Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

Cryptozoology ("the study of and search for animals and especially legendary animals [as Sasquatch] usually in order to evaluate the possibility of their existence," as defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary) is something which has fascinated me since I was a child. To be sure, it has fascinated legions of people over time. And yet, it is rarely the actual proving or disproving of a creature's existence which captivates our interest. No, it is the mystique of the unknown which rouses us and keeps us watching. The actual animals, once illuminated by the sterilizing light of day, become mundane, banal, taken for granted. But as long as they continue to elude us in the remotest parts of the world and the deepest, sodden depths and the farthest reaches of outer space (okay, extraterrestrials are not really considered cryptozoological, but work with me here), our minds will continue to dance with a million possibilities, and we will continue to be sated. Until new "evidence" rears its inevitable head, that is. 

Dr. John Rollason (Peter Cushing) is studying the mysterious medicinal plants harvested by the monks of a Tibetan monastery in the Himalayas. However, what John hasn't told anyone is he is waiting for Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker) and his party to arrive so they can head up the mountain. To everyone's disappointment, John and Friend are fixated on finding the legendary abominable snowman. As the expedition encroaches farther into the beasts' territory, the men begin to realize that the Yeti may be more than just an unthinking brute.

Of all the cryptozoologically-based films (Loch Ness Horror, Curse Of Bigfoot, Night Of The Demon, etcetera), Val Guest's The Abominable Snowman is without a doubt the best. It is distinguished from its brethren primarily by not being borne of exploitation. Certainly, it has elements of exploitation. The premise alone is testament to that fact. Yet, there's very little blood, no nudity, and a point to the film rather than just getting it up on theater screens. Interestingly, the same film studio that produced this film (Hammer) would, the very same year, add bright red blood and gobs of cleavage to their gothic horror films (beginning with Curse Of Frankenstein) and make themselves a household name (at least to fans of horror).

Hammer films always had an air of class to them, even in their later, more explicit fare. There was a high degree of production value onscreen, and the filmmakers were unafraid to take their time in telling their stories. It lent a traditional feel to films that had a more modern sensibility in terms of permissiveness. You almost felt like you were going to school when you watched a Hammer picture, only the instructor had rather large fangs. This film is no different. The widescreen frame is used in its entirety, and Guest moves the camera smoothly through the detailed sets, taking in everything it can. The cinematography by Arthur Grant is exquisite, with deep pools of black and three-dimensional lighting that distinguishes what could very easily have looked like a flat expanse of white. I would also like to mention here that there are a few lens flares in the film that instantly put me in mind of Dean Cundey's work with John Carpenter. Never a bad thing.

The film is concerned with an intellectual, rather than a visceral sense of horror. Screenwriter Nigel Kneale deserves the credit for this, I suspect. Known for the "Quatermass" series of films and television productions, Kneale's work has always looked beyond the surface of things and come up with new ways of seeing the world around us (yes, I own a copy of the Kneale biography, Into The Unknown, and no, I haven't had a chance to read it yet). Here, he posits the notion that the Yetis are not only a third branch of man's evolution (the "Missing Link" they've always been thought to be) but possibly a more advanced one which is hiding out in the hinterlands for a very specific reason. They also act as mythological sirens and banshees, calling out to lure men to their deaths and presaging their demise, though there's also a less paranormal explanation for this effect in the film. Nonetheless, according to John, the creatures' faces contain sadness, wisdom, and gentleness. Kneale's writing credits the viewer with a modicum of intelligence, and that's something I think viewers appreciate (usually).

The characters are fleshed out nicely, too. Friend is the ostensible villain, but he's not one-dimensional. He has goals and reasons for doing what he does. Taking the "ugly American" role, Tucker does an admirable job portraying a man driven by hard experience into making bad choices. John, by contrast, is not a lily-white hero figure, though he is more empathic (and empathetic) than the others. In the struggle of brain versus brawn, the survivors of the ordeal will be determined not by physical strength but by strength of character. And even then, there are no guarantees.

The filmmakers wisely keep the snowmen in shadows, only showing us an arm or eyes, just enough so we get the basic idea. To display the costumes in full would rob them of their enigmatic presence. They would be just guys in hairy costumes. Like Val Lewton very successfully proved earlier in films like The Cat People and The Leopard Man, the power of suggestion is worth more than any hundred effects shots, no matter how well-done. Allowing the viewer to complete the image in their own mind is, ironically, more potent than simply giving the audience what it thinks it wants. This is why the best performers and comedians live by the motto "always leave them wanting more." 

The Abominable Snowman also wisely uses three of Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's seven basic conflicts: Man Against Man, Man Against Nature, and Man Against Himself. This, in and of itself is not particularly noteworthy, but in this film the conflicts are all taking place at the same time to the same people. It's not just John trying to stop Friend from attacking what he shouldn't. But he has to do this while surviving blizzard conditions and unknown creatures and also struggling with his own reasons for being there. It provides a richer, more satisfying story than any one conflict or crosscutting between conflicts could. 

When all is said and done, the filmmakers may not have crafted the single greatest or scariest movie ever. But they did create (in my opinion, anyway) the greatest Bigfoot movie ever. And you should do yourself the favor of tracking this one down.

MVT: It really is a toss-up between Cushing and Kneale (though, honestly, both Guest and Grant could just as easily be included in this melee). However, since the likelihood of me covering another Cushing film is higher than another Kneale film (but one never knows), I'll go with Mr. Kneale on this one. If you've never seen anything written by this man, you're in for a treat.

Make Or Break: The first night shot on the mountain is absolutely stunning. There's a heavy fog that blankets the set in strata, the characters are nothing more than silhouettes, and it is damn near a perfect cinematographic composition, to my eyes. 

Score: 7.5/10

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