HorrorPulse – The Hammer Vault and The Abominable Snowman

 

What happened to the Bigfoot horror movie?  Once upon a time, an entire sub-genre thrived on a healthy fear of a race of hairy ape-men that lived just beyond civilization. From The Legend of Boggy Creek to the simply named Bigfoot, horror films found inspiration in an urban legend that today inspires more beef jerky commercials than screams.

Did Sasquatch simply become too entrenched in popular culture to work as a source of fear? While there have been a handful of modern horror movies featuring the missing link (most notably Abominable and the handful of remakes/reboots/rip-offs of Boggy Creek), there is a lack of representation going on in the world horror for the Pacific Northwest’s favorite cryptid.

Of course, Bigfoot doesn’t have the market covered when it comes to hairy ape-men. His Asian cousin the Yeti has also been a source of inspiration for creature features since the early days of film. In fact, one of the best horror films you can watch this wintery season stars the furry protector of the Himalayans.

The Abominable Snowman is a 1957 horror film from Hammer Film Productions, the studio that would later go on to make a big name for themselves with their vampire and Frankenstein films starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

Cushing stars in The Abominable Snowman as Dr. John Rollason, a gentle botanist who joins an American expedition to find proof in the existence of the Yeti.

The film is based on an earlier teleplay titled “The Creature”, written by Nigel Kneale (creator of Professor Bernard Quartermass) for BBC Television. After the success in adapting Kneale’s Quartermass serials for the big screen, Hammer Films decided to roll the dice on Kneale again and hired director Val Guest to film a big screen adaptation of Kneale’s teleplay.

In The Abominable Snowman, Cushing’s Dr. Rollason sets out on a barebones expedition into the heights of the Himalayan Mountains in search of the Yeti. He is joined by a team of Americans led by Dr. Tom Friend (Forest Tucker). While Rollason only wants to study the mysterious beast and prove his own theories about their existence, Friend hopes to capture one and bring it back to civilization. As you can guess, things don’t go as planned for the team of scientists. As the film reaches the conclusion audiences expect/want, it manages to combine the look, fear and scares of a classic Universal Monsters movie with the temperance and heart of an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

Guest and Kneale are surprisingly restrained when it comes to telling their story. The film, in fact, could possibly not even be classified as a true horror movie — though there are certainly some effectively scary moments. The script has much more in common with a morality tale with a sci-fi bent — hence the “Twilight Zone” comparison.

As Rollason and Friend finally encounter the beasts they’ve been searching for, a page is lifted (most likely unknowingly) from Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel “I Am Legend” when it’s revealed that mankind is much more monstrous than the creatures that inhabit the shadows of the world are.

Speaking of shadows, Guest’s choice to keep the film’s monsters hidden from the audience probably was born out of budgetary restraints but the result is far better off for it. The monsters are never fully revealed – instead leaving their full appearance up to the imagination of the audience. What is shown though (a grasping claw, world-weary eyes, 10-foot-tall shadows) offer up more gooseflesh than anything the film’s makeup and costuming team could have come produced with a full costume.

For modern horror fans (i.e., horror fans born during or after the ‘80s), it’s hard to watch a snow-covered monster movie and not compare it to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Carpenter’s seminal horror movie set the tone for the next thirty years’ worth of icy terror. The Abominable Snowman, filmed six years after Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World, may not have been a direct influence on Carpenter’s 1982 film but it’s possible to see some of the early evolutionary traits of themes would later be explored in Carpenter’s project.

The Abominable Snowman, in fact, has much more in common with another extraterrestrial film, Ridley Scott’s Alien. Though the movie is set in the wide-open space of the Himalayan Mountains — where a few sparse caves and a pup tent are all there is available to take shelter from the blistering snow, Guest’s film has a sense of claustrophobia that grips onto the film’s core. Some of it comes from the movie’s delicate handling of the creature and the mystery that surrounds it but most of the claustrophobia is born from the societal clashing of the film’s protagonists — a motley crew consisting of a hunter, two scientists and a photographer. Cushing’s British scientist often finds himself butting heads with the working stiffs that make up the American part of the team. Their combative nature, born from equal parts stress and exhaustion, helps give the film an edge that keeps the movie grounded in the relatable even as it stretches its legs into the realm of the fantastic. We’ve all been in the situation of having to spend more time than we’d like to with people whose beliefs and morals differ from our own. Combine this unease and discomfort with the fear of being attacked by a giant snowbeast and you’ll understand why the film works as well as it does.

The Abominable Snowman is a blue-collar horror film born from a production studio that would become renown for its gothic tendencies. Thanks to Forest Tucker’s often overwhelming presence balanced with Peter Cushing’s dignified presence, the movie keeps a nice tone perched between boisterous monster movie and somber fable. The final product is a classic horror movie very much worth checking out — preferably while wrapped in a blanket and with a bowl of chili perched on your lap.

 

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Speaking of Hammer films, earlier this week Titan Books published “The Hammer Vault,” a beautiful hardcover tome organized and written by Marcus Hearn. The book takes an unprecedented look into the marketing materials for Hammer’s full slate of films. Neither a comprehensive history of the film studio nor purely a art gallery, “The Hammer Vault” offers the best of both worlds — mixing commentary and insight by Hearn with some beautifully reproduced promotional material including lobby cards, posters, marketing instructions (tips for putting together publicity stunts) and even a peak at some of the films from Hammer’s history that never got off the ground.

The book covers the studio from their first films (the aforementioned Quartermass movies) all the way through last year’s Let Me In. If you have a horror fan in the family, this is a great gift — whether they are a longtime lover of Hammer’s line of films or a novice. Either way, the book will become both a valuable resource tool and just a pretty thing to look at while they’re perched on the toilet.


         

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