Skip to main content

We’re going to find that creature they call the Yeti.

The Abominable Snowman
(1957)

The Abominable Snowman follows the first two Quatermass serials as the third Hammer adaptation of a Nigel Kneale BBC work. As with those films, Val Guest takes the directorial reins, to mixed results. Hammer staple Peter Cushing repeats his role from The Creature (the title of the original teleplay). The result is worthy in sentiment but unexceptional in dramatic heft. Guest fails to balance Kneale’s idea of essentially sympathetic creatures with the disintegration of the group bent on finding them.


Nevertheless, Kneale’s premise still stands out. The idea that the Yeti is an essentially shy, peaceful, cryptozoological beastie is now commonplace, but Kneale adds a further twist by suggesting that they are a distinct and in some respects more advance parallel branch in the evolution of hominids (the more extravagant notion that they are in some way extra-dimensional is absent, but with the powers thy sport here wouldn’t be such a leap). Cushing’s Rollason is the thoughtful explorer with genuine intentions towards expansion of knowledge. In stark contrast, Forrest Tucker’s mercenary, the ironically named Tom Friend, is only in it for the money. He’s on an all-too-plausible mission to put the creature on TV. Stanley Baker played the role in the TV version, so the recasting with an American (Hammer had foreign sales in mind) has the effect of shifting the emphasis. Britain becomes the considered preserver, not really a representation of unmartialled imperialism at all, while our American cousins assume the mantle of all that is dark and destructive in man.


Guest was a hit-and-miss director; The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a sweaty, claustrophobic envisioning of an imminent apocalypse. But Snowman, in spite of a second unit shoot in the French Pyrenees, is unimaginatively rendered and wears its mostly set bound environment on its sleeve (not that the sets aren’t decent). Guest reportedly didn’t take to the anamorphic wide screen format, which may help to explain why the proceedings are shorn of an epic or expansive scope. He also fails to imbue much atmosphere, despite Kneale setting up a number of eerie scenarios. 


Indeed, while one could argue that the film fails because the monster isn’t monstrous, the real issue is the director’s lack of connection with the material. There’s ample opportunity for unsettling or uncanny, but Guest obliges with relentlessly stagey compositions. The use of handheld camera adds little frisson to the static compositions, and the experiment with overlapping dialogue ends up sounding like fluffs, rather then planning. Since he also reportedly did his own rewrite, he might take the blame for some of the more clumsy exchanges. Guest’s approach of cutting away the dialogue in order to advance the action comes unstuck because Kneale’s structure hinges on the clashing philosophies behind the events.


Rollanson: You’re nothing but a cheap fairground trickster!

Unlike Cushing, Tucker makes little of his character, delivering a stereotypically gruff and boorish Yank. Kneale added a wife for Rollanson (at Cushing’s suggestion) but Maureen Connell is unable make her more than a dreadful nag. Much better is Richard Wattis as Rollanson’s colleague Fox. Wattis plays Wattis of course, as he always does; a slightly effete and snobbish Englishman, here disdaining this “infernal country”.  His list of complaints includes the cold, the smells, the superstition, the misery, the ignorance and the “awful, awful cold Tibetan tea”. Amusingly, he will only admit to this in the presence of his own countrymen (and women). When one of Friend’s group proposes similar sentiments, Fox disagrees and testifies as to the delights of Tibetan hospitality.


Helen: Foxy, you know these things these people believe? Clairvoyance? Thought transference?

Kneale draws on recognisable beliefs, myths and legends to envisage his tale. If some of the lines are a little on the clumsy side (“That’s what they call it, isn’t it? The Abominable Snowman”, one of the Friend’s party “could eat a yak!”), he shows canniness in the way he weaves hoaxes into the mix. Friend has already perpetrated one such (wolf children; following the discovery of this deceit he changed his name). When Friend captures a Himalayan monkey, he’s more than willing to claim it as a genuine find (although this makes him out to be not all that smart; firstly that he’d fall for mercenary guide Kusang’s story, and secondly that he thinks anyone might believe a monkey was a Yeti). Fox purveys a similarly western cynicism when he proclaims Tibetan beliefs as “sham magic”.


But such cynicism allows Kneale to flip supernatural notions as surprising truths. Couched in the scientific theorising of Rollanson, they take on an air legitimacy rather than superstitious nonsense. Kneale would soon take a similar tack with Quatermass and the Pit, although in that case the local superstitious nonsense (little devils at Hobb’s End) is replaced by modern superstitious nonsense (space beings in a centuries-old crashed ship). Rollanson suggests a subspecies that evolved in parallel with mankind, a third line of descent, one that developed abilities all of its own.


Kneale implies that the Tibetan Buddhists have developed a not dissimilar awareness (his take on the religion is generally respectful). The llama (Arnold Marle), given to cryptic yet sage advice as all such exotic gurus are, comments of the clime “There is time for an awareness of many things. Have you not found it so?” He knows Friend is coming before he arrives, and through experience or innate understanding warns Rollanson precisely what he will encounter up on the mountain.


