The Abominable Snowman
It’s all very well saying that the greatest monster… is Man! But what sort of man are we talking about? What does he look like? Where is he going? And, more importantly, where is he from? Because one thing the jolly old English were wondering about after the end of the Second World War, was what happens when the dashed Americans are in charge? Hence, I suppose, Hammer films like the Abominable Snowman.
Because, look here, how is an Englishman supposed to pretend his unstoppable urge to explore and conquer is motivated purely by scientific discovery, I assure you, if right next to him are a bunch of Americans whooping and hollering and having entirely too much honest fun in their bloodthirsty quest to achieve that most American of goals, becoming disgustingly rich. Mind you, Hammer have a lot of fun with their Americans in this one, even going as far as making their vulgarity the cause of actual mortal peril, their loud-mouthed Americanness bringing down the threat of avalanches. So that, in so many words, Peter Cushing gets to say to a group of Americans: ‘Behave in a civilized fashion or die!’ However, to Hammer’s credit, they don’t pretend the Americans are evil or anything; yes they want to make a ton of money, but they truly believe such a remarkable creature should be seen by all, that the appetite for knowledge and discovery fueled by these new televisions in every home is quite a noble thing to exploit, if we’re going to exploit things. Of course, it’s mainly about money; but then they go and admit that in the disarmingly honest way Americans have which makes an Englishman quite nervous. After all, everyone knows you’re supposed to pretend your base instincts are motivated by noble ideals; not because you really believe that, old chap, but because everybody has to if the world isn’t going to fall into the anarchy that would result if everyone went around just doing whatever they like. But there the Americans go anyway, admitting why they’re really doing something, unnerving the poor Englishmen something chronic. And Hammer doesn’t let the Brits off easy either. Much as they may want to tut, shake their heads and mutter about the pollution of science in the name of the obsession to be rich, they’re both equally as obsessed as the Americans. Cushing is so obsessed with finding the Yeti that he lies to his wife, lies to a Buddhist monk, and abandons his partner without a second thought in the pursuit of a knowledge that will bring him glory every bit as tainted as the bags of gold the Americans want.
It’s all rather interesting the way this particular Hammer horror plays out. It doesn’t watch the flawed explorers get picked off one by one by the monster, as their hubris is punished by the awesome power of nature. No, this is a horror movie where everyone dies because one by one they go barmy. And not barmy with fear or anything, but because their brains just can’t handle the environment. It’s a rather chilling warning, if you ask me, that man’s potential is not limitless; that an Englishman can’t expect to triumph over all with education and good manners, and an American can’t expect to with guns and honest desire. In the second half of the twentieth century, it appears, humanity is already at its limit. There are places in the world like the Himalayas, or I suppose deep space too given the obsessions of the age and the other Hammer horror films of this era, that mankind will never conquer. That even attempting to will drive us to madness and death.
Anyway, as you can probably tell, it makes you think a bit this one. And it’s not a bad little horror movie either, though the horror is almost entirely inside the characters’ heads. The Americans are brash, but honest and straightforward, and Cushing is as ever magnetically polite in his attempts to hold the whole damn expedition together using nothing but common sense in the face of the dawning realisation that he’s not as in control of himself or his environment as he’s always believed. And the Yetis are not half bad, you know. They’re only an arm, a shadow and a huge clawed hand for a while, which is pretty effective actually, and the way the men react to them does a surprisingly effective job of communicating that intense otherness which can be so incredibly unnerving. And when they do finally appear, they strike just the right note of melancholy terror, a lot like Christopher Lee’s monster did in Cushing’s Frankenstein the same year. The whole thing looks a whole lot better than you might expect too, with tiny figures struggling across mountainous vistas, a quite believable Tibetan monastery, and constant wide shots with every character on-screen. And all of this because Hammer were showing off their wonderfully named Hammerscope filming technique.
But in the end I suppose, it’s a movie whose horror comes from making the audience realise that it clearly doesn’t matter where the real monster (man, remember?) is from, only that the world will be a lot better off when he’s gone. Which is quite frankly the sort of thought that would drive any chap to the nearest boozer. Speaking of which…