Monsters and Matinees: In search of the Yeti
Horror movies of the 1950s fed off real-world fears in a way – it feels so wrong to say – many of us have enjoyed. Paranoia about nuclear war and Communism, among other threats, were turned into a horror movie industry of big bugs (Them!), radioactive horrors (Day the World Ended) and alien attacks (Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
But something else captured the public’s imagination in the 1950s and, while it didn’t create panic or was a danger like nuclear annihilation, it was a much talked about curiosity that remains with us today: the search for the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.
Reports of the Yeti and similar creatures can be traced back for centuries, but there was a renewed interest in the creature during the 1950s after climber Eric Shipton took photos of an enlarged footprint while climbing Mount Everest in 1951. Two years later, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who were the first to reach the top of Everest, also reported seeing large, unexplained tracks.
Talk of the Yeti grew, as did interest in proving its existence. A London newspaper even mounted an expedition to find it. There were so many expeditions that rules were set, and the American Embassy in Kathmandu even issued the memo Regulations Governing Mountain Climbing Expeditions in Nepal – Relating to Yeti from regional guidelines.
There were three rules: Expedition permits had to be purchased through the Nepalese government; a Yeti could be photographed or captured but not killed and all photographs or captured Yeti must be surrendered to the government; finally, any information “throwing light” on the creature’s existence had to be submitted to the government before being made public.
Though not one expedition has yet to produce a Yeti, we do have movies to enjoy.
The Snow Creature (1954), the Japanese film Half Human (1955), Man Beast (1956) and The Abominable Snowman (1957) are four movies from that decade alone, with others following in subsequent years that took on such variations as Big Foot in the U.S. and Sasquatch in Canada.
You’ll notice much documentary-style footage of snowy regions and climbers. There will be footprints (many footprints) and well-meaning researchers spouting things like “This is not a hunting party” to adventurers looking to make a buck. Violence is implied mostly by off-camera screams. The Yeti is shown in pieces, like a hairy arm, or in shadows to build suspense to the big reveal which isn’t very big or scary.
Even with the rich folkloric material and a ready-made beast, the movies generally plod along before dwindling out to the end credits.
Hammer takes on the Yeti
The most intriguing story belongs to the best-known Yeti film of the 1950s, The Abominable Snowman. It was based on the 1955 BBC TV play The Creature by Nigel Kneale, who was inspired to write it after learning that the London newspaper’s expedition for the Yeti did find mysterious tracks but had no explanation for them. Kneale said at the time that he wrote The Creature as his guess to explain the footprints, but he doesn’t give himself enough credit for his thoughtful exploration of the legend. (The TV play was broadcast live twice but was not recorded so it is considered lost.)
Dr. John Rollason (played by Peter Cushing in both the TV and film versions) is studying plant specimens in a Tibetan monastery where he joins adventurer Tom Friend on an expedition to find the Yeti. (Also appearing in both versions is Arnold Marle as the mysterious Lhama.)
Before watching the film, put aside your expectations of what you are used to seeing in a Hammer film starring Peter Cushing (it was his second movie for the studio) because that’s not what you get here. It is certainly a tense thriller with horror elements, but Kneale’s considerate script gets the audience in sync with Dr. Rollason who questions what defines a monster and posits the idea of the Yeti being “parallel evolution” to humanity.
The good doctor goes on the expedition much to the chagrin of his wife Helen (Maureen Connell), also a researcher (a part added to the film). She doesn’t trust Tom Friend (played by Forrest Tucker) or the Sherpa guide Kusang (Wolfe Morris) who will take her husband up the Himalayas to learn the truth behind the Yeti.
Rounding out the small party are trapper Ed Shelley (Robert Brown) and Scottish photographer Andrew McNee (Michael Brill), who once glimpsed a Yeti. All play an important role.
It’s clear that Dr. Rollason and Friend have different motivations for the expedition – one is there for science, the other for money and glory. The tension between the two men is palpable and grows through the film.
As they climb higher, the men become strangely affected, especially McNee who hears things others don’t and often gazes into the distance like he’s in a trance. They blame it on the thin air, but you get the feeling they don’t believe it.
