An unfairly forgotten Hammer Films classic

DVD coverA couple of years ago, my younger brother — a devout fan of monster movies and cryptozoology — told me that he had recently seen the old British science fiction picture THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN, and that he liked it quite a bit.

“You’re crazy,” I replied, “that old piece of shit… the one with Forrest Tucker?” I had completely forgotten that it was a Hammer Film and had actually starred Peter Cushing. Vague childhood memories of viewings on a Chicago UHF TV channel bubbled up; I seemed to recall that when the eponymous monster(s) finally showed up towards the end of the show, they just looked like old, albeit tall, men with soulful eyes and penis-shaped noses. BIG disappointment for a nine-year-old!

“No, I’m serious,” he said. “It was actually very, very good.” As he also thinks THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK is also “very, very good,” I chalked his opinion up to low critical thresholds or high consumption of beer.

And promptly forgot about it.

Recently, while spending an enjoyable time surfing through Glenn Erickson’s terrific DVD Savant website, I happened along his review of THE CRAWLING EYE (a.k.a. THE TROLLENBERG TERROR,) another old British science fiction vehicle for Forrest Tucker. I had less-than-fond memories of that picture also, primarily due to its laughable no-budget special effects. Erickson gave it high marks for its writing and direction, however, noting its tight construction and sustained, mounting suspense. So, figuring I had nothing to lose other than a quickly-turned-over Netflix rental, I decided to check it out. Following a link from THE CRAWLING EYE review, I read his piece on the 1957 THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. “What the hell?” I figured, “it’s Hammer, it’s got Peter Cushing; maybe it’s worth another look, after 40 years.”

THE CRAWLING EYE was actually pretty decent; much better than I remembered it. Production values were low, but not horrible enough to take me out of the story. Until the end… sadly, the FX for the airstrike on the monsters is on par with a “Laser Cats” sketch on SNL. But I digress: the movie as a whole is very intelligently crafted. It’s well-written, well-acted, really well-edited, with a nicely foreboding sense of mounting danger, and with a couple of nicely-done shock scenes with the titular eyeballs.

But enough of that, I’m here to talk about THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. And the unreliability of childhood memory. Because this is an excellent, bordering on great, movie! Written by Nigel Kneale, based on an earlier BBC teleplay of his, and deftly directed by Val Guest, this is one of my favorite sub-sub genres: the science fiction/horror adventure story.

As a brief synopsis: Dr. John Rollason (Peter Cushing), is a botanist searching for new plant discoveries in the Himalayas. Staying in a Lhamasery with his wife and assistant, he has arranged to meet up with the American Dr. Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker). Doctor Friend is arranging a small-scale expedition into the high peaks of the Himalayas to search for the legendary Yeti — that’s the abominable snowman to the likes of you and me. With a minimum of arm twisting, Friend convinces RollasonPeter Cushing and Forrest Tucker in one of many debates about the expedition\'s purpose to accompany him, over the objections of both Mrs. Rollason and the local High Lhama (who seems to have an agenda of his own… heh-heh-heh).

The expedition sets off, trouble ensues, much danger and many discoveries present themselves. It turns out Doctor Friend is not possessed of quite the high aspirations as he originally seemed. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and it’s up to the wise and kindly Dr. Rollason to try to make things right. Yetis do indeed show up, and maybe they’re not all they’ve been made out to be, either.

The dénouement of the show as an unexpectedly, unsettling apocalyptic feel. It’s hinted that the Yeti, as a race, are destined to inherit the Earth; they’re simply biding their time, waiting patiently for humankind to destroy itself. The High Lhama has been acting as as a sort of gatekeeper for access to the Yeti, he’s actually guarding them from human discovery. It’s an unusually sophisticated concept for a low-budget Hammer exploitation picture, and gives the whole project a nice sense of gravitas.

Low-budget Hammer production as it may be, THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN is strikingly well-made. The script is literate; the direction and editing are crisp and sure. The production design by Hammer warhorse Bernard Robinson gives an impressive, soundstage-bound “classic movie” feel. As does the crisp black-and-white cinematography — filmed in “Hammerscope,” a widescreen process that adds to the production’s terrific look.

The acting is up to the usual British film standards. Peter Cushing, as ever, is impeccable. I can’t think of too many other actors who can convincingly combine the intellectual with the physical; Indiana Jones has nothing on Cushing’s scientist/swashbuckler. Forrest Tucker gives one of the best performances of his career. Robert Brown (007’s boss M in the 1980s Bond films) is a standout is a wiley trapper a little too sure of his professional expertise. And Arnold Marle is simultaneously dignified, wise, gentle, mysterious, and spooky as the High Lhama.

Really, I can’t say enough good things about this largely-forgotten movie. It’s well deserving of “classic” status, at least within the confines of the SF and horror genres. If that’s the sort of thing you like, then this is the sort of thing you’d really like.

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