During the 40s and 50s, Hammer Film Productions was known mainly for their run of cheap B-movies, mostly crime thrillers or lukewarm melodramas. Their first foray into the realm of genre cinema didn’t come until 1953 with the release of an adaptation of William Temple’s science-fiction mad scientist potboiler FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE. Like Hammer’s next journey into campy sci-fi, SPACEWAYS, FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE didn’t exactly light up the box office. Their real genre breakthrough would have to wait a couple of years. In 1955, Hammer released a big screen adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s popular BBC Television serial THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT. While not a blockbuster success in the UK (though it earned Hammer quite a bit of profit), the film proved to be a major success overseas, signaling a way forth for the still burgeoning studio.
The first order of business for Hammer was to get a sequel out into the theaters, which they did in the summer of 1957. To tide audiences over (and keep the momentum going), they had released another piece of sci-fi horror camp, X THE UNKNOWN, a year earlier. By this point, Hammer was beginning to be not just a fledgling studio with a growing audience, but a bankable brand as well. The release of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN later that year forever cemented Hammer in the public consciousness as a purveyor of contemporary, gruesome, and risqué horror thrillers. Strange then that the immediate follow-up to Hammer’s first color foray into full-blooded horror would be THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN, shot in black and white, a slight but charming bit of moralistic horror that could not be more different than the film that preceded it.
THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN is set in some remote village at the foot of the Himalayas. John Rollason, a botanist, his age improbable wife Helen, and Rollason’s assistant Peter are staying in a monastery headed by an old, wise (and slightly sinister) Lhama. The arrival of an American researcher, Tom Friend, prompts an expedition into the wild. The aim of the expedition? To prove the existence of the Yeti, a bipedal, enormous ape-like creature. Leaving his wife and Peter back at the monastery, Rollason tags along, quickly realizing that Friend’s motives are more commercial than anthropological. He aims to take the creature back with him, alive or dead. After one of their party members suffers a broken ankle thanks to a poorly placed bear trap, the party is visited in the dead of night by a large humanoid creature. They manage to kill it, transferring its corpse back to their camp. By the next night, it becomes very apparent that the party is being hunted by a very vocal, very determined pack (or is a shrewdness?) of Yeti.
THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN, like THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, is an adaptation of a BBC Television serial, also written by Nigel Kneale. Directing duties went to Val Guest, frequent Hammer film director (including the two Quatermass films), and many actors from the BBC Television serial were cast, including Peter Cushing in the role of John Rollason. The interiors were shot largely on sets constructed at Bray and Pinewood Studios while the French Pyrenees stood in for the Himalayas. In contrast to the later Hammer films which were almost entirely set-bound and almost painterly in composition, THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN feels at times almost documentary-like. Guest’s decisions to utilize handheld cameras, allow for actors to speak over each other’s lines and capture the cold, miserable conditions of the films setting adds a kind of unmeasured immediacy to the proceedings that is frankly missing in Hammer’s later highly ordered and impeccably controlled (and much better) films.
The unfortunate reality though is that while the film has an unmistakable energy to it behind the camera, the results are not all that apparent on screen. Unlike THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, there really isn’t much modernity in THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. It feels five years older than it is and that is largely due to the fact that Kneale’s screenplay trades much of the films energy for the kind of simplistic moral message usually found in early 50s American sci-fi B-movies. I don’t know much about Kneale’s inspirations for the film (outside of reports of Yeti encounters from people like Eric Shipton), but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Kneale had read Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo before sitting down to write this script. There are several familiarities, from the party lost in the wilderness, to a creepy encounter in a tent during the night, to the screams of a lost party member carried by the wind to the ears of his terrified companions. THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN is at its best during these scenes. At times, this is a genuinely effective horror film and I cannot help but think that it should have never strayed from that path.
But Kneale wanted to subvert audience expectations. In the same way the Italian jungle cannibal films love to toy around with the idea that maybe, just maybe, WE are the savages, THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN gives us monsters that are not really monsters, prompting us to contemplate the inhumanity we display whenever we tread on nature, taking animals for food or sport or entertainment. The film contains many discussions about Darwin and evolution, about where these Yetis sit on the evolutionary tree, about how similar we would be to them. The film works in bizarre metaphysics including thought transference and psychic empathy in an attempt to paint these creatures as something not only along our evolutionary line but maybe beyond it. You can feel Kneale prodding you in the side the entire time.
“Oy. You think you’re better than them, don’t cha?”
The final twist then comes off as more Z-grade The Twilight Zone than genuine thought provocation. It’s obvious and actually rather trivial. The monsters never actually kill anyone, at least that we can see. We’re left to infer that they’re simply harmless while we, the human beings, are so uncompassionately barbaric by nature that we’ll eventually just destroy ourselves. In fact, there is speculation about this in the film. Maybe these creatures are just waiting for our human apocalypse, biding their time until we all shuffle off this mortal coil. That’s a good question. Would the world be better off without us? That’s a serious philosophical discussion to have, along with discussions about over population, dwindling natural resources, deforestation, etc. But it’s not a discussion that will ever be prompted by a movie featuring men in Yeti suits giving Peter Cushing the stink eye. THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN needed to stick to the horror and leave the gotcha moral condemnations at the door. It derails the film during its most crucial moments.
But don't take that statement as a dismissal of the film because I genuinely enjoy my time with THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. It's a good little sci-fi horror film, even if I enjoy the journey far more than I enjoy the destination.