Monday, July 26, 2021

Viy

 

Viy Poster

(1967) Directed by: Konstantin Ershov and Georgiy Kropachyov; Written by Konstantin Ershov, Georgiy Kropachyov and Aleksandr Ptushko; Based on the story by Nikolay Gogol; Starring: Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley, Aleksey Glazyrin, Vadim Zakharchenko and Pyotr Vesklyarov; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Shudder 

Rating: **** 

“A curse upon you! With the wings of a bat! With the blood of a serpent! I shall curse you!”

 Pannochka (Natalya Varley) 

Note: The following review is an expanded version of a capsule review from December 2016. 

Demons in the chapel

Although fantasy and science fiction films enjoyed their place in the former Soviet Union, the horror genre didn’t fare nearly as well. Viy (aka: Viy or Spirit of Evil) is often touted as the “first” Soviet-era horror film (admittedly, what does and doesn’t constitute horror is up for debate), and in the absence of other salient examples, it’s difficult to dispute this claim. While it’s clear that subjects of a supernatural bias were discouraged, I’m not quite ready to accept that this was the only horror movie to be released between 1922 and 1967. Nevertheless, evidence to the contrary has yet to surface. Viy was based on an 1835 short story by noted Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol. The original novella professes to be derived from Ukrainian folklore, but whether or not it was entirely concocted by Gogol remains open for debate.

Khoma and the witch

In the opening scene, set in a Kiev-based seminary, the stern rector dismisses his students for a holiday break. Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov) and two of his fellow students promptly take to the countryside for some fun and mischief (much to the chagrin of their schoolmaster). Before long, tired and weary from their travels, they seek shelter at in a farmhouse owned by a withered old woman (Nikolay Kutuzov). She reluctantly puts them up for the night, insisting that Khoma sleep in the stable. Things take a bizarre turn when she singles him out, hopping upon his shoulders and revealing her true nature as a witch. After soaring over the fields, they return to earth. He beats her with a stick, leaving her for dead, but a second glance reveals not an old crone, but a young woman. Puzzled and disturbed, Khoma returns to the rectory, only to learn that the headmaster has received an unusual request – he alone must hold a three-day prayer vigil for a wealthy Cossack’s recently deceased daughter, Pannochka. Now, Khoma and the witch are inextricably entwined.

Khoma and Pannochka

Leonid Kuravlyov is a hoot in his manically comic performance as our perpetually bewildered protagonist, Khoma.* Far from the most diligent student at his rectory, he’s more concerned with food, drink and revelry than spiritual enlightenment. He tries to do everything he can to weasel out of his obligation to the Cossack patriarch, but the promise of a thousand gold pieces or a thousand lashes (if he disobeys) sways his decision. Each successive day of the vigil takes its toll on Khoma, while he’s locked away in the chapel, repeating his mantra, “A Cossack is never afraid of anything.” Meanwhile, his mental and physical state continue to erode as he endeavors to keep the evil spirits at bay and contend with a corpse that refuses to remain still. 

* Khoma’s tentative demeanor reminded me of another literary character, Ichabod Crane. Although I’m not sure if Gogol was aware of Washington Irving’s story (published in 1820), its main character could be a spiritual predecessor.

Pannochka

All eyes are on Natalya Varley as the not-so-deceased, Pannochka. With her long dark hair and pallid complexion, she resembles the Iron Curtain’s answer to Luna (from Mark of the Vampire) or Morticia Addams. She speaks very few lines, but makes them sting, proving, hell hath no fury like a witch scorned. Varley takes charge in every scene she’s in, dominating the scenery with her frenzied, hypnotic stare.

Demons in the chapel

The visuals of Viy benefited greatly through the efforts of fantasy filmmaker Aleksandr Ptushko (Sadko, Ilya Muromets), who provided the art direction and effects. Gogol’s story was vague in the details about Khoma’s climactic confrontation with evil. The filmmakers, however, gleefully fill in the blanks, delivering some genuinely unnerving moments when the forces of darkness are unleashed in the chapel. It’s a dazzling display, brought to life through dynamic, swirling POV shots, as all manner of things that go bump in the night descend upon poor Khoma. Demons scuttle down the walls and skeletons dance about, culminating in the appearance of Viy, a stocky demon with giant eyelids, concealing a gaze that can kill. The final, visually dense sequence, is a treat for the eyes, providing more than can be taken in with one viewing.

