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Blu-ray Review: “The Abominable Snowman” (1957)

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Movies produced by Britain’s Hammer Films, especially the most famous examples of “Hammer Horror,” are slowly trickling out onto Blu-ray. Generally, up to now, the pattern has been for each picture to debut on Blu-ray first in the United Kingdom then, often months or even a few years later, they’ve been making their way to other parts of the world, including the U.S., mostly with identical transfers and extra features. A few, however, turned up first in Australia, while The Abominable Snowman (1957)*, Val Guest’s film version of Nigel Kneale’s television play, inexplicably debuted in Japan.

Bearing a “Hammer Films Legacy Limited” copyright notice, this Happinet home video release is legitimate, and while the video and audio show no signs of any restoration work, the 1920 x 1080i high-def transfer shows off this early 2.35:1 “Hammerscope” production to good effect.

The movie is an intelligent, tensely exciting adventure-thriller, writer Kneale’s forte. The first two of his “Quatermass” TV plays, “The Quatermass Experiment” (1953) and “Quatermass II” (1955) had both been filmed by Hammer, in 1955 and 1956, Guest directing both. Although Kneale disliked the condensation of his much longer, multi-episode TV serials into relatively short feature films, and especially the casting of American Brian Donlevy in the leading role, both movies are excellent, with Quatermass II among the most intelligent and suspenseful science fiction films ever made. In between these first two Quatermass stories (two more, also superb, eventually followed) Kneale adapted George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954), one of the high-water marks of early British television drama, a production that also made Peter Cushing a star. Next came “The Creature,” again with Cushing, this time as scientist-mountaineer John Rollason, and headlined by rising film star Stanley Baker (Zulu) as the story’s antagonist, Tom Friend.

The play was inspired by recent mysterious reports concerning the Yeti, an elusive creature or creatures supposedly residing high in the Himalayas. Interest in the Yeti peaked around the time Kneale’s television play aired. Eric Shipton’s photographs of alleged Yeti footprints in 1951, Sir Edmund Hillary’s sighting of more footprints while ascending Mt. Everest in 1953, and a 1954 Snowman Expedition sponsored by the Daily Mail all fueled intense public interest.

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The television play, apparently presented as a self-contained episode rather than the serial format of the Quatermass stories, is not known to survive. The movie, however, is generally quite faithful to the TV version, the main difference being the addition to two characters by Kneale: Rollason’s wife, Helen (Maureen Connell), and their colleague, Peter “Foxy” Fox (Richard Wattis). Both characters add to the film’s effectiveness, adding shading to Cushing’s character.

The story has the Rollasons and Foxy collecting medicinal botanical samples in the Himalayas while guests of a remote Buddhist monastery. Unknown to Helen and Foxy, John has made arrangements to participate in a second expedition led by American Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker in the film version) to prove the existence of the Yeti.

Intelligent early scenes revolve around Rollason’s conflicted emotions. Though all three Brits are respectful of the monks and their alien culture at the monastery, only Rollason actually embraces it, and this impresses the Lama (Arnold Marlé, an Austrian-born German actor who looks anything but Asian; he reprises his TV performance). The Lama, however, tries to dissuade Rollason from searching for the Yeti, as do Foxy and especially Helen, who distrusts Friend and his American trapper collaborator, Ed Shelley (Robert Brown, with unconvincing accent). She’s also concerned about her husband’s safety. He’d given up climbing after a serious accident, and only two others are joining the dangerous expedition: photographer Andrew McNee (Michael Brill), who claims to have seen the Yeti once before, and Kusang (Wolfe Morris), their lone Sherpa guide.

The premise of both the TV play and the movie, unlike other Yeti stories filmed around that time (Man Beast, The Snow Creature), supposes that the Yeti are an intelligent, even advanced race in many ways superior to man. The Lama (and, later, Rollason) suggests that the Yeti may have fled high into the mountains to hide from a more violent mankind, patiently awaiting their inevitable extinction, an idea that plays better in 2014 than it did in 1957. In other words, Kneale posits that man, rather than the Yeti, is the monster, more violent and brutal than the barely-glimpsed white-haired giants seen in the film.

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The main criticism lobbied at The Abominable Snowman is that the greedy and brutish natures of the ironically named Friend and trigger-happy Shelley are overdone. Stanley Baker, Tom Friend in the TV version, was mostly playing villains at this time and may not have been much more subtle than Tucker, but it’s possible. That both Friend and Shelley are inelegant, sometimes outright rude and crude Americans provides an obvious contrast to articulate, diplomatic, and cultured Rollason, but there’s no shading, either (particularly when one compares the subtle, better-written differences among the three English characters in the first act).

If Kneale bludgeons home his message, it’s still a legitimate one done with great intelligence, if lacking in subtlety. Further, Tucker and especially Cushing give good performances that make their characters believable. Director Guest found fault with Tucker, a concession to the American market, but the problem isn’t with his performance, but rather the way the character is written. (However, Robert Brown, normally an excellent actor specializing in reserved, sometimes stuffy authority figure types, is really out of his element and unpardonably hammy.)

The movie seems to have enjoyed a larger (though still modest) budget compared to other Hammer films of the period. Guest was allowed a 10-day second-unit shoot in the French Pyrenees for the film’s climbing footage, which matches well with Bernard Robinson’s seemingly expansive sets built mostly at Pinewood. Their components could be swiveled or repositioned so that the same boulders and rock faces could be used multiple times. This becomes apparent after awhile, but the atmospheric lighting hides much of this.

The advantages of the Blu-ray format greatly enhance the viewing experience. I’d seen an excellent 35mm print at the Directors Guild, part of a festival sponsored by the American Cinematheque (Val Guest was in attendance). Anchor Bay’s good DVD followed in 2008, but this new release offers a viewing experience much closer to what it was like seeing the film in 35mm. Here, the big monastery sets built at Bray Studios look all the more vast and impressive, while Guest’s superb direction of the tense action in the lonely mountains comes off better, its characters seeming more isolated in this suffocating snowy wilderness than ever. (Guest is particularly good handling the film’s many nighttime scenes.)

The region “A” encoded disc presents an unrestored version of the film, whose master exhibits fair amounts of negative damage that varies from reel-to-reel, even shot-to-shot at times, as does the English-only audio. The 2.0 Dolby Digital mono (billed as stereo on the disc) is rather muffled on the first reel but gets better, and the volume likewise changes from reel-to-reel. The Japanese subtitles are removable. Like the Anchor Bay disc, there are no special features. (Correction: As several on the Classic Horror Film Board have helpfully pointed out, the disc, actually released in 2000, did include an audio commentary track with Guest and Kneale, a trailer, and “World of Hammer” episode, so you’ll want to hold onto that DVD and I’ll want to stop relying on Amazon for DVD release data.)


* The movie was retitled The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas in the U.S. The Japanese Blu-ray reviewed here is listed under the title 恐怖の雪男.