As a child I remember being allowed to stay up late one Saturday evening way back in the 1960s, when BBC2 had a regular slot for the Midnight Movie, to catch Hammer’s take on the legendary yeti of Tibet. I think it must have been one of my first encounters with Horror or Sci-fi outside of Dr Who’s Saturday teatime adventures. Of course, Dr Who had already introduced us to the Yeti in 1967’s The Abominable Snowmen and 1968’s The Web of Fear, but you know how it is, you just can’t get enough of a good cryptid when you are a kid (or a 55-year-old writer come to that).
Well, a lot of gore has flowed under the bridge since then, but when I discovered that those nice people at the revitalised Hammer films are about to remake their 1957 classic, I decided to retrieve my DVD copy from the pile of things I have yet to watch and see if it was anything like as thrilling as I distantly remembered. Initially released on the coattails of Hammer’s Gothic revival with The Curse of Frankenstein, The Abominable Snowman also stars Peter Cushing who, at the time of filming was best known as a TV actor for his portrayal of Winston Smith in the BBC’s adaptation of 1984. Just like Hammer’s breakthrough movie The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), The Abominable Snowman was an adaptation of a TV play by Nigel Kneale, The Creature, first broadcast by the BBC in 1955.
Cushing plays John Rollason (he was also Rollason in the TV play), a botanist cataloguing plants at a remote Himalayan monastery, along with his wife Helen (Maureen Connell) and his sidekick Peter Fox (played by Richard Wattis who is probably best known for his role as the longsuffering neighbour of Eric and Hattie in the sitcom Sykes). When an American expedition led by Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker) turns up at the monastery, Rollason’s scientific curiosity gets the better of him and he joins them on the search for the legendary Yeti.
Naturally things start going wrong; Rollason discovers Friend is just interested in making a quick buck out of capturing a yeti so they fallout, members of the team start dying and when a yeti is killed, his mates come looking for the body. What I liked about the film was the way the scares came through by implication, allowing the viewers imagination to fill the blanks, rather than hitting the audience with ‘in your face’ spectacle reveal. I suspect that is more the result of a happy accident; what with the movie having a nano-budget there just wasn’t the cash for big-ticket special effects, but I think it’s all the better for that. So whenever we see a creature its through the screen of a blizzard or deep within the inky darkness of a cave or just a hairy arm probing the interior of a tent.
Kneale’s creatures are far from mindless savages though and in common with a lot of post Hiroshima 1950s Sci-fi, the supposed monsters are revealed to be a divergent branch of human evolution, just peacefully biding their time waiting for man to wipe himself off the face of the globe through some act of atomic folly. Of course the only folks who know this are the Buddhist monks and now Rollason as the sole survivor of the mission and none of them are saying anything!
So is it any good? Well it’s nicely acted with good performances by Cushing and Tucker; it’s well shot and lit in monochrome and has an effective musical score by Humphrey Searle that adds to the movie’s cold chilly atmosphere. Exteriors were shot in the French Pyrenees while Hammer’s base at Bray Studio (which of course can be seen dressed as the castles of Frankenstein and Dracula, Dr Jekyll’s lab and ever so many Transylvanian pubs run by Michael Ripper throughout the 50s and 60s) stood in for the monastery. It’s possibly a bit tame for the CGI generation, but I found it a thought provoking ride with a few decent shocks along the route.
I give it a 444
The Abominable Snowman was re-released on DVD as part of The Hammer Collection by Icon Film Distribution in 2011 and is available from DVD retailers.
It will be interesting to see what Hammer do with the property, but I suspect we will see a new imagining of the creatures thanks to CGI and perhaps a stronger ecological message, now that we are no longer obsessed with the idea of imminent nuclear destruction.
Missing episodes of Dr Who’s The Web of Fear (where Patrick Troughton’s second Dr ends up battling Yeti on the London Underground) recently turned up in cupboard at a Nigerian TV station. Originally thought lost forever thanks to the BBC’s policy of wiping video tape for reuse in the 60s and early 70s, the recovered episodes Two, Four, Five and Six have been reunited with the surviving Episode One from the BBC’s archive and a reconstruction of episode three from telephotos and the soundtrack for DVD release on 24 February 2014. I remember watching this at my Gran’s house and am looking forward to seeing it again.
A great little guide to the like of the Yeti, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster is David Cohen’s Encyclopaedia of Monsters (1982, Michael O’Mara Books), an ideal Christmas gift for any aspiring Cryptozoologist if you can find a copy.
Review by Simon Ball
Connect with Simon: @RealShipsCook or here.