Llama: Remember that you act in the name of mankind, and act humbly. For man is close to forfeiting his right to rule the world. He faces destruction by his own hand.

The llama implies that the meek (Yeti) may inherit the Earth, and a later discussion between Friend and Rollanson reiterates this. The latter also speculates the creature might once have ruled it “but something went wrong”. Yet Rollanson’s theories may be somewhat naïve; he rebukes Friend’s aggressiveness by telling him “These people are Buddhists. They don’t believe in war”. To his eyes, the face of the slain Yeti betrays sadness “and wisdom”. But these venerable ones are not above defending themselves or employing manipulation, even if only indirectly.


The llama pointedly lies to Helen when she tells him she saw the guide return to the monastery (“It was not Kusang”). (Kusang is played by Wolfe Morris, who would later to appear in Doctor Who’s Tibet-set – well, Wales-set – The Abominable Snowmen.) The Yeti turn the intruders against themselves. One falls to his death (McNee’s unfortunate dummy loses a leg as it hits the ground), another has a heart attack, and a third succumbs to a self-initiated avalanche. Kusang appears to understand this inherent danger when he claims that he was made to see what man is not supposed to see. It seems that they protect their domain indiscriminately. McNee (Michael Brill) means them no harm, impelled to seek them out like a moth to the flame (“as if he were hypersensitive to their presence”) but he receives no mercy for his innocent obsession.


Rollanson: I’m afraid I was wrong. What I was looking for doesn’t exist.
Llama: Are you certain of that?
Rollanson: Yes. There is no Yeti.

It comes as a slight surprise then, since they didn’t spare McNee, that the hairy fellows let Rollanson off he hook (in one of the few striking images, Helen finds her hubby standing on a mountain ledge apparently frozen to the spot). Earlier, he hears aural hallucinations of a radio message (which might have spelt his doom if he had responded). I’ve seen it suggested that the Yeti use the same psychic abilities they inflicted on Friend and his men to remove all memory of the encounter, but that wasn’t my take. Rollanson now understands what lies behind the llama’s claim that there is no such creature as the Yeti, realising that its preservation from the attentions of humankind is paramount (I took it that in the final encounter they perceived he meant no harm and would not spread the word.)


When Rollanson exclaims, “This isn’t the face of a savage” he’s not wrong. The creature looks like a cross between Jon Pertwee on a bad hair day and Catweazle. One of the few wise choices Guest makes is keeping it out of sight until the final minutes (a hairy gloved hand aside). Kneale favoured our seeing the Yeti throughout, to emphasise their peaceful nature. Presumably that was before he’d seen the design work. Whether it’s intended or not, the benign qualities of the creature end up more ambiguous on screen; in their own combatively clairvoyant way you couldn’t quite call them pacifists. I find that more interesting though; they aren’t just soppy dodos (not that I don’t like soppy dodos) waiting to be culled.


If The Abominable Snowman ends up rather staid, it’s still a welcome curiosity in the Hammer canon. Cushing is as splendidly watchable as ever, and the distinctiveness of Kneale’s idea survives Guest’s workmanlike treatment. It’s easy to see why the reborn Hammer is remaking the property. There’s much mileage in amping up the hallucinations and traumas of the blighted expedition; it would certainly be an elementary and silly mistake to re-envisage the creature in a more monstrous light (or pull some obvious riffs on The Thing), since the theme of man being his own worst enemy is as compelling as ever.


***




Here's the great Joe Dante on Trailers from Hell talking about the film (a little more enthusiastically than me, admittedly).


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Never mind. You may be losing a carriage, but he’ll be gaining a bomb.

The Avengers 5.13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Continuing a strong mid-season run, Brian Clemens rejigs one of the dissenting (and departing) Roger Marshall's scripts (hence "Brian Sheriff") and follows in the steps of the previous season's The Girl from Auntie by adding a topical-twist title (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came out a year earlier). If this is one of those stories where you know from the first who's doing what to whom, the actual mechanism for the doing is a strong and engaging one, and it's pepped considerably by a supporting cast including one John Laurie (2.11: Death of a Great Dane, 3.2: Brief for Murder).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

That living fossil ate my best friend!

The Meg (2018)
(SPOILERS) There’s a good chance that, unless you go in armed with ludicrously high expectations for the degree to which it's going to take the piss out of its premise, you'll have a good time with The Meg. This is unabashedly B-moviemaking, and if a finger of fault can be pointed, it's that director Jon Turteltaub, besides being a strictly functional filmmaker, does nothing to give it any personality beyond employing the services of the Stat. Obviously, though, the mere presence of the gravelly-larynxed one goes a long way to plugging the holes in any leaky vessel.

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018)
(SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless Heat rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but Den of Thieves is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.