MONOCHROME MANOR Presents:
THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (1957)
Review by Steve Van Samson
Down a particularly twisted road, over an old bridge and up, up on the very top of a hill where no one goes, stands a forgotten manse. With a sudden clap of thunder, the nameplate flashes—MONOCHROME MANOR. Standing here, nearly forgotten, is a place out of time. A place where bookshelves move, portraits leer, and on nights just like this… old black and white movies are screened in the house’s totally plush theater room.
Tonight’s Feature: THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (1957)
Over a course of 17 years, Hammer Studios and actor Peter Cushing had what some might call “a thing.” The pair made movies. Lots of movies. Twenty-three in all. Granted, almost half of these belong to one or other of Hammer’s most popular franchises (Dracula and Frankenstein), but that still leaves 13 films which are completely stand-alone. Films which tend to be more obscure, overlooked or even forgotten entirely by modern audiences. It’s probably true that not every one of these films deserves to be remembered, but tonight we are viewing one that absolutely does.
Cushing’s second Hammer film is as claustrophobic as it is ambitious. THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (1957, also known as) was adapted from a BBC television play from two years prior. Back then, such “plays” were produced cheaply and broadcast in several parts (basically a mini-series). “The Creature” premiered in 1955, and was met with rave reviews. The play was written by longtime BBC writer Nigel Kneale (creator of the popular Quatermass series). Unfortunately, no recording of “The Creature” radio play exists. It seems impossible to us now, but in those days, recordings were not always retained or, in many cases, even created.
As it happened, Kneale was tasked with adapting his play for the silver screen. For its initial release in the UK, the film was wisely titled “THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN.” But, for American distribution, this title was lengthened to “THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN OF THE HIMALAYAS” (presumably to avoid confusion with all those other Abominable Snowmen!). For both the original play and the Hammer film, it was none other than Peter Cushing who took on the lead role of DARING BOTANIST Dr. John Rollason.
Yes. I just preceded the word “botanist” with the word “daring”.
Also reprising their roles from the BBC production are Arnold Marlé (THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, 1959) and character actor Wolfe Morris.
But enough of that…
Our story begins in what looks to be a remote Tibetan monastery (as if there were any other kind). It is here we meet the affable, mild-mannered Dr. John Rollason (Cushing), who has come to study the exotic flora of the area. The local Lhama (a terribly accommodating, if suspicious, fellow) informs Rollason that a troop of American explorers are scheduled to arrive within the hour.
We learn that Dr. Rollason (John to his pals) had previously agreed to assist the explorers in some capacity, but had no idea just how soon they would be arriving. The Lhama (portrayed, as in the original play, by Arnold Marle) seems none too keen on the coming explorers, nor on their leader—a man who carries the unlikely name of Tom Friend. Apparently, this is not Friend’s first tour of the Himalayas, and his abrupt return does not seem to be sitting well with the ever-suspicious Lhama. He wants to know what Friend’s true motive is, and why an altruistic man of science like Rollason would agree to help him.
“The pursuit of knowledge,” is John’s answer, though even whilst speaking the line he seems unconvinced. Despite insisting that his climbing days are over, due to a “bad accident,” we get the distinct feeling that there is something being left unsaid. That there may be more keeping our DARING BOTANIST on this mountain than some chilly lichens… and even though he does not pry further, we can tell the Lhama knows it too.
But if John does harbor ulterior motives, his wife knows nothing about them.
Helen Rollason (played by Maureen Connell) is sweet, intelligent, and lovely. She adds a whole other dimension to the film, but not in the way you might think. Like so many poorly-written female characters of classic cinema, Mrs. Rollason finds herself in a situation where she is utterly helpless… what sets her apart from those other characters is one simple fact. It is not she who is in need of rescue.
More on that later.
When John finally admits his intentions to personally assist and, in fact, join the coming explorers on their expedition farther up the mountain, his wife does not take it well. Rightfully so, Helen brings up John’s aformentioned bad accident and the fact that the coming winter snows are right around the corner, but these facts do little to sway the man.
She begins to grow angry. Angry at John. Angry at the foundation that has funded their work in Tibet, and angry for being kept in the dark about something she would be so opposed to. Really, it’s all pretty justified. In fact, the only thing keeping us from disliking John is the fact that through her outburst, Helen admits to having dreaded the truth all along. That, secretly, John has always been obsessed with exploring the high valleys of the Himalayas, to prove the existence of a “creature” which he has long postulated to dwell there.
This revelation is met with quiet resolve and a little regret. Cushing’s eyes speak volumes and they deny nothing. Here we see a good man—a man of science laid bare, and driven by an all-consuming pursuit of knowledge. We understand that while he does not disagree with his wife’s warnings, he is powerless to heed them. Finally, when the scene comes to a close, it is hard to decide which Rollason to pity more.
When the doors of the monastery open, they permit a gust of snow and wind as well as a man by the name of Tom Friend. Played by Forrest Tucker (THE CRAWLING EYE, 1958, F TROOP, 1965-67) Tom is loud, crass and undeniably American. In other words… pretty much the anti-Cushing. As he and the rest of the principal cast continues to filter in from the storm, Helen appears, offering the half-frozen men the first home-cooked meal they’ve had in weeks. Most of the explorers practically stampede over each other on their way to the commissary, but not Tom Friend. He and John hold back for a moment to confirm what has thus far been left unspoken. That, in the morning, the expedition will leave on a grand adventure. To find that creature of legend which men have called the YETI.
Really, it’s all just a huge bummer for poor Helen. With no climbing skills, she has no choice but to remain back at the monastery. To await her husband’s return with the bitter knowledge of how close to fatal his last climb was.
And there you have it, folk. The set up.
What follows is the harrowing account of a group of men who are seeking the same thing for very different reasons. The farther the Rollason/Friend party climbs, the stranger and more deadly the mountain seems to become. Hardened mountaineers begin acting impulsively—some even claiming to be hearing things. Voices beckoning them out into the raging snow without. At first, we wonder if exposure is playing tricks on our intrepid not-so-merry band, but this is answered to dramatic effect at around 50 minutes in—when we get our first glimpse of “The Creature.”
The team returns to their camp, finding the place has had a visitor. Hard metal gear is bent in impossible ways and there are footprints, twice the length of any man’s, in the snow. By this point, one of the men has been confined to his tent due to an unfortunate “accident” involving a bear trap. As the rest of the men contend with the ransacked campsite, the injured man watches dumbstruck as a horrible hairy hand reaches past the tent flap.
Directed by Val Guest (THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, 1961) THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN is less a “monster movie” and more a “movie with monsters.” And, even though the explorers get picked off one at a time, it is really hard to call it HORROR. The characters feel real. None are purely good or monstrous, but shades of both.
Our DARING BOTANIST, Dr. John Rollason, finds himself trapped at the top of the world. A fox in a den of half-mad snakes. All around him ambitions boil, spilling over into fear and rage and hysteria. No longer does he wish to find the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, now his only thought is that of escape. To return to his dear Helen. To hold her once more. And to tell her she was right all along.
Yetis are awesome. If you’ve ever wondered why there aren’t any good movies about yetis, you probably haven’t seen THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (1957). You should. Also, if you’ve ever wondered what Peter Cushing looked like when he was young, he was only 44 here!
© Copyright 2017 by Steve Van Samson