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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

‘The Abominable Snowman’: The Ambitious Adventure That Was Overshadowed By Hammer’s Monster Icons [Hammer Factory]

While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.

In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.

Welcome to the Hammer Factory. This month we dissect The Abominable Snowman (1957).

The Context

In the early days of the studio, Hammer primarily survived on what was known as “quota quickies”. The UK parliament had instituted a requirement that British theaters house a minimum quota of British pictures, creating a manufactured, in-house market that was designed to provide an economic boon to the UK motion picture industry. Hammer capitalized on this, farming low cost cinema from popular British entertainment sources, like television and radio, and reconfiguring what was already working on the small screen for the silver one.

At the same time, little entertainment in the country was more ubiquitously consumed than the BBC’s live weekend theater presentations. While the stories presented could range from pulp science fiction to Shakespeare, it was the former that Hammer was most interested in and would seek to adapt. While the strategy kept them afloat for many years, it also kickstarted their foray into more horror and science fiction fare with the success of their The Quatermass Experiment (1953) adaptation in 1955.

As tales of mysticism and the unknown grew continuously more popular, the real world’s curiosities began to mirror those featured on the screen. Tales of large, unexplained footprints emerged from expeditions in the Himalayas and even sparked a heavily publicized, million dollar trek to seek out the existence of the yeti from the Daily Mail newspaper in 1954. Inspired by these events, Nigel Kneale, creator of the The Quatermass Experiment serial, wrote The Creature (1955), a tale of ambiguous morality that was more concerned with the cost of man’s thirst for dominance over nature than the assumed brute force of some hitherto undiscovered snow beast.

Bolstered by the same public interest that inspired the BBC to produce The Creature and given the success of their version of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), the studio acquired the rights and brought on Nigel Kneale to write and Quatermass director Val Guest to direct a remake. Keeping in mind his own misgivings about Val Guest’s Quatermass adaptation, Kneale turned in a script that closely matched his original teleplay titled The Snow Creature, what would go on to become The Abominable Snowman (1957). While Guest and Kneale did not necessarily see eye to eye on certain narrative choices— Guest’s distaste for Kneale’s proclivity for long, uninterrupted blocks of dialogue, for example— Guest brought his same documentary style approach to the film that he did to Quatermass, providing an intimate and provocative perspective that proved to be invaluable to the finished film.

The project became a fairly ambitious one for Hammer, shooting over a week of second unit footage with director Val Guest and cinematographer Arthur Grant on location in the French Pyrenees with a French crew. Peter Cushing was brought on to star, having appeared in the original teleplay and a household name in own right as a result of his frequent television appearances. Elaborate monastery sets were constructed at Bray Studios by Bernard Robinson. Still, Bray did not offer up enough space for the scope the filmmakers had hoped to achieve, so moving, snow-based sets were constructed at Pinewood studios, enabling a constantly shifting landscape of controlled locations and allowing the French Pyrenees and the enclosed UK sound stages to share a copacetic co-existence on screen.

Then, in June of 1957, two months before the release of The Abominable Snowman, everything changed. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) hit cinemas to astronomical financial success, skyrocketing Hammer’s position in the marketplace and providing them with a direct line to major American Studio distribution. The “quota quickie” was, in an instant, a thing of the past, and Hammer’s interests shifted to grander productions with wider reach.

The Abominable Snowman was met with relatively favorable reviews and financial returns, but its quiet, methodical, more thought-provoking approach was pushed aside by audiences in the wake of the raw, visceral power of The Curse of Frankenstein. Coupled with the public’s ever waning interest in the tall tales of Himalayan yetis, the film fell into obscurity for a time, sandwiched between Peter Cushing’s first turn as the Baron and Christopher Lee’s emergence as the bloodthirsty Count in Dracula (1958) only a year later.