Pannochka Riding a Coffin

Viy enchants and entertains, with its tantalizing mixture of comedy and the macabre. This faithful adaptation of Gogol’s story must have been a tough sell for the staid sensibilities of the prevailing regime, but it’s a testament to the persistence of Ptushko and co-directors Konstantin Ershov and Georgiy Kropachyov that their vision made it to Soviet theaters. Whether it was truly the first horror film or not, Viy remains an important landmark in Russian cinematic history, when films of the uncanny were such a scarce commodity. Its robust imagery and themes make it a force to be reckoned with, and no discerning fan of horror should consider his or her education complete without giving this a look. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Short Take: Sadko

 

Sadko Poster

(1953) Directed by Aleksandr Ptushko; Written by Konstantin Isaev; Based on the opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov; Starring: Sergey Stolyarov, Alla Larionova, Ninel Myshkova, B. Surovtsevand, Mikhail Troyanovskiy and Nadir Malishevsky; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“The wise man boasts of his father and mother. The fool boasts of his young wife, the merchant boasts of his fat purse, and the rich man of his gold…” – Sadko (Sergey Stolyarov)

Sadko

Many Westerners were introduced to Sadko in the early ‘60s (a decade after its release in Europe), under the misleading title, The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.* Yet another generation of viewers became aware of the film when it received the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment in the early ‘90s. While elements of the lavish production still managed to shine through, it was easy (for those who only had the chance to watch a distillation of an already compromised film) to get the impression that this wasn’t a quality movie. In fact, the Soviet production had nothing to do with Sinbad or his adventures. Instead, Sadko originated from a Russian folktale (an Onega epic story), as well as the eponymous 1898 opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

* Fun Fact #1: When Sadko was adapted for American audiences, it was re-written, re-edited, and dubbed, under the supervision of a young Francis Ford Coppola (working for American International Pictures).

Sadko in Novgorod

The good-natured troubadour Sadko arrives in the walled city of Novgorod,* armed only with his psaltery (a traditional stringed instrument). He barely sets foot off the boat before he’s created trouble for himself with a group of merchants, calling them out for being obsessed with their wealth and possessions. Although he wins his wager with the merchants, his attempt to redistribute the wealth among Novgorod’s impoverished residents backfires. Realizing that good intentions only bring him so far, our idealistic protagonist assembles a crew, setting sail for parts unknown (leaving behind his one true love, Lyubava, played by Alla Larionova), on a quest to find the fabled Bird of Happiness. Along the way, he’ll encounter hostile Vikings, a capricious Indian prince, and the jovial King of the Sea.

* Fun Fact #2: The full-scale walls, which were reportedly “dozens of meters high,” were constructed in Pestovo, outside of Moscow.

Sadko and Gold-Finned Fish

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Sadko (whose name means “sonorous”), played by Sergey Stolyarov,* is that he fails more than he succeeds, making him instantly more relatable than most epic heroes. While his exploits appear larger than life, his fallibility keeps him grounded. He possesses many admirable traits (charismatic, good-hearted), but he’s also headstrong and impulsive. After capturing a valuable golden-finned fish, he squanders his new fortune on a small segment of the poor before discovering he can’t help everyone. Despite this setback, he never loses his resolve to bring happiness to the people. Stolyarov’s performance walks the line between youthful arrogance and uncertainty, ultimately winning us over through his character’s inherent vulnerability.

* Another Fun Fact #3: According to Stolyarov’s son, Kirill, the actor grew up as an orphan, and once worked as a train engineer.  

Vasya

The unsung hero of the film is unquestionably the sea princess Vasya (Ninel Myshkova), who gets Sadko out of a jam on several occasions. If not for her, his head (quite literally) would have been on the chopping block. Despite her efforts to win Sadko’s heart, however, Vasya’s love remains unrequited. As a final selfless gesture, she conspires to whisk him away from her watery home, which rankles the feathers of her parents, the endlessly bickering King of the Sea and his wife (Stepan Kayukov and Olga Viklandt).