They do find proof of the Yeti in 13-inch-long footprints that show the stride of something that can stand up to 8-feet tall. The explorers set little bear-like traps that catch one of their own but are easily torn apart by “something” else.
When they finally have proof a Yeti, it sets other things in motion as sad howls and cries are carried on the wind, again affecting the men.
Dr. Rollason’s empathy for the Yeti grows as he believes they are trapped in the evolutionary process and are hiding in misery of the harsh Himalayan environment to die. (Yes, it’s depressing.) Not only do those compassionate words for the Yeti take this film up a notch, but so does the mystical turn that makes us wonder if they have powers we can’t understand. (And what role does the Lhama play, if any?)
The film was originally going to be titled The Snow Creature, until they learned that title was already taken.
The Snow Creature (1954) was directed by W. Lee Wilder, brother of Billy Wilder, and written by his son Myles Wilder in the vein of King Kong. Don’t expect that same clever Billy Wilder touch, though.
Botanist Frank Parrish (played by Paul Langton) and photographer Leslie Denison (Peter Wells) are on a Himalayan expedition to study plant life.
But when their Sherpa guide Subra (Teru Shimada) learns his wife has been taken by a Yeti, he forces the group to change course and look for her.
They do find a Yeti and somehow build a cage to transport it down the mountain, then concoct a large, refrigerated box that looks like a telephone booth to get it to California. We know it won’t hold the Yeti, so we bide our time (just a few minutes) until it gets loose and mysteriously makes its way around the city without being seen. (This part of the film recalls a similar setting from one of the best 1950s horror movies.) Good for the Yeti, by the way, who discovers a meat packing freezer where it can eat, be cold and hide for a while.
Though the creature doesn’t do much damage and there’s barely a body count, the cops are out to get it on a boring city-wide creature hunt that slows the film to a crawl.
Half Human (AKA Half Human: The Abominable Snowman) was a Japanese film directed by Ishiro Honda in 1955. It was dubbed and re-edited for its U.S. release in 1958, adding footage of John Carradine explaining the story to his colleagues. (The Japanese version, as expected, is considered superior to the reworked U.S. film.)
A reporter meets with two mountaineering students who share a strange tale about their ski trip in the Japanese Alps. They were part of a group that split in two with some going to a friend’s cabin and the others to a lodge. A blizzard strikes and the next day a search party finds the cabin destroyed with a dead body and giant footprints. Rescue efforts can’t resume until the spring thaw, the same time another group led by an animal broker is out searching for the Abominable Snowman.
It gets muddled as the good-guy searchers are targeted by both the bad-guy animal broker and the villagers who honor a “Mountain Lord.” All the while, that Mountain Lord is around and may not be alone.
Trivia: Actors Momoko Ōkōchi and Akira Takarada are well-known for their roles in multiple Godzilla films.
Man Beast (1956) clearly had such a low budget that they couldn’t afford to rent proper winter gear for the characters seen tracking through the Himalayas without scarves or gloves. (They blow into their hands a lot to “warm them up.”)
The title comes from the question most often asked when discussing the Yeti: Is it man or beast? Man Beast has an interesting answer that would make a sold movie. But with such poor acting and low production values, this is not that film.
Connie Hayward (Virginia Maynor) is a concerned sister who gets her annoying boyfriend Trevor Hudson (Lloyd Nelson, AKA Lloyd Cameron) to travel with her to the Himalayas in search of her brother. They meet Steve (Tom Maruzzi) who reluctantly agrees to take them to find her brother’s camp, where they learn he is missing. They continue their search with the help of Dr. Erickson (George Wells Lewis) and the strange-looking climber and guide Varga (George Skaff), who has made more expeditions to find the Yeti than anyone else, but also tends to lose at least one member of his team each time.
By the end, the film has traveled into that intriguing territory that it fails to deliver on, with things quickly explained and then wrapped up.
Trivia: Billed as Virginia Maynor, actress Asa Maynor will be familiar to “Twilight Zone” fans as the stewardess in the famous episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.