Even still, The Abominable Snowman stands as a prime example of how poised and ready Hammer was to bring budget-minded absorbing tales of science, myth, terror and intrigue to the public consciousness. Epic in scope while intimate in presentation, the film exhibits the same empathetic view of its titular creature that would go on to so define the very best of their “Golden Age” work only a few years later. While it may have come out in the wake of The Curse of Frankenstein, it stands as the perfect transitory film from one era of Hammer’s filmmaking to the next and one of the studio’s more fascinating efforts.

The Film

“This creature may have an affinity for man, something in common with ourselves. Let’s remember that before we start shooting.”

The bells of Humphrey Searle’s stirring score toll as snow covered mountaintops fade into view over the title credits. Long expanses of white tipped mountain ranges wash over the frame as the ominous music swells, inviting the viewer to consider the uncharted territory captured on screen and what it is that might dwell there.

The majesty of the peaks carries the film to a remote monastery, an ancient place containing culture, customs and mysticisms all its own. And amidst the various chants, statues and symbols which adorn the weathered stone walls is Dr. John Rollason and his assistant Peter Fox, played by Peter Cushing and Richard Wattis respectively, there to study and to learn. It’s here that The Abominable Snowman first reveals its aims, dissecting the virtues and motivations of the self-labeled civilized and the alien places those same people seek to chart, expose and, in essence, claim.

Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of his own teleplay is far more interested in the philosophical impetuses of the search for the great snowy beast than it is in the horror such an animal might be capable of bringing about. Brought to cool, calculated life by the documentary style of Val Guest’s assured direction and Arthur Grant’s striking photography, The Abominable Snowman is a quiet, haunting tale that draws dread and interest from thoughtful conversation and the cosmically claustrophobic feeling that strikes when attempting to explore those places where man was not meant to tread.

What begins as a botanical expedition quickly transitions into a quest with far loftier aims. While speaking with the Llama, in a playfully cryptic turn by the unfortunately racially inappropriate casting of Arnold Marlé, Rollason reveals that a second team will soon arrive, a fact that the Llama seems wary of. As evidenced by Rollason’s assistant’s aversion to the monastery’s method of preparing tea earlier in the scene, the outside world is rarely willing to engage in their own, even in the most benign fashion.

In short order, Rollason and Fox are joined by Dr. Tom Friend and his crew. They have come to seek the Abominable Snowman, the fabled Yeti, something that even Rollason has kept secret. Played with a cocky liveliness, Forrest Tucker’s Tom Friend barrels into the film like a bulldozer, serving as a fitting foil for Peter Cushing’s more sensitive, scientifically minded Dr. Rollason. Once again, culture clashes, only this time amongst those from the supposed civilized world, intelligence and forethought taking a backseat to pure, undiluted force of will.

Staying behind with Fox is Rollason’s wife Helen, played with impressive strength and reserve by Maureen Connell. She objects to the expedition full-heartedly, as does the Llama, suggesting that the perilous, icy landscapes beyond the monastery hold nothing but certain doom for those foolish enough to traverse them. Beyond that, she does not trust Friend who clearly has more on his mind than scientific discovery.

The film indulges in a great deal of conversation on the subject of science versus entertainment, Rollason viewing the prospect of the creature’s existence purely as an important discovery. To Rollason, the creature offers a chance to uncover evolutionary secrets hitherto unknown to mankind and perhaps unlock something hidden about his very self. Friend, on the other hand, despite having pitched the search to Rollason in agreement with the scientist’s own terms, embarks on his mission with a militaristic, consumerist mindset. The beast is a rarity that can be captured, packaged and sold— a ticket to fame and fortune that was worth fighting for, at any cost.

The film is impressive to behold, the location footage that was captured with a second unit in the French Pyrenees cutting together remarkably well with the principle cast’s footage captured on sound stages at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios in the UK. Director Val Guest drew extensive storyboards prior to filming, ensuring that every motion throughout the great snowy trek was carefully plotted and therefore more easily replicated and matched across the edit.