The Undersea Kingdom

Anyone acquainted with The Wizard of Oz won’t be surprised by Sadko’s lesson about searching for happiness. Then again, as with many fairytale stories, it’s the journey, not the conclusion that we’ve come to experience and embrace. Among its many charms are the imaginative sets, designed by Evgeniy Svidetelev, and colorful costumes created by Olga Kruchinina of the Bolshoi Opera. Some visual highlights include the Indian city (shot in Calcutta), complete with elephants and a bustling bazaar, along with a suitably cavernous and ornate palace set. The undersea kingdom is a fanciful depiction, worthy of a storybook, and the soft focus in many of the scenes only adds to the dreamlike feel of the film. Director Aleksandr Ptushko and crew’s unabashedly theatrical approach suits the material perfectly, immersing us in an unreal world where illusions of reality need not apply. It’s a timeless, enchanting fairy tale classic that deserves to be re-discovered and re-evaluated on its own terms.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Cryptid Month Quick Picks and Pans

The Secret of Roan Inish Poster

The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) Writer/director John Sayles brings us this gentle tall tale, steeped in Irish folklore (based on the children’s book, Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, by Rosalie K. Fry). After losing her mother, Fiona (Jeni Courtney), is sent to live with her grandparents in a quiet fishing village. She soon hears stories from the villagers about the selkie (a creature half seal and half human), and grows determined to find out why they abandoned the nearby isle of Roan Inish. A little boy on the beach may provide the answer she seeks. Sayles’ film takes its time letting the story unfold, depicting a different time and place, not too long ago, where the mythical and concrete worlds meet. Haskell Wexler’s lush cinematography provides scope and immediacy, treating the spectacular scenery and family drama with equal weight.   

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

Frog Dreaming Poster

Frog Dreaming (aka: The Quest) (1986) Henry Thomas stars as Cody, a headstrong, adventurous 14-year-old. Following the untimely death of his parents, he’s under the care of Gaza (Tony Barry) a family friend in Australia. Cody discovers a lake that’s not listed on the map, in a region known for “frog dreaming,” a sacred place for Aboriginal people. Captivated by rumors about a creature known as a Bunyip that lives in its depths, he devises a plan to learn the secret. Brian Trenchard-Smith’s family adventure film is a hit and miss affair, featuring some nice action sequences and art direction (by Paddy Reardon), but the it’s not hard to see the big twist coming a mile away. Also, it’s difficult to sympathize with Gaza’s laissez-faire foster parenting (bordering on gross negligence), in light of Cody’s daredevil antics. On the other hand, it works fairly well as a family adventure flick, reminding us that things aren’t always what they seem. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

The Secret of the Loch Poster

The Secret of the Loch (1934) This slight comedy/adventure finds Jimmy (Frederick Peisley), a spunky reporter from London, determined to get a scoop about the fabled creature that allegedly lives in Loch Ness. He travels to Scotland, where he hounds the gruff Professor Heggie (Seymour Hicks), who’s busy mounting his own expedition. If that wasn’t enough reason to fall on Heggie’s bad side he’s smitten by his granddaughter Angela (Nancy O'Neil), who’s indifferent at best to his advances. There are some amusing little moments throughout, but even for a 78-minute movie, the material seems to be stretched fairly thin. (Mild Spoiler Alert) To its credit, you do catch a glimpse of the monster, but you’ll wish you didn’t (I’ll just say that it doesn’t resemble the creature we’ve come to expect). The Secret of the Loch deserves some kudos, however, for likely being the first movie devoted to the aquatic cryptid, and for featuring a young David Lean as editor. 

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Aswang Poster

Aswang (1994) The title of this independent feature, filmed in Wisconsin by Wrye Martin and Barry Poltermann, refers to a creature from Filipino folklore that feeds on the blood of unborn fetuses. After an unexpected pregnancy, 19-year-old Katrina (Tina Ona Paukstelis) signs her baby over to a wealthy couple, Peter and Claire Null (Norman Moses and Jamie Jacobs Anderson). Things get weird in a hurry, when Peter asks Katrina to pose as his wife in order to earn his inheritance. When family secrets are gradually revealed, she finds herself in a fight for her life. Despite Moses’ cartoonishly over-the-top performance, Aswang boasts some creepy scenes, enhanced by surprisingly good makeup effects. If nothing else, it’s far from the same old thing.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Out of Print)

