Thursday, 4 June 2015

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

The Abominable Snowman, Hammer’s film of the same name tells us, is not in fact the missing link between humanity and its ape ancestors, but a parallel evolutionary development.  The film itself has a similar relationship to another Hammer film, The Curse of Frankenstein, made shortly beforehand.  Both are attempts at following up the hugely successful adaptations of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series that had put the studio on the map, but they go about it in radically differing ways.  The makers of the Frankenstein film jettisoned the sci-fi trappings of the Quatermass films and ramped up the horror content for an Eastmancolor orgy of ripped bodices and even more ripped bodies; The Abominable Snowman cleaves closer to the Quatermass template – it’s another remake of a Kneale-scripted TV production (the 1955 play The Creature), and keeps the same director, Val Guest.  But here, the horror is dialled down and Quatermass’s scientific and philosophical elements brought to the fore.  As you can see from the poster, this wasn't considered an attractive enough basis on which to sell the film.

Both films share the same leading man, Peter Cushing (who reprises his role from The Creature in its film adaptation), and in both he plays a scientist – but the two characters are as different as the two films. Baron Frankenstein is a selfish monomaniac, while John Rollason, hero of The Abominable Snowman, is a sensitive soul horrified by the plans of Tom Friend, his partner in the search for the yeti, to exploit the creature for financial gain.   In the TV version of the story, Friend was played by Stanley Baker; for the film the role goes to visiting American Forrest Tucker.  It was standard Hammer practice at this time to improve its films chances abroad by casting American leads (as with Brian Donlevy in the Quatermass films), but Tucker very definitely isn’t the hero of this piece, and by making the character American a whole new dimension is added (an unflattering one to the Americans the film depended on for success).

Guest was adamant that the object of Cushing and Tucker’s quest should never be fully shown on screen, believing the odd hint of its appearance would be more powerful than an unforgiving shot of a man in a monster suit.  He may have had a point, as what little we see of the creature is pretty underwhelming, but the lack of any chance to see what it looks like properly means there’s little pay-off for the endless scenes of men trekking through snow (in the Pyrenees in long shot and Pinewood closer up) and arguing. Cushing and Tucker certainly play their arguments well though, and there are excellent supporting performances from Maureen Connell and Richard Wattis as his wife and assistant, fretting in a Tibetan monastery during the yeti hunt.  As is usually the case in film and TV of this vintage, the non-speaking monks are played by actual Asians (mostly waiters from the Chinese restaurants of Soho), and the Lama - the only one who gets lines - by a white actor (German-born Arnold Marlé) in highly unconvincing makeup.

The Abominable Snowman (of the Himalayas was tacked on to the title for its US release, possibly in case of litigious abominable snowmen from other regions) did well in cinemas, but nowhere near as well as The Curse of Frankenstein.  Few can have been surprised to learn it was blood and guts, not thoughtful science fiction, that audiences were more fired up by, and it was the Frankenstein film’s visceral thrills that would determine Hammer’s future direction – and that of Peter Cushing’s career.


  • 10 years after its release, The Abominable Snowman provided inspiration for a Doctor Who story with the near-identical title of The Abominable Snowmen.  As well as striking similarities in title, theme and setting, this serial featured Wolfe Morris (the expedition’s native guide in both the film and its TV forebear) as a character very like Arnold Marlé’s (though a lot more sinister).
  • For the close-up of the yeti's shadowy face, it was played by character actor Fred Johnson, chosen by Val Guest for his wise, kindly eyes.  Johnson had also been in The Curse of Frankenstein (as the old man who unwisely shoots at the Baron's monster) and would later appear in Hammer's The Brides of Dracula and Taste of Fear.

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