The effect is a film that feels far bigger in budget and scope than Hammer was thought to have been capable of producing. There’s a grand, almost existential emptiness to the vast amount of white space the characters are attempting to brave that not only puts their squabbles about fame, fortune and even science into perspective, but all of humanity’s exploits in the name of its often bloated sense of self-importance. While the film is never frightening or scary, it’s during these dark, cold sequences, when the conversations turn to the worth and viability of man as compared to the perhaps mythical, hidden beasts they have become so obsessed with that dread rises as the dominant emotion emanating from the frame.

This dread bubbles to the surface when they discover large footprints in the snow. The crew, exhausted and afraid, grow sloppier and more honest in their aims. Disagreements evolve into shouting matches, poorly laid traps result in life-threatening injuries and when a Yeti does reveal itself, trapper Ed Shelley (Robert Brown) shoots it dead. While the beast is never shown on screen, its giant, clawed hand is visible, the lifeless appendage of something wondrous that mankind’s immediate, visceral response to was nothing short of violent destruction.

Peter Cushing does an impressive job of tracing a character driven by curiosity and discovery as he’s crushed by the realities of the desires of the world that he represents. As those in the crew fall or abandon, he’s left to come to terms with the fact that the superior race may not be the ones forcing their way into the uninhabitable unknown to exploit its mysteries, rather the beings that are able to call such a place their home. Perhaps, it is those who are in hiding that are waiting for those in plain sight to become extinct and not the other way around.

The Yetis do not ever fully appear in the film, despite glimpses of their shadows and snatching claws. However, as the story approaches its conclusion, the creatures visit a cave to retrieve their fallen compatriot, pulling the body from the arms of those who wished to carry it back to the world in the stead of profit and fame. It’s in that moment that a beam of light falls across the face of one of the creatures, illuminating his eyes, and Rollason sees them for what they truly are.

Played briefly but beautifully by Fred Johnson, the eyes reflect not malice or a desire for vengeance, but a benign, almost sad sense of ageless understanding. Not simply intelligence but empathy is cast from its somber gaze and it becomes quite clear who it is in the film’s runtime that’s truly deserving of the label “abominable”.

In the end, after Helen mounts a rescue mission and inexplicably locates her husband, miraculously in the open and directly in her path as if aided by some unseen guardians, they return to the monastery to have a final meeting with the Llama. When asked, Rollason confirms that the Yeti is a myth to which the Llama responds in kind. “There is no Yeti,” he says carefully, confidently and with a hint of finality in his voice. Indeed, there is nothing for man in the towering mountains above them— at least, nothing that is theirs to claim.

The Abominable Snowman is a lofty examination of what it means to be human by way of the individual’s affair with their own superiority above all else, including one another. Nigel Kneale’s screenplay, while often a bit dialogue heavy, is endlessly fascinating, made all the more engaging by way of Val Guest’s sharp eye for cinematic interpretation. While it may have seemed outdated releasing on the heels of The Curse of Frankenstein, the film is the sort of intelligent, thoughtful filmmaking that stands thematically alongside the genre’s great outings, like The Thing From Another World (1951) or Hammer and Val Guest’s own The Quatermass Xperiment.

The film concludes as the music swells and vast snowy cliffs pass slowly by. It’s a world of impassable peril; untrod, untouched and unowned. There is much to consider in those places where humanity can’t so easily reach, possibilities that illuminate the imagination, spark the flame of ingenuity and ignite the engine of raw, untethered will. But, it’s important to remember, as one stares into the abyss, thinking of all that the great beyond might hold in store for them, that what’s staring back might just be thinking the exact same thing.

The Special Features

This release comes equipped with the original UK HD master of the film as well as its original uncut version with SD inserts, amounting to just under 5 minutes of additional footage. While grain and print damage does mar the presentation, the scope and breadth of the world the film is attempting to capture does translate well. The DTS-Master Mono Audio track suffers from some wavering of dialogue and some odd tonal shifts at times, but ultimately presents the film’s striking score and conversation heavy runtime in a pleasing listening experience. All told, the presentation of the film is not without its flaws, but is sourced from the absolute best available elements and is an appreciated package that preserves this key picture in Hammer’s filmography in its entirety for the first time on Blu-ray disc in the US.