The Mothman Prophecies Poster

The Mothman Prophecies (2002) After the death of his wife, John Klein (Richard Gere), a Washington, D.C. reporter, travels to the small town of Point Pleasant in West Virginia, the epicenter for strange occurrences. What ensues is a quest for meaning, as Klein interviews several residents about their encounters with a strange being, and befriends the local sheriff (Laura Linney). Whether the Mothman (shown briefly in muddy, indistinct CGI) is real or a figment of the townspeople’s imaginations is never resolved. Most of the movie is terribly dull, with poor chemistry between the leads, and a story that refuses to commit one way or the other about the myth. Instead of delving into the folklore aspects, the filmmakers unwisely decided to subject the audience to a tepid story and tedious drama.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Barrens Poster

The Barrens (2012) Richard Vineyard (Stephen Moyer of True Blood fame), a mentally unstable man, takes his reluctant family on a camping vacation to a national park in New Jersey. As they venture deep into the forest, he grapples with his inner demons while contending with the possibility that he’s being stalked by the Jersey Devil. Writer/director Darren Lynn Bousman’s film, filled with plot holes aplenty, borrows from better sources (including The Shining and Mosquito Coast) to depict one man’s eroding cognitive/emotional state. As he becomes increasingly delusional, it seems less believable that the rest of Richard’s family would follow him down his self-destructive path. In the end, The Barrens fails to deliver as a psychological thriller or a compelling exploration of the Jersey Devil myth. 

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Monday, June 21, 2021

Bigfoot and Friends

 

Bigfoot Statue

Considering the most popular cryptid of them all practically resides in my backyard, here in the Pacific Northwest, it didn’t take long to decide who deserved the spotlight this month. You don’t have to travel very far before you’re surrounded by miles and miles of dense forest (approximately 22 million acres in Washington State alone) – an expanse large enough to credibly hide something that could be our closest relative. Does Bigfoot exist? I don’t profess to know all the answers about the fabled evolutionary throwback, but if the marketing gurus are to be believed, he’s alive and well. Around here, he’s a larger-than-life fixture, with T-shirts, bumper stickers, trinkets in gift shops, and even a local chain of coffee stands dedicated to the big, hairy fella. But as sprawling as the Pacific Northwest might be, Bigfoot’s wanderlust knows no bounds, with a Bigfoot variant for nearly every American state and Canadian province. And that’s not counting his overseas cousins, boasting sightings in nearly every corner of the globe.

A word of caution: This list isn’t intended to be a comprehensive overview of Bigfoot and his kin – the dozen movies covered here are only a small cross-section of the titles that have been filmed over the years.* If you can dream it, Sasquatch has probably been in it (yes, Bigfoot porn is a thing, and you can look for it yourself, if that’s your bag).

One final thing… Bigfoot and his relatives are notoriously difficult to spot, which unfortunately carries over to his many cinematic depictions. In addition to my standard star rating (ranked from one to five stars), I’ve included a “Visibility Rating,” ranging from one to four feet, indicating how much of the creature you can expect to see (i.e., one foot denotes nothing/indistinct, while four feet means you see the hairy hominid in all its glory.).

* Note: I purposely omitted one of the most notable titles, Hammer’s TheAbominable Snowman (1957), previously reviewed here.

Willow Creek Poster

Willow Creek (2013) Ho-hum, another found footage movie? Don’t let that deter you from seeing one of the best Bigfoot movies of the past decade. Jim (Bryce Johnson) plans to shoot a documentary, following in the footsteps of the controversial Patterson-Gimlin film, shot in Northern California, circa 1967 (alleged to show footage of the real Bigfoot). His skeptical girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) doesn’t share his enthusiasm for the project, but tries her best to be supportive. The film starts on a light note, featuring some amusing banter between the couple, and conversations with eyewitnesses and self-professed experts. The tone becomes increasingly darker as they head into Bigfoot’s supposed stomping grounds, encountering increasingly belligerent locals who want some secrets (which may or may not have to do with Sasquatch) to stay that way. Although the ambiguous ending might irritate some viewers, I appreciated how writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait decided to let our imaginations run wild, giving us just enough to make us question what we thought we saw or heard. 

1 Foot

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Kanopy and Tubi


Letters from the Big Man Poster

Letters from the Big Man (2011) Lily Rabe (American Horror Story) stars as Sarah, a geologist hired to complete a survey for a logging company in the remote Oregon wilderness. In the midst of her travels, she runs into more than the usual flora and fauna. This earnest, reflective tale is as much about the titular creature as it is about a young woman, unlucky in love, running away and finding herself. They cross paths, but never quite seem to connect. Depending on how you look at it, Bigfoot’s presence could be taken literally or metaphorically, signifying her existential awakening.

