"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas

I love a classy piece of art, don't you?
The terror of all that is human?  A shock-test for your scare endurance?  Hmmm.......  Now who would guess that a movie by that name, advertised with a schlock poster like that, would turn out to be a wonderful little film, literate and thoughtful, that would find a special place in my movie-lovin' heart?  I wouldn't have expected it ... but it did.  Hammer Studios released The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas in October, 1957.  It is not one of Hammer's better-known releases,  boasts no big production values, did not receive very good reviews upon release ... yet I believe it is one of the best of the Hammer lineup.
 FYI:  There is a spoiler regarding the end of this movie.

I really love Hammer's Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy movies, and never miss them when I get the chance to see them.  Still, I guess my favorites are the stories that rely more on psychological fear, particularly Five Million Years To Earth (aka Quatermass and the Pit), The Gorgon, and The Abominable Snowman.  Writer Nigel Neale must appeal to me, because he created two of those, Five Million Years to Earth and The Abominable Snowman.  Director Val Guest was also responsible for another good Hammer production, The Quatermas Xperiment, as well as a non-Hammer film that is in my top 10 sci-fi list, The Day The Earth Caught Fire.  Even The Abominable Snowman's music appeals to me ... it just sounds Tibetan and mountainous, as silly as that may sound, with its gongs and soaring strings.  The composer for the soundtrack was Humphrey Searle, who, although I don't recognize most of the movies he wrote for, did the wonderfully eerie music for the best scary movie ever made, 1963's The Haunting.  The Abominable Snowman has a great deal of solid talent behind it.

The overwhelming vastness of the Himalayas is captured cleverly by cinematographer Arthur Grant, using several different techniques, including cable cars.  The film makers used the Pyrenees mountains in France during winter to double for the long shots of the mountain range.  Production designer Bernard Robinson, well-known for his ability to create sets for Hammer that were used for many different productions, smoothly blended the real location shots with wonderfully seamless studio sets. The mountains are like a living entity in this film.  We are inexorably drawn into the feeling of howling winds, cold, exhaustion and fear of the climbing group's trek into what seem to be the mountains of the moon.

Dr. John Rollason and the Lhama 
Peter Cushing stars as Dr. John Rollason, a British botanist sent to Tibet to study rare plants.  However, it is a legendary creature in which his interests really lie, what the Tibetans call the Yeti. Neither beast nor man, the Yeti are believed to live in the highest peaks of the frozen Himalayan mountains. Huge footsteps are the only evidence ever seen by man. Rollason believes that the Yeti may be a third branch of the great evolutionary split between ape and man.  Arnold Marle appears as the Lhama of the Buddhist lamasery from which the expedition commences. He is mysterious, cunning and other-worldly, possessed with strange powers of knowledge.  He is aware of Rollason's obsessive desire before Rollason himself makes the final decision to join a climbing expedition for the search.  Maureen Connell, as Rollason's wife Helen, is the voice of his conscience and inner doubts, fearful of what she sees as a doomed expedition.

The other members of the expedition have their own unique reasons for searching for the Yeti.  Forrest Tucker is Tom Friend, a domineering carnival barker-type of man whose interest in the Yeti is far from scientific. We watch Friend evolve during the film from a greedy, bullying "fairground trickster", in the words of Dr. Rollason, who puts his own friend's life in danger to get what he wants, to a man who realizes his failings and eventual destiny.  (Critics almost unanimously panned Tucker's performance, but I completely disagree.  I think he did a fine job.)  Ed Shelley, played by Robert Brown, is Friend’s companion, a blustering man of little imagination and less class, but real loyalty to Friend. Scottish actor Michael Brill is McNee, gentle, quiet, whose fearful search for the Yeti is a personal quest. In the course of the expedition, each man finds himself faced with the deepest, sometimes primitive, parts of his psyche.

 The one great arrogance that all members of the party bring with them, even Rollason, is the belief that the Yeti is something to be hunted, in one way or another.  Rollason believes his own particular hunt is for science, Friend for profit,  but all feel justified in pursuing the Yeti.  Rollason himself is perhaps the more culpable, as he believes the Yeti may be more than an animal, where Friend sees it as something that belongs in a zoo.  Perhaps it is in Kusang (Wolfe Morris), the climbing party's guide, that we see the dual nature of man's ability to think one way and do another.  Kusang is perfectly willing to go along with Friend's desire for profit in treating the expedition as an animal hunt, even going so far as identifying an obvious mountain monkey as the abominable snowman.  However, when Kusang unexpectedly runs into the object of their search, he cries in terror "You make me see true Yeti!"  It is obvious that he has believed all along in a real living presence that deserved respect.  Although Rollason and McNee at least had some realization that this was the case, their personal desires overcame that very important consideration.

Rollason, when at last faced by the Yeti, sees humanity and wisdom in the haunting eyes.  We as the audience see the same.  We might initially have expected to see a monster, but we have met a fellow thinking creature.  I found this movie to be quite poetic and haunting in nature.  I know that those eyes and the quiet music that accompanied that shot stayed with me ... perhaps you will feel the same.

This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV CafĂ©.   For the complete list of blogathon entries, click here: