While Hammer achieved international fame (and notoriety) for their colorful and bloody adaptation of Gothic classics, their first foray into the horror genre was not The Curse of Frankenstein. Just a few months before that, the studio released another kind of monster flick—also starring Peter Cushing—called The Abominable Snowman. It sounds cheesy, without doubt, but what could have been a silly man-in-rubber-suit schlock picture becomes something just as chilling as its location. It affects something of the atmosphere that Algernon Blackwood employs in his cosmic horror stories.
As discussed in a Forbidden Tomes last year, Algernon Blackwood revolutionized the genre with sweeping tales of environmental horror—vast, incomprehensible spirits of nature threatening puny mankind. His tales evoke a special kind of dread, the sort that rises as you listen to the wind rock your house’s flimsy walls at night. Many of his stories draw from his personal experience as an adventurer, from the Danube to the sands of Egypt; turning his real journeys into nightmares as nature shows its prescient face.
The superficial connection is clear, then, when considering the plot of The Abominable Snowman. The film follows Cushing, a botanist examining Himalayan plants, as a hyper-masculine American persuades him to hunt down the legendary Yeti. Though the town’s shaman insists that the creature does not exist, and Cushing’s wife begs him not to go, the expedition sets out, but soon finds that the monster they seek is far more than legend. In tales like The Wendigo, Blackwood similarly used ancient legend and current science to create a schism: modernity can only do so much in the face of these spirits.
In terms of structure, the film closely resembles Creature from the Black Lagoon, the last official Universal monster movie. It shows a scientific group in an exotic land, somewhere most viewers would never see in life, as they search for a prehistoric beast. The films divert from each other, though, in their atmospheres. Creature is unsettling for its use of underwater photography, and the monster suit is fabulous, but it’s far too action-packed and overt to really be scary. Snowman does something that Creature does not: it refuses to show its monster until the last possible second.
This results in a glacial (pun intended) pace, of course. Most of the film consists of adventure peril, philosophical discussions about conquest, and scenes of true menace in the vastness of the Himalayas. There are impressive images of the sweeping mountains, with tiny human figures lurking below—the threat of environmental disaster, avalanches, or exposure precedes that of the Yeti. Long before the group even encounters a beast, they hear their high-pitched wails echoing across the mountains. The simple audio used in the film strikes the right note somehow, perhaps because it’s so close to a human scream. This, paired with a lack of a visual of the creature, creates a sense of immensity. The team is stuck in deadly regions with powerful beings who do not want them there.
While not a direct Blackwood adaptation, the film captures the author’s sense that nature itself is the enemy, and it should not be combated. The film features an actual monster, of course, where Blackwood’s tales almost never involve a corporeal villain, but the titular Snowman does not cause violence itself. A final revelation, which I won’t reveal here, also elevates the nature of the beast—it’s not simply a flesh-and-blood animal to battle and destroy, like the Gill-man. The combination of folklore, elemental threat, and philosophical inquiries to the very nature of life create a literary atmosphere that brings the film to a new level of dread.
Of course, the film is not without its flaws, mainly in the racist depiction of the locals, who are made out to be simple-minded and greedy people, and there are moments that were clearly included for no more than a cheap thrill. But, considering that it was made in the atomic-mutant era of horror film, its restraint and attention to atmosphere are remarkable. It never reaches the height of terror and environment that Blackwood’s stories do, but it gets closer than most films that attempt similar feats. For those who can excuse the pace, it is a perfectly chilling experience suited for a winter night when the wind carries strange voices—just like the tales of Blackwood.