Considering the film’s modest budget, Letters from the Big Man features some pretty decent makeup, brought to life through Isaac C. Singleton Jr.’s sensitive portrayal. He deserves the most credit for bringing the creature to life with his expressive eyes, conveying quiet intelligence and profound sadness. It’s a Bigfoot movie like no other, favoring introspection over adventure. It’s too bad this isn’t more widely available, because it’s something special.

4 Feet

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (Out of Print) and Amazon Prime (for rental)


Half Human Poster

Half Human (aka: Jû Jin Yuki Otoko) (1955) Ishirô Honda’s Yeti-themed adventure is mostly famous for being unavailable, due to Toho Company’s self-imposed ban for its negative depiction of the Burakumin villagers in the film. That’s unfortunate, since it provides a fascinating alternate take on the legend. A team of college researchers navigate the treacherous Japanese Alps, searching for the Abominable Snowman and one of their lost comrades. They encounter villagers who idolize the creatures and want to keep their ways a secret. Hot on the heels of the college team are a group of entrepreneurs with less than noble intentions (hoping to capture the beast and exploit it in a sideshow). Half Human is atmospheric and filled with dread.    It’s also a thoughtful, often grim examination of humanity’s corruption of the natural world for financial gain. Hopefully, Toho will reverse their decision, and release the film with a disclaimer. Until then, it’s not officially available streaming or in any physical format, but if you really want to see it there are other avenues (rhyming with “Schmeebay”).

4 Feet

Rating: ***½. Not available on home video (see above)


Harry and the Hendersons Poster

Harry and the Hendersons (1987) By far, the most obvious (and biggest-budgeted) title on the list is this kid-friendly movie from writer/director William Dear. While heading home from a family camping trip, George Henderson (John Lithgow) hits a strange animal with his station wagon. The creature that turns out to be – you guessed it. Dear’s amiable comedy essentially relies on one gag (probably 90 percent of the jokes have to do with the creature, whom the Hendersons dub “Harry,” breaking something because of his enormous bulk). Predictably, he’s not a fierce, bloodthirsty beast, but a gentle pescatarian who lives in harmony with nature. A little conflict is thrown into the mix when a big game hunter (David Suchet) who’s been tracking Bigfoot for years vows to kill the peaceful giant. It’s formulaic and often sappy, but diverting enough. If nothing else, it’s worth seeing for the best Sasquatch makeup, hands down (Or should I say, feet down?), courtesy of creature effects maker-extraordinaire, Rick Baker.

Fun bit of trivia: The man behind the makeup, 7-foot-2-inch Kevin Peter Hall also appeared as the eponymous alien in Predator, released the same year. How’s that for range?

4 Feet

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


Snowbeast Poster

Snowbeast (1977) (Cue Ethel Merman’s singing voice) “There’s no beast, like Snowbeast, like Snowbeast, I know…” Okay, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, since this made-for-TV movie basically lifts the plot from Jaws, transplanting it to the snowy slopes of a Colorado ski resort. Owner/matriarch Carrie Rill (Sylvia Sydney) is about to host her resort’s 50th anniversary celebration. Despite her grandson Tony’s (Robert Logan) protests, she isn’t about to let the disappearance and brutal murder of one of the guests stop her from moving forward with the festivities. Tony teams up with Olympic has-been Gar Seberg (Bo Svenson) and Sheriff Paraday (Clint Walker) to hunt the monster responsible for the rising body count. Oh, and there’s a soap opera-worthy love triangle between Gar’s wife Ellen (Yvette Mimieux) and her old flame Tony, just to complicate things. The creature itself (which the characters speculate to be Bigfoot) is barely seen, with brief glimpses of its arm and face. I suspect the choice to show less rather than more was due to budgetary considerations, however, rather than creative choices. Quibbles aside, it’s all in good fun and rarely dull (with a script by The Outer Limits’ Joseph Stefano). Just don’t expect it to add much to Bigfoot lore.

