Now here's an example of just how a bomb ticking under the table is more effective than the explosion--1957's The Abominable Snowman, which features very little of that titular creature. Which is the right idea because instead of a man in a suit, the movie menaces us with ominous atmosphere and anxious characters.
Released two years before the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, the movie begins with a group of three English scientists staying in a monastery in the Himalayas ostensibly to study local plant life. Though one of them, Dr. Rollason (Peter Cushing), is also secretly motivated by a lifelong interest in discovering a yeti.
This is one of the best roles of Cushing's career. He's the central character and we see things from his point of view in almost every scene. It's a Hammer film but the screenplay by Nigel Kneale, creator of The Quatermass Experiment (and to whom John Carpenter made numerous references in Prince of Darkness), gives Cushing a character more complex than Hammer's version of Van Helsing and more solidly written than Hammer's version of Dr. Frankenstein. The Lama (Arnold Marle) warns Rollason that the search for the yeti is really a dangerous path towards confrontation with himself--something that Rollason doesn't understand since, of course, the statement doesn't make a lot of sense on the surface. But the Lama doesn't warn him emphatically like the villagers in Dracula. The more hands off approach of the Buddhist monk to free will nonetheless assists in creating a sense of spiritual danger.
For physical danger, there's Rollason's wife, Helen (Maureen Connell), who begs her husband not to accompany a small American expedition that shows up, intent on tracking down the yeti in the winter snows when the creature is forced to come to lower altitudes for food. Although Rollason's an experienced climber, his wife is worried because of an injury he'd sustained on a previous expedition and she feels great hostility towards her husband's obsession with the yeti legend. When he agrees to join the Americans, it feels like he's betraying her. Added to the disapproval of the local spiritual authority, and the fact that the Americans seem like a rather untrustworthy bunch, there's already a heavy weight of wrongness about Rollason's quest.
Cushing's the perfect actor for it, too, coming off as both sensitive and vulnerable but steely.
Shot in black and white, the Himalayas rendered with indoor sets, matte paintings, and some location shots not featuring the actors nonetheless come together effectively creating the sense of treacherous mountains and people. There's a sense that the yeti, or the act of pursuing the yeti, may be influencing the situation in some way beyond human comprehension, an almost Lovecraftian dread not unlike that portrayed in At the Mountains of Madness as a scientific expedition confronts the snows of Antarctica.
Everyone, Cushing in particular, works so well we only need a little bit from the yeti to seal the deal on this movie and that little bit is impressive. A shining example of minimalist special effects and creating impressions through characters describing things to other characters and then having those impressions influence partly obscured shots of the creatures themselves. A really nice movie.
Well, to-morrow's Halloween and I have eighteen more movies to watch. I may do a marathon to-morrow, blogging reviews in between each movie. I could think of worse ways to spend Halloween.