You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more attractive to an anglophile. With gaunt, angular features and a proper aristocratic accent, Peter Cushing could just as easily sell you a first-edition Charles Dickens novel as he could read a line of dialogue. Inserting those proper English characteristics into tales of bloodthirsty creatures is part of what makes Hammer films so entertaining. In the case of Val Guest’s 1957 creature feature, The Abominable Snowman, those admirable characteristics are also integral parts of the plot.

The Abominable Snowman follows Dr. John Rollason (Peter Cushing) on a botanical expedition in the Himalayas. On his journey, Rollason is approached by Dr. Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker) who, along with Ed Shelley (Robert Brown), Andrew McNee (Michael Brill), and Kusang (Wolfe Morris), is in search of the mythical Yeti that is claimed to inhabit the mountain. Rollason’s wife, Helen (Maureen Connell), is convinced that he’ll wind up as a Popsicle on the mountain slope should he join the group. But even after being warned about the dangers of mankind’s over-reaching curiosity by local Lhama (Arnold Marlé), Rollason’s curiosity gets the best of him as well, and he agrees to tag along.

My initial anxiety as the proceedings got started was that The Abominable Snowman, like several movies I’ve reviewed in this era, was going to be little more than a parade of culturally insensitive stereotypes, and this fear isn’t entirely unfounded. Lhama is portrayed as the “mystic Asian” stereotype imbued with knowledge of otherworldly powers not understood by “civilized” Western minds. This is an angle made worse by the fact that actor Arnold Marlé is a white man playing an Asian character. Sherpa guide Kusang is also portrayed by a white man named Wolfe Morris, who made a habit of playing characters of other races.

In spite of some glaring racial issues, The Abominable Snowman is an attempt at progressive thought (at least by 1950s standards). Sure, American group member Ed often makes a point of denigrating the local population since he “objects to the primitives,” but at the same time we’re quickly meant to infer that Ed himself is a boorish oaf. Fellow American Tom embodies the corrupt capitalist id, as he claims to be on a trip of knowledge and discovery, but soon reveals his motives are more of the monetary variety. And don’t let the fact that this is a UK production fool you into thinking that the Brits of the group come out looking superior. Rollason’s assistant, Peter Fox (Richard Wattis), meanwhile, is that “top-tier level” of pompous intellectual that would dismiss any idea not put forth by a white man.

In fact, this movie has a cynical view of mankind in general. Before starting his journey, Rollason talks with Lhama, who warns him ominously, “Man is near to forfeiting his right to lead.” This is an interesting notion to assert in the nuclear age of the 1950s. Most monster movies of the era use creatures to manifest the consequences of the nuclear arms race. The Abominable Snowman, however, looks a step beyond that by questioning whether or not humans will survive the mess we’ve created. What’s more, the movie asks us whether or not we deserve to survive it.

You may notice that I’ve yet to really mention The Abominable Snowman’s titular creature, and I should warn you that if you’re checking this movie out for some radical Yeti action, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Screenwriter Nigel Kneale plays with our expectations of a creature feature in that much of the mayhem of the movie stems from characters’ anticipations of or reactions to the monsters as opposed to the monsters themselves, reminding me of a much more recent monster movie that I saw for the first time last month: Neil Marshall’s The Descent.

While I won’t ever argue that The Abominable Snowman is anywhere near the same league as a classic like The Descent, both films feature a story in which the character arcs are more important to the narrative than the monsters. In fact, The Abominable Snowman almost serves as an inverse version of The Descent, where rather than having a group of women exploring down below the earth, a group of men work their way up a mountain. But both movies have monsters that are only one part of the threat to our protagonists, with just as much attention paid to the hostile environments and the choices of the protagonists themselves.

One way in which the two films greatly differ, however, is in their use of visuals. Where The Descent is visually stunning in every facet, including cinematography, creature design, and makeup effects, The Abominable Snowman reminds its viewers quite often that it’s a low-budget entry. This may not be a fair comparison given the fact that one movie predates the other by nearly fifty years, but even for a ’50s B-movie, The Abominable Snowman has some issues. There is little to no gore, which I suppose isn’t surprising, but there’s also not much to the design of the Yetis. We only get glimpses of the creatures, with the best visual during the movie’s climax being of the monster’s upper torso, which I believe was a deliberate choice in terms of how they wanted to portray these creatures, but also because a full-body shot would likely elicit more groans that gasps.

Budget issues also affected how the film was shot. While some scenes were filmed on location in the Pyrenees, other shots were set up on a soundstage made to look like a mountainside. At times these elements are combined in single sequences, with perhaps the silliest example being a scene involving an avalanche. As the avalanche swells into what’s supposed to be a terrifying climax, we get some really good shots of massive waves of snow contrasting with what appears to be several crew members merely kicking snow off the edge of a cliff.

The Abominable Snowman is certainly not without its faults. It falls into several of the traps of its contemporaries, including lack of money and cultural sensitivity. But it also offers a rather bleak perspective on the human race that is pretty amazing for a movie of its time. It doesn’t offer us the safety blanket of an ending where the enemy is defeated so that we can all easily return to our normal lives. Instead, we’re left to assume that in reality, we’re the enemy. Not bad for a movie with the “Snowman” in the title.

  • Bryan Christopher
    About the Author - Bryan Christopher

    Horror movies have been a part of Bryan’s life as far back as he can remember. While families were watching E.T. and going to Disneyland, Bryan and his mom were watching Nightmare on Elm Street and he was dragging his dad to go to the local haunted hayride.

    He loves everything about the horror community, particularly his fellow fans. He’s just as happy listening to someone talk about their favorite horror flick as he is watching his own, which include Hellraiser, Phantasm, Stir of Echoes, and just about every Friday the 13th movie ever made, which the exception of part VIII because that movie is terrible.