishing for “Do the Jellyfish” well before the bridge, I promise you. The most horrifying thing of all, though, is that “Yeti” was actually released as a single back in 1977, with cover art depicting Mimmo Craig (the man in the monster suit) looking very awkward and uncomfortable while trying to dance in full yeti regalia. You’re all just stampeding toward the record bin at your local junk shop now, aren’t you?
Frankly, it’s only appropriate that Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century should feature theme music more abominable than any snowman. This movie is rivetingly bad from end to end, with ludicrous dialogue, shoddy special effects, worthless acting from most of the principal players, and a storyline so foolish that it almost makes one appreciate the writing in King Kong. Say what you want about that movie (and I have…), but at no point did Dino De Laurentiis, John Guillermin, or Lorenzo Semple Jr. display such poor creative judgement as to rip off “Lassie!” (Oh, did I forget to mention that Herbie Hunnicut has a preternaturally intelligent collie? Well, he does.) The really impressive thing about Yeti, though, is that its attempts at originality consistently wind up being far more awesomely stupid than any of the things it steals from nominally more respectable sources. For instance, as the lyrics quoted above suggest, this movie really runs with the notion of the monster as Noble Savage, except that it never seems to occur to the filmmakers to have the yeti actually do anything especially noble. There’s no counterpart here to orphanage rescue in Mighty Joe Young, and if you really pay attention, it quickly becomes evident that the yeti’s several interventions on Jane’s behalf have less to do with any inherent goodness on the monster’s part than with the fact that he just likes her for some reason. So when Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century astonishingly refrains from giving us an Empire State Building scene, it has the effect of forcing you to notice all the ways in which the film fails to earn that reprieve for its monster. At the end of the day, we’re still left with a huge, easily enraged, and potentially extremely destructive creature loping around the environs of Toronto; a fair-sized pile of corpses and a fortune in property damage directly attributable to said creature; and no reason for the authorities not to drop the hammer beyond the say-so of a teenaged girl. It doesn’t compute, and pleased as I am to see a cheap Italian copy of a famous American would-be blockbuster doing something legitimately unexpected, I still have to shake my head and chuckle at the cluelessness regarding its own implications that Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century displays in executing that unexpected turn.
Bigfoot. Sasquatch. The Yeti. The Skunk Ape. Whatever name you prefer, the idea of huge, hairy hominids lurking undiscovered by science in both little-explored corners of the globe and in the woods behind that trailer park off of State Highway 17 has fascinated the makers of crummy monster movies just as much as it fascinated every kid who grew up in the 70's and early 80's. Now we B-Masters are giving the hidden branches of the anthropoid family tree their due: