Monday, August 18, 2014
IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (1957)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, cosmological*
I mentioned in my review of THE MONOLITH MONSTERS that in my younger years I'd liked that film quite a bit, and that I was a bit disappointed with a recent re-screening. The titular monsters were still impressive, but the human characters were a bit too routine.
I'm not quite that down on 1953's IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, the first of Jack Arnold's 1950s SF-feature films. The script and the performances are solid, and its anti-xenophobic message remains preferable to many of the "shoot first and ask questions later" monster-flicks. Having grown up with Russell Johnson playing the Professor on GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, there's a definite pleasure in seeing him get turned into an even more emotionless character in SPACE.
Yet, for all the film's positive qualities, and its importance in launching the 1950s Sci-Fi wave, at times the script seems a little too pleased with its own innovation. Main character Putnam (Richard Carlson), an amateur astronomer who first spots the crash of a spacecraft near his Arizona town, is among the first to realize that the aliens from the craft have begin kidnapping locals and then counterfeiting their bodies. Yet once Putnam learns that the castaways are simply trying to repair their ship and get away, he tries to convince the town sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake) to hold back and allow the extraterrestials to finish their labors.
Yet, aside from a mild suggestion that Warren may covet Putnam's girlfriend Ellen, the characters lack the texture I find in Arnold's next SF-outing, the first installment of the Gill Man saga. Warren is just a little too eager to storm the aliens despite possible danger to the captured Earthpeople, and so he comes off as something of a whipping-boy. The character of Ellen is something of a cypher, but when she's replaced by one of the aliens, she alone dons a fetching black outfit when speaking with Putnam, even though by that time in the story he knows that she's not Ellen, but an amoeboid monster. Though I as much as like Barbara Rush's iconic sexy-alien appearance, the logic leaves something to be desired.
1957's THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN, directed by Val Guest and adapted by Nigel Kneale from his own television screenplay, explores the same thematic territory, but the action takes place in the snowy Himalayas rather than arid Arizona. Scientist John Rollason (Peter Cushing) comes to Tibet on a botanical mission with his wife and an assistant, but only his wife knows that on a previous visit Rollason witnessed something he can scarcely believe: the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. Rollason clearly wishes he could find out the truth about the so-called Yeti, but though the local Lama (played by a British actor doing a horrible accent) gives shelter to Rollason's party, the philosophical priest won't help him.
In a slightly Faustian development, a Yeti-hunting expedition crosses paths with that of Rollason. This new expedition is bossed by the quixotically named Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker), who wants to capture a Yeti and exhibit the creature to gain fame and fortune. Rollason throws in with Friend, leaving his own party at the Lama's temple.
It's soon obvious that Guest didn't have the budget to offer more than brief shots of snow-covered mountains on a backstage set, but that probably fit in with the original teleplay project, which is more about debating thematic concerns than offering spectacle. As with SPACE, the opposition of viewpoints-- Friend as the money-hungry opportunist, Rollason as the concerned man of science-- remains superficial. Still, despite some dull stretches, the script's aim is realized in an organic way. Slowly Rollason realizes that though there are Yeti tracking the expedition, the creatures wreak no direct harm upon the human beings. He theorizes that they are a parallel adaptation that evolved alongside humans. He also hypothesizes that the Yeti are intelligent enough that they anticipate humans someday destroying themselves. Friend, who wants to think of the creatures as big animals, is repulsed by these ideas. Yet, in the film's evocative moment, the entrepreneur is seduced by the unknown. At one point, even though Rollason warns him, Friend blunders into the path of an avalanche. The moment when Friend gazes helplessly into the oncoming snowslide may be intended to suggest that he has been overwhelmed by the unknown precisely because he can't allow himself to think outside his own narrow confines.
In contrast, Rollason does meet the Yeti face to face. The creatures, if they can speak, do not communicate with the scientist, but when he returns to the monastery, he tells the Lama that there are no Yeti, and that he will work to discourage other modern men from searching for them. This is a pleasing take on "the Big Lie," in which Rollason does his best to allow another species to prosper in their own domain.