When it’s on: Friday, 20 February (1.20 am, Saturday)
Like many fans of classic horror, I first got into old monster movies via the BBC’s nighttime screenings back in the early 1980s. Typically shown as a double bill, it was possible to get a pair of ancient Universal frighteners like Dracula and Frankenstein, or a couple of hoary Hammer offerings, which by this point already looked like something from a bygone age. Needless to say, I loved them, talking mine parents into setting up the Betamax to record so I could get up in the morning and experience a blast of the sort of thrills that had little place amidst the more lurid, contemporary likes of Halloween and Poltergeist. These double bills are of course the stuff of aching nostalgia now. Whilst a minority of viewers would love nothing more than to see their return, they belong in a distant past, though one has to wonder, given those dead hours in the middle of the night, would it be so difficult to bring them back and, you never know, introduce a whole new generation to the joys of antiquated horror?
The Abominable Snowman is not being shown as part of a late night monster double, but its late, late place in the schedules teases at a return to this sort of caper; alas a tease is all it is as normal service resumes the following Friday. All the same, it’s a thing of joy to see this semi-forgotten entry from the Hammer archives given a rare outing. It’s a title I watch often, and unashamedly so. At the time, the studio was beginning to flex its creative muscles. The success of The Quatermass Xperiment, adapted for the big screen from Nigel Kneale’s BBC drama, had brought Hammer to the attention of major American players. Further horrors were commissioned. Hammer took the money, stretched the modest budgets it received and started a production line of sensational, melodramatic fright flicks that have since become the stuff of legend. In the same year as The Abominable Snowman came The Curse of Frankenstein, filmed in colour to give audiences the terrifying sight of blood that dripped often and starkly red. They never looked back.
The first Hammer Frankenstein adventure set the studio on a course of further scary treats, taking advantage of colour, special effects, glorious costumes, make-up and set design, and an increase in heaving bosoms, all of which left The Abominable Snowman looking dated nearly as soon as it was released. It’s only more recently that opinions about it have revised and it’s since been held up as a great entry in the canon, a surprisingly low key outing for the maligned Yeti, which only turns up late in the film and is cast in a wholly sympathetic light. Like Quatermass, the film was adapted from a television drama, The Creature, again written by Kneale who returned to write the screenplay. Reliable studio hand, Val Guest, was behind the camera as director. Peter Cushing, who was on the cusp of becoming the its major star thanks to his starring role as Baron Frankenstein, reprised his role from the small screen as Dr Henry Rollason, whereas the part that had been played on television by Stanley Baker went to American actor, Forrest Tucker, as part of Hammer’s deal to have a US star in exchange for funding.
The story is set in the Himalayas, where in reality the sight of enormous footprints in the mountains’ snowy passes (identified by no less a figure than Sir Edmund Hillary on his way to conquering Everest several years earlier) had turned the mythical Yeti into a bona fide monster mystery. Rollason heads a botanical expedition that is staying in a Tibetan monastery. A second group of ‘scientists’ arrives, led by Dr Tom Friend (Tucker), which claims to be researching the possible existence of the Yeti, and Rollason is persuaded to join them, even at the objections of his wife (Maureen Connell) and the temple’s Lama. As the expedition reaches ever higher points in the mountain ranges, following possible Yeti tracks and finding itself pursued by unknown assailants, presumably those wishing to protect the creatures’ secrecy, it emerges that Friend wants nothing less than to achieve fame by capturing a live beast and returning with it to America. Tensions rise between the two men, the avaricious Friend and Rollason, motivated by nobler instincts. Other members of the company start dying, the creatures close in, and the potential that they could be cut off, stuck in some high, desolate place far away from civilisation, becomes a terrifying possibility.
The film is given an air of authenticity as those mountain passes look real enough, though as Cushing explained in his memoirs, a back lot at Bray Studios in Berkshire was covered in tonnes of salt to represent snow, whilst the production designer, Bernard Robinson, constructed an authentic Tibetan village even with the limited financial resources he could call upon. Later, the same lot would become a Transylvanian village for Dracula, Baron Frankenstein’s home village of Karlsbad, Dartmoor for Hammer’s version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, even India when The Stranglers of Bombay was being filmed there, an impressive recycling of props and sets for the seemingly never ending line of productions. Additional filming, the long shots of explorers traversing the mountain routes that required none of the principal actors, took place high in the Pyrenees.
Best of all is the treatment of the Yeti itself. In an era when many of Hammer’s films presented their monsters as purely evil, there’s nothing abominable about this film’s snowmen. Rather, in witnessing the follies of mankind and awaiting the human race’s capacity to destroy itself, it becomes clear the Yeti have opted for living in secrecy until this moment, and the wise likes of the Lama recognises and supports their wishes. Rollason comes across the same truth, setting up his climactic clash of ideals with Friend, and his ultimate decision to deny the expedition came across anything when he’s eventually rescued. Considering the demand for gaudy thrills, the film’s sympathetic treatment of the Yeti comes across as a nice humanist touch, though upon its release it was clear this did not chime with what the public wanted and ensured The Abominable Snowman, unlike The Curse of Frankenstein, made little impact with audiences. A shame, considering the largely successful effort to create an atmosphere of paranoid claustrophobia into which the Yeti need to make little impact.
The Abominable Snowman: ****