2 Feet

Rating: ***. Available on Amazon Prime


Yeti - Giant of the 20th Century Poster

Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century (1977) How often have you heard the phrase, “It has to be seen to be believed”? In this instance, it’s not hyperbole, it’s warranted. This Italian production, set in Canada, is a mess from start to finish. A giant Yeti (Mimmo Crao) returns to life after being trapped in Arctic ice for a million-plus years. While a greedy entrepreneur (Edoardo Faieta) ponders all the ways he can exploit the gargantuan throwback, the Yeti is befriended by his grandchildren. In the meantime, his seedy right-hand man Cliff (Tony Kendall) plots to throw a monkey wrench in his plans, with the help of some hired goons. Before you can say “King Kong ripoff,” the confused and pissed off missing link is loose on the streets of Toronto, leaving a trail of destruction. Is it any good? It depends how you define “good.” It might not make many (or any) “Best of 1977” lists, but if you want to have a fun time, this might be the ticket (he even has his own disco theme song). At any rate, it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable than the aforementioned King Kong remake released the previous year.

4 Feet

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and Tubi


Sasquatch Poster

Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot (1976) This is another prime example of the pseudo-documentary format that was so popular in the 1970s, featuring dubious science and faked footage. We’re led to believe that that a serious expedition was mounted, to find the Sasquatch on his home turf. The explorers travel deep into uncharted British Columbian wilderness (the movie was actually shot in Oregon), where they experience some contrived run-ins with the wildlife (bears, badgers, and a poor mountain lion). In an effort to spice things up a bit, the many horse riding/camping scenes are intercut with a few dramatic re-enactments of other alleged run-ins with Bigfoot. For all our trouble, we never get a good look at the creature other than some blurry silhouettes.

2 Feet

Rating: **½. Available on Amazon Prime and Tubi


Shriek of the Mutilated Poster

Shriek of the Mutilated (1974) A college professor (Alan Brock) invites a group of his most promising students to his home in upstate New York to search for the Yeti (what the Yeti is doing so far away from the Himalayas is anyone’s guess). For your listening pleasure, the film features the early electronic song “Popcorn” by the group Hot Butter (although the version I watched inexplicably dubbed over the music with some decidedly non-70s riffs). Also, one character sings a little ditty that wouldn’t be out of place in a Las Vegas lounge act (sans the questionable lyrics). Anyone looking for some serious Yeti action will be sorely disappointed. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something so far out of the norm that it creates its own alternate reality, look no further. The climactic twist, followed by an oddly placed joke, is just the cherry on the top of this bizarre sundae from director Michael Findlay.

3 Feet

Rating: **½. Available on DVD


Exists Poster

Exists (2014) In this found footage horror flick from director Eduardo Sánchez (The Blair Witch Project), a bunch of self-absorbed 20-somethings (with a fondness for saying “bro” every few minutes) travel to a cabin in the East Texas thicket for a weekend of drinking and debauchery. After their SUV collides with something, however, their nightmare is just beginning. Soon, the clueless campers find themselves fighting for their lives. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find yourself rooting for the band of angry Sasquatch, instead of the obnoxious, bickering human protagonists. As the characters’ bad choices add up, prepare to check off that Found Footage Cliché bingo card. On the plus side, Exists delivers on its premise with some scary looking ape men that might justify giving this a watch.

4 Feet

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Tubi


In Search of Bigfoot Poster

In Search of Bigfoot (1976) Not to be confused with the Leonard Nimoy-hosted ‘70s TV show, Lawrence Crowley and William F. Miller’s documentary follows Bigfoot enthusiast Robert Morgan and a team of handpicked “experts,” as they embark on a multi-month investigation in Washington State to find the elusive apelike biped. Most of the film relies on speculation from Morgan, and hearsay from local residents’ who supposedly encountered Bigfoot. At the end of the day, the evidence is nothing more substantive than a couple of mystery hairs (determined to be most likely human in origin) and an iffy footprint. The most interesting aspect of In Search of Bigfoot isn’t the quest for the cryptid, but the film’s role as a time capsule, providing a glimpse of the Mount Saint Helens area, only a few years before the volcano blew its top.

1 Foot

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Tubi

The Legend of Boggy Creek Poster

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) Charles B. Pierce’s docudrama, featuring re-enactments (starring some of the residents who allegedly experienced the incidents), is set in the small town of Fouke, Arkansas, which gives the “Fouke Monster” its name. If it’s not quite Bigfoot, then it’s a close relative, with three toes instead of five, and a tell-tale mournful howl. Numerous townspeople claim to have seen the Fouke Monster (responsible for stealing livestock and killing pets), but no tangible evidence has been found. The creature itself is barely seen. Expect bad narration (that tells rather than shows), bad acting, and bad folk music. It all adds up to a viewing experience that’s either excruciating or hilarious, depending on your point of view (or state of inebriation).