Audio Commentary, by Filmmaker/Film Historian Ted Newsom

(New: 2019, produced by Shout Factory)

Filmmaker and Film Historian Ted Newsome provides a thoughtful and detailed commentary track that examines the history of the film, its thematics and the context of the times in which it was conceived.

He talks at length about the project’s impetus as a live drama on the BBC and the path with which Nigel Kneale, Val Guest and Hammer Studios took getting it to the big screen. He discusses the impressive filmmaking at work, the way the on-location expedition sequences both do and do not cut together and the spectacular on-set work done by Les Bowie and Bernard Robinson. It’s an enjoyable and informative track that offers a great deal of insight regarding the film and its creatives.

Audio Commentary, by Director Val Guest and Screenwriter Nigel Kneale

(2000, produced by Anchor Bay)

Director Val Guest and Screenwriter Nigel Kneale speak at length about the creative process behind The Abominable Snowman and their memories of Hammer Studios at the time in this track ported over from the 2000 Anchor Bay release of the film on DVD.

Admittedly, the track is slow, dry and peppered with silence as the two men offer up their recollections of the people, places and creative processes regarding the then 40 some odd year old picture. But, despite its flaws, the track is a fascinating journey for those seeking to unearth the intricacies of the film and the Hammer system of making movies at the time. Beyond that, it’s heartening to listen to Val Guest talk about the performers and the familial relationship they all had with one another, making for a consistently positive creative experience that fueled much of the projects they embarked on with one another.

In Search of the Yeti — Author/Film Historian Jonathan Rigby on The Abominable Snowman (23:01)

(New: 2019, produced by Shout Factory)

In lieu of a making-of feature, Author and Historian Jonathan Rigby steps in to provide a more brief and digestible rundown of the history of the film and its legacy than what can be found in the included commentary tracks.

Rigby tracks the evolution of Hammer’s properties from The Quatermass Xperiment to The Curse of Frankenstein, speaking to how the tragic human monster trope was very much on the top of Hammer’s collective minds when they embarked on The Abominable Snowman. He covers the real life public fascination with the yeti and how Nigel Kneale decided to capitalize on it as well as the way Kneale realized archetypal characters to tackle the vaguely imperialist and most certainly racist elements identified in the finished film. It’s an interesting look at the picture and its subtextual goings on and the most breezy way on the disc to get such a thorough analysis.

World of Hammer — Peter Cushing (24:49)

(1990, Hammer Film Productions)

Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing appears on the screen as Oliver Reed’s iconic voice over reminds the viewer, “For two decades Peter Cushing was one of the most recognizable ingredients of the Hammer film.”

This SD episode of the 90’s retrospective TV series tracks Peter Cushing’s most iconic roles across movies such as Dracula, Brides of Dracula (1960), The Mummy (1959), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), Fear in the Night (1972), Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974) and The Abominable Snowman. Key scenes from the films are shown, such as Van Helsing’s staking of Lucy and Rollason’s interaction with a yeti, as Oliver Reed provides context. As always, the episode is a fun, nostalgic way to traverse the formidable actor’s Hammer career.

Trailers From Hell — Director Joe Dante on The Abominable Snowman (2:16)

(2013, Trailers From Hell)

Director Joe Dante appears to ask, “Quick! Think of a good movie about the Abominable Snowman… hard isn’t it?” in this ported over trailer commentary from the website “Trailers From Hell”.

Beginning by announcing that the film is probably the only good picture made about the subject, Dante goes on to provide a rundown of the plot and a brief background of the film. He talks about the impressive location shooting and the sobering narrative. He touches on his friendship with Nigel Kneale and admits that while the film didn’t make much of a ripple in the end, he considers The Abominable Snowman one of Hammer’s best. It’s an incredibly brief but fun perspective on the film from one of the genre’s greatest creative voices.

Theatrical Trailer (1:44)

Men search a long expanse of snow as an announcer says dramatically, “You’ve heard of him, haven’t you?”

