From the mid 1950s to the early 1970s, the U.K.’s Hammer Film Productions ruled the roost in the field of cinematic horror. Hammer’s movies were in sharp contrast to the black and white monster productions of the 1930s and 1940s, which starred the likes of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Cheney, Jr. Hammer went for full-on gore, bright red blood splashed here, there, and everywhere, and lots of hot, buxom babes. And the audiences (unsurprisingly!) loved it!
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967) are just four of dozens of productions from Hammer that became firm favorites with horror fans.
There was one movie from Hammer that was in sharp contrast to what viewers generally expected of Hammer. Its title was The Abominable Snowman (which was released in the United States as The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.).
Made in 1957, The Abominable Snowman is very different to just about everything else ever put out by Hammer. First, it was shot in black and white. Second, there is not a single, heaving breast in sight (never mind a pair of them). Third, the movie relies far more on atmosphere than it does on-screen horror and blood. Nevertheless, it does contain one key, Hammer ingredient: its star, actor Peter Cushing, who, along with Christopher Lee, helped to steer the movie company to massive success.
The movie was based upon a story called The Creature, which was penned in 1955 by screenwriter Nigel Kneale and that was turned into a show for the BBC in the same year. Kneale was also the brains behind Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit – a movie that focused on stories of spectral-like ape-men deep within the London Underground rail-system.
One might be forgiven for assuming that a Hammer movie that dealt with the legendary Yeti of the Himalayas would be filled with crazed creatures, severed bodies, and blood-soaked mountains. Not so.
The Abominable Snowman primarily focuses on the character of Dr. John Rollason, played by Cushing – a role that he had portrayed in the BBC’s 1955 TV version of Kneale’s story. Rollason is on an expedition to the Himalayas with his wife, Helen, and a colleague, Peter Fox.
Although the reason for the expedition is chiefly to study the area’s plant life, Rollason has a fascination for the tales of the Yeti – something which is increased when the trio visits the monastery of a Tibetan lama (played by Arnold Marle, who appeared in a number of horror movies in that era, including The Snake Woman and The Man Who Could Cheat Death) and meets with a certain Tom Friend – an American monster-hunter who is determined to catch or kill a Yeti and present it to the world.
Although most cinema-goers of the day were not aware of it, the character of Tom Friend (played by Forrest Tucker who, one year later, starred in another creature-feature: The Strange World of Planet X) was clearly based upon a real-life Yeti seeker named Tom Slick.
A somewhat enigmatic character, Slick could be accurately described as a combination of Indiana Jones and James Bond. Born into big money in San Antonio, Texas, Slick traveled the world in hot pursuit of strange creatures and is alleged to have done off-the-record work for the CIA, using his Yeti-hunting expeditions as a convenient way to spy on the Chinese.
In The Abominable Snowman, Friend and Rollason join forces and head off in search of the beast – much to the concern of Helen (actress Maureen Connell). The duo is not alone: also along for the adventure is a guide named Kusang; Ed Shelley, who is an expert animal-tracker; and a photographer, Andrew McNee. They head up to the Himalayas, determined to solve the mystery of the Abominable Snowman, once and for all.
As the movie progresses we see disaster upon disaster, and calamity upon calamity occur. McNee is badly injured when he steps on one of Shelley’s steel-traps. Worse follows when Kusang flees the area, McNee falls to his death, and Shelley dies too – but not before the group actually manages to shoot and kill a Yeti.
It quickly becomes clear to the viewer that there is something deeply mysterious about the dead creature. It’s clearly not just a dumb, brutish animal; in fact, quite the opposite. Hammer demonstrates a great deal of restraint by not showing us any up close and personal images of the slain beast, instead allowing our imaginations to ponder on what it looks like.
The comrades of the dead animal are understandably enraged and they set out to ensure that the group kills no more of their kind. Being a Hammer movie, one might be forgiven for thinking the Yetis systematically tear the adventurers apart, one by one, limb by limb.
Not so: the creatures are actually highly evolved and possess the ability to manipulate the human mind. Voices in the head on the part of Rollason and Friend are put down to a lack of sufficient oxygen at such high altitudes, when they are really due to something much stranger.
A radio that is broken, but which still broadcasts, at least in the mind of Rollason, tells them to leave the area and return to civilization. And the howling cries of dead Shelley plague Friend and, ultimately, lure him to his death in an avalanche. Eventually, there is only Rollason left.
As the movie comes close to its end, and in a particularly eerie scene, we see two immense Yetis reclaim the body of their dead comrade, one of which looms over terrified Rollason. Finally, we get to see its face: far from looking like a giant ape, the beast has an uncanny human-like appearance, its staring eyes exuding wisdom and intelligence.
They are creatures that are determined to stay hidden, at least until the time comes when the Human Race exterminates itself – after which they can reclaim the world that, perhaps thousands of years ago, was once theirs. Rollason is allowed to go free, is reunited with Helen and Peter, and decides to hide the truth of what really occurred on the mountain.
It’s unfortunate that, despite its intelligent and thought-provoking storyline, The Abominable Snowman was not a big hit. It was filled with subtlety, restraint, and monsters that weren’t actually monstrous, after all. That’s not what the viewers wanted, however. Hammer got the message: in 1958, The Revenge of Frankenstein surfaced. In 1959, The Mummy hit cinemas And, in 1961, The Curse of the Werewolf was unleashed. All three were filled with color, blood, and babes.