2 Feet

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Capture of Bigfoot Poster

The Capture of Bigfoot (1979) A greedy businessman (Is there any other kind in these movies?) hires some bumbling trappers to capture a Bigfoot-like creature so he can profit from its display. The creature, known as Arak, supposedly originates from Native American legends about a protector. I have my doubts. Filmed in Wisconsin by director Bill Rebane, the general ineptitude of the production is alleviated slightly by the presence of character actor George “Buck” Flower as a town eccentric who spins monster tales that no one believes. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

3 Feet

Rating: **. Available on DVD (Out of print)


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Abominable Snowman

 

The Abominable Snowman Poster

(1957) Directed by Val Guest; Written by Nigel Kneale; Based on the BBC television play, The Creature, by Nigel Kneale; Starring: Peter Cushing, Forrest Tucker, Maureen Connell, Richard Wattis, Robert Brown, Arnold Marlé and Robert Brown; Available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“The story, I suppose, made a moral point that the Abominable Snowman, if he was ever found, might not be abominable at all, but a touch better than ourselves.” – Nigel Kneale (from Shout Factory Blu-ray commentary)

“As you seek this creature, remember that you act in the name of mankind, and act humbly, for man is near to forfeiting his right to lead the world. He faces destruction by his own hand. Now, when a ruler, king is near death, he should not be seeking to extend his realm, but take thought, who might with honor succeed him. Remember this.”  – Lhama (Arnold Marlé)

Expedition to Everest

Of the many cryptids believed to walk the Earth, one of the more plausible (well, at least more difficult to prove or disprove its existence) creatures is the rumored Himalayan denizen, the Yeti, or “Abominable Snowman.” Its stomping grounds are so remote, few Westerners have dared venture where they can challenge its veracity. The discovery of a strange footprint by explorer Eric Shipton in 1951, followed by a Daily Mail-sponsored expedition a few years later, sparked awareness in the creature. The Yeti has popped in and out of news reports ever since, emerging most recently in 2019, with another discovery of footprints by Indian Army soldiers. Back in the mid-50s, however, the Abominable Snowman was fresh in the minds of the public consciousness, leading to Nigel Kneale throwing his hat in the ring, with his 1955 BBC teleplay, The Creature.  

Mountain Climbers

Hammer films acquired the rights to Kneale’s teleplay, commissioning him to write the script, changing the title to The Abominable Snowman (it was released in the U.S. under the clunkier title, The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas). Peter Cushing, Wolfe Morris and Andrew Marlé reprised their roles from the TV version. Director Val Guest and Kneale didn’t always see eye-to-eye regarding the adaptation. Guest liked his screenplay, but felt as-is, it was “too verbose” for filming, making some cuts along the way. The Tibetan monastery set*/** was built at Bray Studios, while the climbing scenes, which required a much larger sound stage, were shot at Pinewood Studios. Guest enhanced the climbing scenes with location shots of climbers (doubling for the actors) in the French Pyrenees.

* Fun Fact #1: Production designer Bernard Robinson’s ornate set was subsequently recycled for other Hammer productions, including Terror of the Tongs, and the non-Hammer Fu Manchu series of films, with Christopher Lee.

** Fun Fact #2: In order to cast the many residents of the monastery, a call went out for multiple Chinese waiters from London-area restaurants.

The Lhama with Dr. Rollason

Continuing the dubious tradition of non-Asian actors playing Asian characters, German-born actor Arnold Marlé portrays the resident Lhama, the film’s spiritual center. Despite the questionable casting, Marlé handles the character with reverence and gravitas. He exudes a calm exterior, masking anxiety that the pending American/British Himalayan expedition will result in upsetting a delicate balance that’s existed for generations. In one key scene, he implores Dr. Rollason (Peter Cushing) to act with honor when embarking on his endeavor.

Helen and Dr. Rollason

Dr. Rollason, as played by Cushing,* is inquisitive to a fault, enthralled by the legends of the Yeti, but respectful of the Lhama and his people’s customs. Maureen Connell plays his long-suffering wife, Helen (the character was named after Cushing’s wife), who supports her husband’s research, but fears for his safety. Compared to many 1950s depictions of women in genre films, her character is a breath of fresh air. She’s smart, independent, and not afraid to voice her objections to her husband’s risky adventures or the company he keeps. When the fate of Rollason’s team is in question, she promptly rallies her own team to mount a rescue mission. 