The viewer is told that the “world’s most shocking monster” is “coming to this theater!” As people scream and hurry around a snowy campsite in the darkness, the same announcer taunts, “We dare you! Dare you to see The Abominable Snowman!” A gun fires and an avalanche roars down a mountain as the title appears, suggesting a far more action packed thrill-ride than The Abominable Snowman will go on to deliver.

Image Gallery (5:31)

Lobby cards, production photography, on-set stills, posters of all sizes, newspaper advertisements and international artwork grace the screen in a slideshow that presents a thorough look at the marketing campaign and general feel of the film from the time in which it was made and distributed.

Final Thoughts

In 1955, Nigel Kneale’s The Creature premiered as a live broadcast on the BBC, playing to all of those fears and fascinations the public had been harboring since first hearing the rumors of unexplained footprints in the towering, snowy heights of the Himalayas. Given the program’s popularity and Hammer’s own success with another Nigel Kneale penned property The Quatermass Xperiment, it seemed the next logical project for the studio to embark on, bringing along Quatermass director Val Guest to replicate the creative magic they had captured within mere months of The Creature’s air date.

What followed was ambitious even for Hammer, an attempt to add the kind of production value normally reserved for large, studio-funded fare, expanding beyond Bray Studios and even filming for a week in the French Pyrenees. Maintaining the quietly dramatic sensibilities of the teleplay while infusing it with cinematic scope and visual breadth apparent in everything from Bernard Robinson’s impressive sets to Humphrey Searle’s stirring score, The Abominable Snowman emerged as one of Hammer’s best BBC adaptations or “quota quickie”.

What Val Guest and Nigel Kneale hadn’t anticipated was the impact of another film that was being made concurrently with their own, sharing the same actor in the lead role. Hitting screens several months ahead of The Abominable Snowman, Terrence Fisher’s Peter Cushing starring The Curse of Frankenstein was an instant success, not only altering audience’s expectations regarding what a Hammer film might deliver but the studio’s perspective toward the films it would go on to produce. The “quota quickie” model was a thing of the past and the gothic, mature revisioning of the classic monsters was underway.

By the time The Abominable Snowman was released, it already felt outdated in the face of The Curse of Frankenstein and certainly when compared to Hammer’s Dracula which would come the following year. The film performed well enough with critics and audiences, but with attentions focused on Frankenstein and Dracula, there was little capacity left in the public’s collective consciousness to pay much more than fleeting attention to a quiet story regarding mankind’s ill-advised trek into the dark and freezing unknown.

In retrospect the film is an obvious step forward in the studio’s evolution. Crafting scope and story on the level of a studio film with little of the resources, The Abominable Snowman is an impressive adventure that forges its dread from the mistrust and animosity shared between its main characters as opposed to the “monster” they’re so dead-set on tracking down. An incredibly thoughtful picture, the film is a clear stepping stone to the sorts of character driven, empathetic monster tales the studio would go on to become so well regarded for, The Curse of Frankenstein included.

Scream Factory delivers the film in its entirety for the first time on Blu-ray, providing an HD transfer with SD inserts, ensuring its preservation. While the picture and sound quality does not always hold up as well as some of their other efforts, the package is an admirable one and, based on what’s available, perhaps the best possible version that can be expected. As always, the features are comprehensive, providing history, context and insight invaluable to the study of the film as well as Hammer Studios’ legacy at large.

The Abominable Snowman may not be one of Hammer’s best known films but perhaps it should be, falling at an important time of transition for the studio and functioning as a touchstone of what they did best in the 1950’s and the type of storytelling they would go on to perfect as the 1960’s dawned. Beautifully photographed, smartly conceived and engagingly performed, The Abominable Snowman merges science, myth, intrigue and dread in a manner that stands alongside the best films of its ilk. Caught between two of the titans of Hammer’s quickly approaching “Golden Age”, the film’s impact was as quiet as its narrative and, all of these years later, just as powerful.


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