Friday, July 21, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Abominable Snowman (1957)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Botanist Dr. John Rollason (Peter Cushing), his wife and colleague Helen Rollason (Maureen Connell), and his friend and colleague Peter Fox (Richard Wattis) are spending time in a monastery in the Himalayas to catalogue the local plant life. That the whole botanical business isn't the only reason for Rollason's stay becomes clear when another small expedition, led by the very American Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker), arrives.

John has been hiding from his wife he's been in contact with Friend to help the American in an expedition to the least explored parts of the mountain to find one of John's hobby horses there - the Yeti. Helen is less than amused by her husband keeping this dangerous climbing trip a secret from her until there's no way to keep it secret anymore, especially because the last large scale climbing John took part in nearly killed him and caused him to swear off mountaineering completely. It doesn't help John's case that Helen doesn't believe in the Yeti at all.

Neither Helen nor the monastery's head lama (Arnold Marlé) - who seems particularly interested in people not looking for Yetis - are able to convince John to stay.

So off with Friend, a guide named Kusang (Wolfe Morris), the even more American Ed Shelley (Robert Brown), and a Yeti-haunted greenhorn named McNee (Michael Brill) he goes. The tension between the members of the small expedition mounts once John has copped to the fact that Friend isn't just out to photograph and observe the Yeti, but is in fact on a hunting expedition for a living (or dead) specimen to make a big, international show of P.T. Barnum style. The differences between the men alone would be problem enough, but - this being a SF/horror movie after all - the Yetis themselves are not too keen on letting their existence be known, nor are they dreaming of a freak show career.

The Abominable Snowman was made at a point in the output of Hammer Studios very shortly before the success of their first Frankenstein and Dracula movies would really push their production emphasis in the direction of their own new brand of Gothic horror - though the studio did of course still make films in other genres.

Given that the film is, like The Quatermass Experiment, based on a Nigel Kneale-penned TV film (or mini-series, depending on the source), it will probably not come as much of a surprise to anyone that it's pretty different from the coming wave of Hammer's Gothic horror. Quite like with the Quatermass films, Kneale applies a more cerebral and science-fictional style (and yeah, I know, Kneale said he didn't write SF, but that only proves he was feeling unpleasantly superior to the genre, not that he didn't work in it, see also "squids in space") to typical monster movie tropes.

I don't think Kneale's script is quite as successful as his Quatermass work. It gets a bit draggy in the final third, but it's still thoughtful and intelligent while at the same time putting efforts into holding up the genre-appropriate tension. As is often the case with Kneale, his intelligence is one that puts trust in his viewers to be intelligent themselves, too, so there's nary a hint of unnecessary exposition or of the film telling its audience what to think, yet the script is never vague. Much of the film's qualities lie in Kneale's clever use of telling details, be it his letting the Americans be more racist to what they call "the natives" than Rollason is (though the film's treatment of its Tibetan characters or its lone female character, aren't unproblematic by today’s standards; it's just much better than you can expect from a film made in 1957) without explicitly pointing it out, or just his bothering to think through and explain things like the smallness of Friend's expedition that are dramatically necessary but not exactly realistic.

I also appreciate how Kneale - though it is pretty clear where his sympathies lie - still treats the Americans as actual human beings and not just as symbols for greed and ignorance. They are still shorthand characters, but shorthand characters with the small bit of complexity that makes them more than just parts of Kneale's argument.

Obviously, the most complex script won't take a movie far if the people before or behind the camera aren't up to its standards, but here, too, The Abominable Snowman is in luck.
I hardly need to mention that Cushing (who had played the same role in the TV version) is great, and gives his character just the right mix of a humane softness that makes him believable as the "green", truth-seeking scientist with a physical intensity and energy that makes him believable as a man of action, too. I found it more surprising how well Forrest Tucker - whom I've never pegged as an especially good actor - is able to keep up with Cushing here, but there you have it. The film is of course all the better for having the representatives of its fighting groups of core values both be equally impressively acted.

Director Val Guest always showed his best qualities when it came to adapting Kneale's scripts, too. Guest's direction is far from showy, but if you're actually looking at some of his compositions, or the highly effective way he films the movie's sets, you might realize how effortlessly he emphasizes the script's strengths, deepens the mood and keeps a thought-heavy film moving, while making all this look easy, or rather letting a viewer forget that there's even a need for effort in this sort of filmmaking. Many people writing about movies (I'm definitely not innocent myself here) have a tendency to reserve their greatest praise for the more showy, or just more obviously stylish directors, but there's a real art to a style of direction that makes the director invisible and just lets the film speak for itself.

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