* Fun Fact #3: According to director Val Guest, Peter Cushing came to be known by the cast and crew by the nickname, “Props” Cushing, due to his tendency to bring his own items on the set (such as a tape measure or other tool), if he felt they would enhance his scenes.

Tom Friend and Rollason

Compared to the urbane, introspective Rollason, the ironically named Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker)* is brash and opportunistic. Superficially, he shares Rollason’s enthusiasm for finding the Yeti, but his motivations are purely selfish. As a self-avowed purveyor of multiple shady ventures and former gun runner, he’s only looking to make a quick buck. Similar to Carl Denham in King Kong, he’s a fast-talking con-man who only wants to find the mysterious creature so he can exploit it. For people like Friend and his men, the natural world is there to exploit rather than revere, a sentiment shared by seasoned tracker Ed Shelley (Robert Brown). He refuses to see the Yeti as anything other than an animal, which ultimately becomes his (and Friend’s) undoing.

* Fun Fact #4: Although Tucker was said to boast about his arduous climbing scenes in the film, according to Guest, he never left the studio.

Yeti Tracks

Guest opted for more of a newsreel quality with the film rather than a stagey appearance. He wasn’t enamored with the widescreen format, dubbed “Hammerscope” (in actuality, Hammer’s re-branded version of Dyaliscope), an anamorphic process similar to Cinemascope, which required compositions across the expanded frame. In spite of Guest’s objections, the widescreen format works nicely for the climbing scenes/footage of the “Himalayas,” providing a more expansive look to the modestly budgeted production. As for the Yeti themselves, Guest (in opposition to Kneale’s opinion) desired a less-is-more approach, preferring the audience members to create their own picture of the creatures’ appearance. Although a full-scale Abominable Snowman body was created, we’re only treated to a brief glimpse or two of the hulking cryptids.

Rollason and Tom Friend

Kneale introduces a number of fascinating concepts in the film. Among the most intriguing notions (which seems counter to many other works of fiction about the Yeti and similar rumored hominid species), the creature doesn’t represent a missing link between man and ape, but an offshoot from a common ancestor. The film also speculates the Abominable Snowman might possess abilities that surpass our own, including some form of telepathy. The creatures seem to anticipate what the men in Friend’s expedition are planning. By the same token, they inherently understand that Rollason means them no harm. Kneale makes it clear that we have more to fear from ourselves than the Yeti (a common theme in his stories is that we, not an outside force, are the ultimate instrument of our destruction). The Yeti are not an evolutionary dead-end, as their isolation from human society might suggest, but possibly more evolved than us (Rollason remarks, “Suppose they’re not just a pitiable remnant waiting to die out. They’re waiting, yes, but waiting for us to go.”). Another prominent theme is the push-pull between the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen. The early scenes at the monastery establish the friction when the arrogance of the West meets the wisdom of the East. Several characters, excluding Rollason, continually express their lack of humility or appreciation for the indigenous culture, referring to the Tibetans as “ignorant,” while refusing to understand or appreciate their way of life. In contrast, because he’s endowed with a more respectful, worldly outlook, Rollason is better equipped to confront the mystery of the Yeti than his counterparts.

Dr. Rollason

The Abominable Snowman reminds us that we haven’t yet catalogued all the world’s species, and some surprises might remain to be discovered. If the bombastic American trailer’s hyperbole is to be believed, viewers might expect to see a “hellish half-world of horror.” Audiences prepared for such a movie might have been in for a jolt when instead, they encountered a thoughtful, deliberately paced rumination on the Yeti myth, with a clash of cultures and ideologies. If anything, it’s a speculative adventure tale that owes more to Hammer’s science fiction films, such as X: The Unknown and the Quatermass titles, than their subsequent gothic horror offerings. The Abominable Snowman doesn’t provide all the answers, but realizes things work better with a little mystery. As with its protagonist Rollason, the film understands that some secrets are better left kept that way, for humanity and the Yeti’s sake.

 

Sources for this article: Shout Factory Blu-ray commentary by Val Guest and Nigel Kneale; The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes; National Geographic, “This Man Searched for the Yeti for 60 Years– And Found It,” by Simon Worrall;  Indian Express, “What is Yeti?”