Friday 9 May 2014

HAMMERAMA The Abominable Snowman (1957)

Nigel Kneale's best known contribution to science fiction is, of course, Quatermass. However, he also scripted several other tall tales, one of the best of which, The Creature, was aired as a ninety-minute television play by the BBC in 1955. As with The Quatermass Experiment two years earlier, The Creature was well-enough received to catch the eye of Hammer Film Productions, and was remade as a feature film for in release in 1957.

Like many such early productions, The Creature was not recorded, so we can be very thankful that Hammer chose to buy the rights and develop a cinematic version. The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, to give it its full US title, could like quite clichéd to a modern viewer. Indeed, the English scientist on the trail of a legendary beast wasn't a new story even in the fifties. Professor Challenger was up to this sort of stuff in 1912, and that was a holdover of the classic Victorian explorer trope. Yes, this is all very Boy's Own Adventure stuff, but it's a solid, well-written and well-made example of that genre.

The film is bound to score points with me because it stars Peter Cushing, who reprises his role as Dr. John Rollason from the original. This is still early in Cushing's movie career, only his second film for Hammer, after his big break earlier in the year, The Curse of Frankenstein. The sturdy, gentle and terribly English naturalist Dr. Rollason is a standard Cushing performance, subtly physical and perfectly proper. He outclasses everyone else in the film. He's in a different league to Forrest Tucker, who plays the brash American entrepreneur Dr. Friend. The only reason he's even in this film is to get the film to sell in America. In return for providing an American name actor, co-producer Robert Lippert received the US distribution rights. It's the same reason we got the woefully miscast Brian Donlevy as Quatermass. Still, he might not be the greatest actor, but Tucker fits the arrogant yeti hunter part well.

Keeping the British end up is Richard Wattis, a well-known face in comedy from the fifties and sixties, as Rollason's fretful sidekick Peter Fox. Maureen Connell gets little to do as Helen, Rollason's wife, except exclaim her worries about her husband, until the revised final act, wherein she and Fox mount a rescue. These characters were not in the television version, and while they are a little surplus to requirements for the early part of the film, they allow for a more rounded cast and more complex relationships than otherwise. Arnold Marle is reasonably dignified as the Tibetan lhama, and there are at least some actors of Asian descent in smaller roles. As an aside, I think it's pretty clear that Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln saw either this or the original. Their Doctor Who story The Abominable Snowmen has almost exactly the same set-up and plot beats as this. They added in the alien intelligence and made the yeti robots, but take that away and they're practically the same story.

Very little alteration was made to the script for the movie version, thanks to its already compact running time, although director Val Guest made some uncredited rewrites to speed things up a little. Guest, who had collaborated with Kneale on the two Quatermass adaptations for Hammer, made a good call. While the film is pretty snappy for one of its vintage, it slows down abominably (sorry) in the middle section. Once the premise and location are set-up, the actual hunt for the yeti goes slowly until the final thirty-five minutes, when the Creature itself finally makes itself known.

Wisely, Guest keeps the yeti in the shadows for most of the film, with the explorers only on the cusp of its discovery. This serves the central theme of the story, that of rapacious humans being the true beasts rather than the noble snowmen, and saves them from the impossible task of making a realistic and budget-friendly monster. We receive only glimpses of the Creature, the most significant for much of the film being the huge, hairy hand that rips through the canvas of a tent. Once Rollason finally comes face to face with the beings, a theorised sideline of hominid evolution, we are treated to a glimpse of a face. It's a subtle design and a powerful moment, selling the strength and intelligence of the apelike beings. It's a strong outing for early Hammer, enough of a chill factor to be recognisably theirs but clearly before they had elected which direction they would be following.

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