March 7, 2011

All Creatures Great and Tall

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

Ever since seeing the creepy docudrama The Legend of Boggy Creek in the mid-70s, I've been intrigued with the idea of Bigfoot and other crypto-zoological mysteries. Considering that no "civilized" westerner set eyes on a live gorilla until the mid-nineteenth century, I'd like to think that there's at least a small chance that some bipedal remnant of an unknown evolutionary path still survives in the ever-dwindling, unexplored wild places of the globe.

I'm not alone, since interest in Bigfoot, Sasquatch, the Yeti, and other legendary variations seems to be at an all-time high in spite of (or perhaps because of) the continuing lack of any credible evidence. It's hard to channel-surf these days without coming across some Bigfoot pseudo-documentary with fringe academics speculating about the distribution, diet, and habits of the elusive creatures, and men outfitted in camouflage, night-vision goggles, and other tech-toys tramping around the woods of the Pacific northwest desperately trying to record a sighting.

And then there's the hilarious Jack Link's Beef Jerky "Messin' With Sasquatch" series, where a poor, trusting reject from Harry and the Hendersons is the perpetual butt of 20-something hipsters' practical jokes (although the beast always gets the last "word" in various and hilarious ways). We might look at such humor as society's ultimate acceptance of a myth like Sasquatch. (Similarly, we might make a case that Frankenstein didn't truly become a household name and the prototypical poster child for the consequences of scientific arrogance until he met Abbott and Costello in 1948.)

Whatever the status of the Bigfoot myth in the 21st century, there's no denying the enduring popularity of shaggy, elusive, often homicidal hominids in popular film. The first wave of such films in the 1950s focused on the Yeti and his exotic locale of the Himalayas. Some credit W. Lee Wilder's Snow Creature (1954) as the first feature-length fictional account of the Yeti. Toho and Ishiro Honda (of Godzilla/Gojira fame) followed quickly with Jû jin yuki otoko in 1955. (It would be released in the U.S. a couple years later as Half Human, cut down to 63 minutes, with American scenes added. Sadly, the original highly-rated Japanese version was never released in the U.S., and Toho withdrew it from their catalog for legal reasons.) Schlockmeister Jerry Warren did his take, Man Beast in 1956. 1977's Snowbeast with Yvette Mimieux would transplant the Yeti to a Colorado ski resort.

Over the years, with the impact of unexpected low-budget hits like Boggy Creek, the film industry's interest in hairy hominids shifted to North America and Bigfoot/Sasquatch. One oddball measure of the enduring popularity of backwoods beasts is the presence of character actor-extraordinaire Lance Henriksen in three (count 'em!) Bigfoot flicks in the space of five years: The Untold (aka Sasquatch; 2002), Abominable (2006), and Sasquatch Mountain (2006). (The perfectly mediocre Sasquatch Mountain, a Sci-Fi channel original, started out life as Devil on the Mountain, and was slated for location shooting around my hometown, Flagstaff, Arizona. Regrettably, local red-tape pushed the production 40 miles to the west, to the small town of Williams. I would have loved to run into Lance in downtown Flagstaff!)

Predictably, recent Bigfoot film appearances have featured slavering, unthinking, homicidal beasts, instead of the shy, elusive, canny creatures that more thoughtful Bigfoot fans prefer to believe in. No gory special effects have been spared--  Bigfoot in 21st century film is Mother Nature's hit man, punishing city folk in all kinds of bloody ways for trespassing on her territory.

Thoughtful fictional treatments of Bigfoot and  the Yeti are as rare as sightings of the creatures themselves. The most thoughtful, intelligent treatment of all is Hammer's The Abominable Snowman (1957). This elegant black-and-white production was released around the same time as Hammer's wildly popular color hits Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, and was promptly lost in the gothic horror wave.  While not perfect -- Snowman is talky and set bound -- it's worth a look for its unusually intelligent use of science fiction to comment on the human condition.

Botanist John Rollason (Peter Cushing), and his wife Helen (Maureen Connell) are staying at a remote monastery in the Himalayas to study native plants. A brash, ambitious American explorer, Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker) arrives with a group and seduces Rollason into accompanying him on his quest to track down the elusive Yeti. Rollason had been on an earlier ill-fated expedition looking for the snowman, but his scientific curiosity gets the better of him and he sets aside his reservations. Helen and the monastery's High Lama try to talk him out of joining Friend's expedition, to no avail. Another member of Friend's group, Andrew McNee (Michael Brill), is haunted by his previous experience of having actually seen the creature. As the expedition makes its way up the Himalayas, the high-strung McNee struggles with the ascent, but at the same time seems to almost sense the presence of the Yeti. At one point, he becomes convinced that he sees something among the rocks and crags. Chasing after it, he falls to his death.

In the midst of the chaos and tension, Rollason discovers that Friend's motives are less than pure or scientific-- he wants to be the first to bring back a Yeti, dead or alive, for exhibition. As luck would have it, the expedition stumbles upon one of the creatures and shoots it dead. As the group tries to take its prize back to civilization, they soon discover that the creature was not alone, and its companions want it back. With the exception of Rollason, the remaining expedition members fall prey to the cunning of the otherworldly creatures, and ultimately to their own fears.
Monster, or member of an ancient, wise race?

The screenplay by the brilliant Nigel Kneale (based on his teleplay "The Creature") inverts the typical Yeti story and makes Man into the unreasoning, monstrous brute. As the surviving expedition members hole up in a cave with the creature's body, Rollason remarks on the gentle, anciently-wise features of the snowman. He wonders aloud to the uncomprehending Tom Friend if perhaps the Yeti aren't the wiser, superior race waiting in the remote regions of the Himalayas for brutish mankind to die out.

Snowman marked the third (and last) Hammer film pairing of Kneale's thoughtful ideas with Val Guest's talented direction. The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) was a lean, effective adaptation of Kneale's BBC mini-series The Quatermass Experiment. It's success led quickly to Quatermass II: Enemy from Space in 1957. Kneale adapted the screenplay from his own teleplay. Much to the chagrin of Kneale, both featured American tough guy Brian Donlevy as Prof. Bernard Quatermass (Donlevy's participation was strictly to grease the wheels for American distribution). Years later, Kneale would be much happier with Scotsman Andrew Keir's portrayal of Quatermass in Five Million Years to Earth (aka Quatermass and the Pit; 1967).  Kneale's Hammer thrillers all share a theme: man as his own worst enemy in the face of forces he only dimly understands.

While the pairing of urbane Peter Cushing with rough Forrest Tucker of F-Troop fame might seem like casting decision made after a 4 martini lunch, the two very neatly represent Kneale's dichotomies of scientific curiosity vs. greed and empathy vs. fear. Tucker, like Donlevy, lent his modest talents and somewhat bankable name to a couple of other UK sci-fi thrillers: The Crawling Eye (aka The Trollenberg Terror; 1958), and The Strange World of Planet X (aka the Cosmic Monsters; 1958).

Nigel Kneale's thoughtful science fiction deserves a revival. America's leaders, committed to endless war and endless foreign quests in search of monsters to destroy, might do well to heed Kneale's admonition, voiced by the empathetic, rational Rollason:
It isn't what's out there that's dangerous, as much as what's in us.

"The world's most shocking monster! No one's ever lived who's seen him!"

1 comment:

  1. Even "the Adventures of Jonny Quest" (1964) showed its fascination with the subject, devoting an episode to the topic.

    Good stuff, Brian

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