Matthew Kresal sees it with someone brave...
While Hammer Films is best remembered today for their horror movies, in their time the company also produced a number of other films that didn't quite fit into that genre. One of those films was The Abominable Snowman from 1957. Based on the now lost BBC TV production The Creature from two years earlier, the film reunited two of the creative minds behind Hammer's successful Quatermass films: writer Nigel Kneale (who also wrote the original BBC TV version of The Creature) and director Val Guest. The result is a film that, close to six decades later, stands out as one of the company's very best.
Certainly The Abominable Snowman has a good cast. Hammer regular Peter Cushing gives the film's best performance as Dr. John Rollason, a character who is almost an exact opposite to his well known Hammer character, Van Helsing of Dr. Frankenstein. Cushing plays Rollason as a quiet, thoughtful scientist who finds that his curiosity has teamed up with an expedition that might not have the same goal he has. Leading that expedition is American Tom Friend, played by Forrest Tucker in a somewhat over the top fashion that undermines the reality of the rest of the film. Also on the expedition are photographer Andrew McNee (Michael Brill), hunter-type Ed Shelley (Robert Brown) and their guide Kusang (Wolfe Morris) who all give serviceable performances in their roles. Helping to round out the cast are Maureen Connell as Rollason's wife, Richard Wattis as their assistance Dr. Fox and Arnold Marle as the Lhama of the monastery that those two character's spend the film at. While there aren't any great performances, the cast does a good job in bringing their respective character's to life.
The film has some good production values. The sets are a bit mixed, in that the ones used for the monastery look good and are well done, while the majority of the film, which takes place in the Himalayas, looks like exactly what it actually is: a studio set trying to pass off as the Himalayas. The problem of the mountain sets is exacerbated by the fact that there are a large number of shots of the expedition climbing real mountains, and this makes the fake ones appear even more obvious. Having said that, the actual shots (filmed in the French Pyrenees) are beautifully done in stark black and white, this helps sell the reality that director Val Guest brought to the first two Hammer Quatermass films and to this film as well. This reality is sold even more by Guest choosing to use a classic horror film technique when it comes to the titular creature by showing us just a bit of the Abominable Snowman at a time, and the end result isn't disappointing even fifty years on. While the production values aren't the most lavish ever seen, they serve the film well for the most part.
The real star of the film is the Nigel Kneale script. It is many things: part adventure film, part psychological horror/sci-fi film. It's an adventure film for much of its length as Rollason joins the expedition in search of the Abominable Snowman, despite the warnings of both his wife and the Lhama of the monastery. Suddenly though the film switches gears, becoming a psychological horror/sci-fi film as paranoia and fear sweep through the men, while Rollason pieces together the truth behind the Abominable Snowman's existence. In doing so, Kneale explores the themes he would come back to time after time in his other scripts, such as Quatermass And The Pit and The Stone Tape: the idea that there is a scientific explanation to the supernatural. Kneale uses this idea to ultimately take what could have been a simple adventure film and instead create a fable about man's place in the natural world. This is perhaps even more relevant today then it was in the 1950s.
While it's true that some performances aren't much more then serviceable and some of the sets are very obvious, there's more than just that to this film. Indeed, it is the performance of Peter Cushing, combined with the realistic direction of Val Guest and the script from Nigel Kneale that give this movie much of its staying power even today. As a result of those three elements, The Abominable Snowman stands up as one of Hammer's best films.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.